The direction of working-class populism


John Russo of the Center for Working-Class Studies details how populism increasingly is cutting across class and political boundaries. But the left hasn’t realized that yet and liberals too often side with corporatists while failing to realize that the Glenn Becks of the world have followings because they are tapping into quite real populist anger.

Some liberal commentators can’t seem to figure out whether to dismiss [teabaggers] as privileged elites (or would-be elites) fighting to protect their own tax breaks or as working-class dupes who don’t understand their economic interests.

Perhaps a better approach would be to ask them what they think and treat their concerns as genuine. Because to do otherwise is to cede them to the right without a fight. A real good place to start might be for liberal blogs to stop assuming they’re all fascists or illiterate rednecks. Because they aren’t. Not hardly.

So who are the working-class populists?

Class confusion is nothing new in America, but given the current state of affairs, we need to keep in mind a few key points about working-class populism.

One, the working class is diverse culturally, politically, and geographically. That means that the “working-class position” is always complex and contested.

Second, the recession has added large numbers to the working class, as people who once thought of themselves as comfortably middle-class struggle to recover from the loss of jobs, homes, and retirement accounts. Consequently, any analysis that views the working class as dupes or no longer relevant economically or electorally may be short-sighted. Today’s working class is probably both larger and better educated than at any point in American history.

Third, as unemployment grows, working-class populists may push even conservatives to view government spending more positively. We’ve seen this recently with conservative politicians in Texas who initially refused to accept stimulus funds but are fighting to get their share of public support. Even conservatives know that hungry citizens can be dangerous.

Clearly, working-class populism is not a monolithic right-wing phenomenon. It could just as easily go to the left. We on the left should encourage that to happen.