Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
-- Frederick Douglass
This is my favorite quote from Frederick Douglass. It’s a divine truth; its wisdom is applicable to any epoch. Every person will have to deal with questions of justice, poverty, ignorance, and class. Douglass knew firsthand that Justice, in the form of basic freedom, ranked higher than issues connected to poverty, ignorance, or class. I struggle trying to find new ways to explain this to some of our allies on the left. The election of Donald Trump has caused some to question whether the Democratic party should continue to advocate for people who have “identities” that are problematic to electoral success. If the Democratic party is willing to eschew Justice for the sake of victory in 2018 and 2020 it will end up more fractured than it is now, and I promise, there will be no victories to show for the effort.
When I read Hal Ginsberg’s blog and the articles he cited to ground his political and theoretical musings I was amazed at how negotiable the lived experiences of some of the Democratic party’s most loyal supporters are to some in intelligentsia. After I read all three articles I was left with some questions. Why do so many progressives believe they have to choose between racial/social justice and economic justice? How would the Democratic party convince committed activists to move away from addressing issues of civil rights and social justice? Does this new party positioning mean the economic left and environmental left have to work harder to ignore issues involving race and gender? Why do progressives ignore the economic interests of people of color when they write about the economic hardships facing working class whites? When did progressives subscribe to the Ronald Reagan economic theory that a rising tide of working class white relief lifts all boats? For years, the left has mocked the Republican party as being the stupid party, but now we have academicians publicly admitting we probably can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
In one of the pieces Mr. Ginsberg cited Mark Lilla wrote, “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” As I think back to what’s been happening over the course of the last 3 or 4 years I wonder which issues the professor would have had us stand down on. Should we have ignored the Draconian laws states like Indiana and North Carolina implemented against members of the LGBTQ community? Should we have pulled back our support for women fighting for equal pay and against state legislation designed to rollback their reproductive rights? Should we remain perfectly still the next time we’re confronted with cell phone or dash cam footage of an unarmed Black man being murdered by the police? I wish I knew the difference between moral panic and righteous indignation. I’m unable to rank sovereign identity specific issues in a way that places them below the fight against trade deals. On a side note: who had a higher net worth Eric Garner or Walter Scott? It doesn’t matter: both were murdered for the world to see and none of the officers involved were held responsible.
Most of the articles I’ve read calling for the Democratic party to rebrand itself for 2018 have been written by people who don’t have to worry about voting precincts being closed in their communities. The authors of these strategies for the future don’t have to worry about the consequences of Planned Parenthood facilities being shuttered. I haven’t read any work produced by members of the LGBTQ community calling for the Democratic party to pull back from issues they support. Why are so many, with nothing to lose, arguing so hard for the Democratic party to abandon some of its most vulnerable constituents?
In the second piece cited by Hal, Alex Seitz-Wald writes:
To win back the white working class voters who populate both states, Democrats would likely need to de-prioritize policies that are either unimportant or alienating to these voters, like immigration reform, and so-called identity issues to refocus on a bread-and-butter economic message.
There’s a tone deafness at work in his writing that I assume he isn’t even aware of: de-prioritize policies that are either unimportant or alienating… so-called identity issues. If I didn’t read this article myself I would have thought those words came from a conservative think tank. He does go on a paragraph or so later to concede there’s no guarantee that this strategy would work, but the dismissive nature of his words have already caused damage. It’s hard to form unity with people who view issues related to the life and liberty of half of their allies as something that may need to be “de-prioriorized. If this is what the smart people are saying about us in public what are the not so smart people saying in private?
To be fair, Hal attempts to thread a complicated needle that the other writers chose to ignore, but he didn’t put much meat on the bone as to how we could successfully tie the existential needs of the identity specific crowd to the economic needs of working class whites. I feel very strongly we must avoid the false solutions provided by either or propositions. Near the end of his blog Hal writes:
To become the dominant national party again, Democrats must unite behind policies that serve the economic interests of poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans. This means fighting against every trade deal that pits fairly paid domestic workers against overseas laborers making 90% less. It also means fighting for, among other things, 1) higher taxes on the wealthy, 2) unions, 3) universal healthcare, 4) a tight safety net from birth to death, and 5) truly affordable higher education for all who are qualified. Indeed, this is so crucial for the party’s success, that it must adopt as a litmus test for its candidates a demonstrated commitment to redistribution of wealth and income down.
Hal makes a great populist argument. If the only goal of the Democratic party moving forward is to put a chicken in every pot- then this paragraph is worthy of being part of the platform in 2020, but if we do all of those things and it doesn’t stop the extrajudicial murder of Black people at the hands of police, if women have lost their reproductive rights and access to healthcare, if the LGBTQ community is still facing bigoted legislation, and brown, yellow, and red people are subjected to new indignities how does dominant national party status help society’s most vulnerable?
I see the telltale signs of the economic hardships working class whites have been enduring. Southwest Virginia has some real horror stories. Their suffering is real. We should fight against global polices that breed the poverty that causes resentment, but not at the expense of people who don't have a voice. We don't have to choose between these issues. If we are as smart as we profess to be we can figure out how to protect the voting rights of Black people in the south at the same time we help their white coworkers get raises or better jobs. I want to finish with a quote that may clean up what my inartful writing style might have messed up:
Finally, let us understand that when we stand together, we will always win. When men and women stand together for justice, we win. When black, white and Hispanic people stand together for justice, we win.
-- Bernie Sanders
This is in no way an attempt to demean or belittle Hal Ginsberg. He has been a friend.