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Moving Class Politics Centerstage

George Salamon
October 13, 2017

by George Salamon

“Today, with your support and the support of millions of people throughout this country, we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, socially and environmentally.” —Bernie Sanders, presidential campaign announcement, May 26, 2015

“Every time we are confronted with a new revolution we take to the opium pipes of our own propaganda” —I.F. Stone, Stone’s Weekly, March 15, 1954

THE NEW YORK TIMES blew the smoke from its pipe into Bernie’s face as soon as his campaign gathered momentum in the Democratic presidential primaries. In a March 13, 2016 editorial headlined “The Bernie Sanders Revolution,” our paper of record puffed on its professorial pipe and harrumphed: “You say you want a revolution? Well…”

Poor Bernie. All he wanted was a revival of the kinds of policies and programs the New Deal introduced into the American landscape in the 1930s. They did not produce a social or economic revolution, but raised the expectation among citizens that the government could and should deal with great economic questions and that the whole nation would have to deal with the consequent burdens.

But in the mainstream media, in the high-minded, academic tone of the Times or the no-brow snickering of FOX News, the mere mention of “revolution” calls forth fearmongering about a bloody “bottom-up” revolution, with gulags in the heartland and political commissars in the capital. There are no news sources that speak about who benefits and who is harmed by maintenance of the political status quo that the “revolution” would overturn.

Sanders understood that the Democratic Party, which once spoke to America’s middle class and working class, to the poor in Appalachia’s abandoned coal towns and the unemployed in the Rust Belt’s ravaged cities, no longer did. “I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I come from,” he said, November 16, 2016 on CBS News.

But Trump did, and Trump won. And widespread voters’ remorse is not much in evidence, despite Trump’s government of, by and for millionaires and billionaires. He’s still talking to his voters, while liberals dream of impeachment and pursue identity politics.

NEITHER in the Democratic Party, nor in the mainstream media that overwhelmingly endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, is there a call to pursue politics of the left, with the critique of capitalism at its core. They treat the word “populist” as almost as dirty a word as "communist" or "fascist." When the word “class” is mentioned, it is almost always followed by “warfare,” invoking the image of rabble manning barricades.

Of course, the Democrats could learn to talk to the working class, for it is among the working class, the lower-middle class and poor, that politics of the left found an audience and captured votes for Sanders. Not surprisingly, citizens down there resonated to criticism of capitalism. Which is precisely why the Democrats don’t want to talk to the working class. So the Democratic Party clings to identity politics and cultural liberalism.

Few progressive journalists have seen this pursuit of a losing politics for what it is. One who has is Walter Benn Michaels, author of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (2006). He wrote in the Nation on December 16, 2016:

"[I]dentity politics is not an alternative to class politics but a form of it. It’s the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people being left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex...(identity politics) recruits people of color and women into the ruling class (because it seeks) to legitimate the class structure, not abolish it."

The leadership of the Democratic Party will not admit that it represents the interests of the upper class almost as fervently as the Republican Party, nor will the “cognitive elite” of professionals, which works for and supports the Democrats. Yet Barack Obama has almost confessed (New York Times, May 1, 2017): "I know that as consequence of my fundraising I became more like the wealthy donors I met. I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality and frequent hardship…the people that I’d entered public life to serve."

Obama was nudging you to believe that the system was making him do it — the system he played so well and that is rewarding him now for preserving it. Hillary sang a similar tune: We’re all victims of the system, but some of us have assets of $80 million while others barely scrape by from paycheck to paycheck.

Well, nobody wants to stay stuck in that world of “hunger and irrationality,” because hunger can easily serve up some irrational cravings. The Democrats ignore them, while Trump pumps them for anger and rejection of his liberal opponents.

AND THE MEDIA? Once pursuing the noble goal of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” as Finley Peter Dunne used to put it, they have become enterprises in the journalism market, fighting each other to gain control of their niche. In the niche it tops, the Times has identified the readership that will keep it there, just as Anheuser-Busch once identified the drinkers for its Michelob “premium” brand:

“I think of The Times reader as very well educated, worldly and likely affluent,” is how Executive Editor Dean Baquet described his paper’s readers. One reader was more specific. In a November 9, 2014 letter to then-public editor Margaret Sullivan, she wrote that the paper “caters to upper-middle class white elites while being profoundly out of touch culturally and politically with most of America.”

Most of America smelled that “above the fray” and “out of touch” aura that Obama and Hillary exuded, and which Times reporters occasionally overcome and mock in their comments about the paper’s editorial stance. (See, for example, “The Tyranny and Lethargy of The Times Editorial Page" by Ken Kurson in the New York Observer.)

But what about a “progressive” network like MSNBC, that started with “lean forward” as its motto? Its anchors shout and rage at Trump’s follies and suspected transgressions, but its star performer, Rachel Maddow, leans nowhere when it comes to real change. In a conversation about the prospect of a Trump presidency, she said: "…the worry with George W. was not just legitimacy, it was whether he was mature enough and intelligent enough to do the job. Then he got in there and did it.” Oh?

The existing crop of progressive publications, the Nation and Mother Jones among others, or Amy Goodman on the air, report on the right issues with sound analyses, but the stories and progressive takes on them are geared primarily to, say, a million fellow progressives, not to the millions who might respond to the contents and perspectives if they discovered what they meant in and to their lives. Those voters who cast their ballots for Sanders, and those who said they'd vote for Sanders or Trump, need to find specifics about how and why what they heard or read touches the life of a Dayton forklift operator or a Scranton unemployed coal miner and their families, without neglecting the "big picture" or the ideological underpinnings of the analysis -- which can be offered once the audience gathers around the TV set to hear it.

Kneejerk anger about America won't serve, either. Many in this potential audience have very little beyond the sense of living for Country and Community, Flag and Family. They have sacrificed much for all. They do not feel contempt or condescension toward their culture, country music, or love of sports and professional wrestling. Remember Brecht's admonition: "First the stomach, then morality." Engage them, as concretely as possible, in the bread-and-butter issues and the progressive proposals to improve their lives.

Starting in the late 1970s, while the American Dream began to be accessible to fewer and fewer Americans, anything labelled "left," "socialist," and finally even "liberal" has been hounded from the mainstream political stage. But the Sanders campaign and Trump's capture of the presidency in 2016 — one a real New Dealer, the other a faux rightwing populist — has opened a crack in the media scene for the possible reemergence of progressive media speaking primarily not just to the few hundred thousand like-minded in academe and in unions, but to middle-class, working-class and working-poor audiences, all eager to hear both their resentments against the system and alternative solutions, in jargon-free language.

The Democratic Party cannot or will not go this route, even though access to big media is so open and welcoming. That is why a progressive news network could be the avant-garde for a progressive movement and a progressive party. The moment to start marching has arrived. Will anyone pull progressives together to start?

Can’t be too soon.