Growing up in rural northwest Indiana in the ‘90s and 2000s, my childhood felt fairly apolitical. The neoliberal consensus was firmly established and public discourse for radical politics was nonexistent. Many in the community worked union jobs but few people seemed concerned that the availability of these jobs was in steep decline. In fact, my friend’s unionized parents often resented their union.
The atmosphere was apolitical not because everyone felt this system worked for them, but because they felt alienated and powerless in the face of it. The prevailing rhetoric had successfully separated people’s economic station from their politics. Of course, class had as much to do with political persuasion as ever. But in the absence of a real left they either ignored class or drifted towards politics that upheld the kinds of vague cultural values that politicians love to shamelessly pander to without changing structural policy.
Their disdain for the democrats did not come from their inability to see what is in their interest, as some liberals arrogantly assert. Rather it had been their astute observation that the Democratic Party really didn’t care about them.
While the electoral politics of this time were dull and uninspiring, casual conversations illuminated a latent awareness of class. “The boss makes a dollar and I make a dime—that’s why I shit on company time.” I heard this phrase any number of times growing up. Along with numerous grumblings about the uselessness of bosses, the rich and “yuppies” were fair game for casual jokes.
In the community, capital was, and is, represented by those who controlled local agriculture and construction. The working class understood that these capitalists benefited from their labor more than they did, but had no medium for expressing their class conflict other than jokes and griping. The workers understood that there was a disconnect from their labor output and what they received at the end of the day. They understood somewhere down the line someone was doing an injustice to them.
In a new manifestation of the age-old strategy of diverting the working class, the Trump phenomenon successfully redirected these class motivated impulses in its favor. It transformed bosses from enemies to heroes. Now it’s not your boss who is stealing from you, it’s people who aren’t like you, or people who are slightly worse off—or aren’t willing to work the same amount of 12 hour shifts. Capitalists love when the working class kicks down.
One troubling example is the burgeoning aggression towards Latinos. Outright expressions of resentment against the Latino population were marginal while I lived there. While prejudice existed, few engaged in open hostility. With Trumpism in place, Latinos are experiencing the hateful outbursts of an emboldened reactionary right.
As Trump’s regime came to power, many converted to his nativist narrative with no left to identify with besides a distant Democratic Party. This points to the need for grassroots organizing in small communities around the country. It also demonstrates the need to steer away from degrading and belittling rural working class folks—which often happens in left leaning circles—as it only serves to alienate a population that is structurally aligned with our socialist project.
To our credit, socialists love to call each other out. On sexism, racism, and just about anything else, we’re willing to question the implicit domination in people’s language and behaviors. This is great when directed towards people who are already cognizant of such things, but it can have a negative effect on those who haven’t been exposed to a wider frame of thought. Call a group “a bunch of backwoods racists” enough and they will likely embrace it.
Instead, when someone says something that betrays a structure of oppression, don’t accuse them, but say something like, “I know you’re not a sexist, so why do you say X?” Instead of making them out to be a bad person who needs to change fundamentally, it frames them as a good person who said something contrary to who they are. The strategy is based in the psychology of cognitive dissonance, and it stems from our desire to maintain a coherent picture of ourselves.
Given the opportunity, people want to act on their better impulses to create a better world, not on hatred of the other, exploitation, and endless war. But the opportunity to align with the left needs to be real and present. Working people will have to feel that they aren’t going to be looked down on. Let’s not repeat the Democratic Party’s mistake in alienating this demographic and leaving them to the reactionary right.
Class consciousness is a present and powerful force in the working class, but it is up to grassroots organizing efforts to ensure that it is directed effectively.