THE CONDITIONS ARE RIPE
I have focused here on the subjective side—what third-party organizers can do to build up an independent left party into a major party. But it is also worth noting that the objective conditions for a working-class major party have grown stronger over the past century. First, the working-class majority is built into the class structure of corporate society. It has grown from about a third of the population in 1900 to about two-thirds of the population today as the corporate form of property ownership and social organization has come to pervade society.
Second, sizable sections of the middle class hold progressive values and are open to allying politically with a working-class party as opposed to the more liberal Democrats in the ruling two-party duopoly. These sections include many in the “helping professions” (teachers, social workers, nurses) and many in the scientific and legal professions (scientists, engineers, technicians, doctors, lawyers). These sectors have been the predominant base of the new Green parties around the world. Many in these professions reject the growing constraints on their professional autonomy imposed by corporate hierarchies.
This subjection to corporate hierarchies is becoming more like that experienced by the working class. It has led some to propose that these well-educated middle-class people constitute a “new working class.” That thesis probably overstates the similarities in working conditions with the working class proper. However, their high levels of education predispose them to an optimistic problem-solving rationalism that is characteristic of political progressives as opposed to the pessimistic better-left-alone traditionalism of political conservatives. By winning over a sizable segment of middle-class voters, a working-class party can reduce the biggest voting bloc of support for the corporate elite’s two major parties.
Third, the working class is better educated than ever. It is more inclined to consider reason and evidence than to take things on faith from religious or political leaders. It is therefore more capable than ever of participating in democratic self-rule. This growing education and rationalism also undergirds the steady growth for decades of more egalitarian attitudes in support of racial, women’s, and LGBTQIA equality. The recent rapid transformation of public opinion from small minority to growing majority in support of gay marriage in less than a decade indicates this trend may be accelerating. These attitudes are strongest in younger people. This bodes well for the prospects of unifying the working class politically across race, gender, and occupational lines.
Fourth, working-class living standards have declined over the last forty years. Hourly wages for workers are slightly below what they were at their peak in 1973. In attempting to maintain living standards, the working class is buried in record levels of debt. The younger cohorts of the working class face downward mobility due to difficulty finding decent-paying jobs and a record level of student loan debt. Over these same decades, the Democratic Party that by self-description looks out for the working people has failed when in power to reverse the declining fortunes of the working class. An independent working-class party can step into the political void left by these circumstances.
Fifth, the urgency of environmental crisis, particularly the climate crisis, requires a break with politics as usual. Society must make a decisive turn toward rapidly reducing fossil fuels and ramping up clean renewables if it is to avoid radical climate change that will precipitate mass extinctions, food shortages, mass migrations of environmental refugees, and wars for scarce resources. While opinion polls show that voters across the class structure still prioritize environmental and climate action below bread-and-butter economic issues and some social and foreign policy issues, they also show that strong majorities want action on climate and the environment.
The failure of the corporate parties to address these economic and environmental problems has led to a growing alienation from both major parties. The Pew Research Center’s tracking of party identification shows that the number of Americans calling themselves political independents has been trending upward and is higher than at any time in the last seventy-five years. Independents at 40 percent outnumbered Democrats at 30 percent and Republicans at 24 percent in 2015. Pew found that 48 percent of millennials ages eighteen to thirty-three considered themselves political independents in 2015. A 2013 Gallup poll found that a record 60 percent of Americans believe the Republicans and Democrats “do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third major party is needed.” Only 26 percent saidthat “the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job” representing the American people.
The working-class majority is far more progressive, especially on economic class issues, than the media pundits, the middle-class leadership of advocacy groups and the business unions, and the Democratic leadership would have one believe. These quarters repeatedly claim that popular reforms are politically impossible. However, a recent survey of the policy preferences of the wealthiest 1 percent compared to the general population revealed a huge gap between what the elite wants and what the people want. Among the results:
This disjunction between popular preferences and elite policy-making helps explain what happened in the 2016 presidential election. The overwhelmingly Democratic Black and Latinx vote was down for Clinton compared to Obama. Contrary to popular myth, white working-class Democratic-leaning voters didn’t flip to Trump in large numbers. Of those who abandoned Clinton, twice as many voted third party or stayed home than voted for Trump. It was white middle-class Democrats who moved in large numbers to Trump.
A fundamental problem with American politics is that popular preferences are not converted into public policy. A 2014 study examined 1,779 national policies enacted between 1981 and 2002 in the United States. It compared the policies enacted to the expressed preferences of average Americans (fiftieth percentile of income), affluent Americans (ninetieth percentile), and large special interest groups. The study concluded that the United States is ruled by its economic elites. “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it,” the study concluded.
The policy outcomes in the study covered both Republican and Democratic administrations. Both corporate parties respond more to the economic elites that invest in them than in the people who vote for them. This leaves a political vacuum that an independent working-class party could fill—from the bottom up. And we need to build a socialist left that is clear-eyed about the necessity of that task.