Analyzing the reasons why Donald Trump “won” the 2016 election is in part an exercise in absurdity, since Hillary Clinton attracted about three million more votes than he did. Still, enough people chose Donald Trump to give him an Electoral College majority, and that is what counts in not-so-democratic U.S. politics.
Many people in the non-Trump camp are scratching their heads. Why did millions of working people, incensed that billionaires are thriving while they are suffering, vote for a billionaire? And not just any billionaire, but a reactionary blowhard who proudly announced that he will make the rich even richer.
An even more burning question: what do we do about it?
The answer to both questions involves understanding the class system under which the rich rule — and taking a closer look at things that come to substitute for a class orientation, like identity politics.
Which side are you on? Whatever Russia’s role in the election turns out to be, Putin can’t be blamed for the outcome. From the beginning of the long, torturous campaign cycle, workers clearly expressed their disgust with a system that’s failing them: witness their fervent interest in both Trump and Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton represented the status quo, and people wanted a fundamental change.
Trump, as reprehensible as he is, is just the latest in the line of Republican and Democrat politicians that working people are cudgeled, dragooned, tricked and persuaded to vote for against their own class interest.
Whatever the rhetoric of their candidates, the Democratic and Republican Parties represent the capitalist class, the tiny minority who own the factories, banks, oil fields and other means for producing profits. The capitalists realize that profit by buying the labor power of a working class with no other way to survive.
It seems simple, doesn’t it? But the idea of class is surrounded with deception and mired in confusion.
Resisting divide and conquer. One of the biggest obstacles to understanding class is the conception that “worker” means a straight white male in a hard hat. No! All of us who sell our labor power for a wage or a salary are workers, and we and our families are working-class. And that gives us, as diverse as we are, something in common.
The false notion of who is a worker is very convenient for the ruling minority, which relies heavily on “divide and conquer” to keep its hold over the majority.
For Trump, of course, divide and conquer is his political bread and butter. If native-born white workers all realized that their well-being rises or falls along with the welfare of Blacks, other people of color, immigrants, and refugees, Trump would still be hosting the next season of Celebrity Apprentice.
But Trump is not alone. Scapegoating based on gender, skin color, sexuality, nationality, etc. is an attempt to distract working people from the real enemy. Fostering distrust and hostility among workers is how the elites get away with squeezing us dry.
Unfortunately, the lack of class consciousness fostered by those who benefit from it can have dire results in the labor and social movements. One of those consequences is identity politics.
The issues of the majority of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who are specially oppressed are class questions. For example, how do you separate women’s rights in general from women’s position as super-exploited workers? This goes double for women of color, lesbians, and trans women, who face the most discrimination and earn the lowest wages. And how do you separate the overwhelming number of youth of color in the criminal justice system from the underwhelming number of good jobs available?
But with identity politics, differences of race, gender, etc. become divorced from the commonality of class. And, as Emily Woo Yamasaki wrote in a previous Freedom Socialist article, this type of orientation means “having to rank the ways in which you are oppressed and choosing one or two as more important and more worthy of activism than the others.” (See Beyond the limits of ‘identity politics’.)
Identity politics comes in lots of flavors and has lots of kin, like radical feminism (“men are the enemy”), cultural nationalism (“whites are the problem”), and even white supremacy (“people of color are inferior, the races should be separate”). One of the core beliefs of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) is that the fights against special oppression are crucial in their own right and as part of winning better lives for everyone. But no abused and marginalized group succeeds on its own — or by seeing class sisters and brothers only as secondary allies rather than equal partners in a fight for total human liberation.
Finding our strength. But how does unity emerge from the divisions among us? It often starts when those in power, like Trump, go just one step too far.
When that happens, resistance is triggered, and the reality of struggle on the job or in our communities makes solidarity a social imperative. Class consciousness identifies a common enemy and the need to make alliances across the chasms created to split and weaken working people. As FSP founder Clara Fraser explains in Revolution, She Wrote, “The creation of oneness out of division is what produces strikes, mass voter protests, and ultimately revolutions.”
Plenty of opportunities to forge “oneness out of division” face the diverse U.S. working class. Challenging police violence; opposing a Muslim registry and an expanded border wall; protecting and extending reproductive rights and gains for LGBTQ people; battling for the environment; opposing imperialist war; defending Social Security and the right to unionize; winning real universal healthcare.
What a list! But we can tackle it — together.
We need to build united fronts — alliances in which we fight democratically as one for shared working-class goals, while respecting our differences. The experience of building united fronts will draw out the lessons of how capitalism works, helping to achieve a higher level of class consciousness and an understanding of the need for revolutionary change.
An independent labor party built by rank-and-file unionists could be another vehicle for common mass action, not only through the ballot but also jointly with the social justice movements.
If not now, when? Class unity is the key to power for the powerless, and this is the moment to seize it.
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