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An interview with David Roediger

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The results of the 2020 US elections indicate, especially in light of the country’s massive summer uprisings and a global pandemic, that it was largely an epiphenomenal event. Pressing issues of racial and environmental justice and ever-widening income inequality have again been relegated to the margins in favor of campaigns whose raison d’être is “saving the middle class,” the subject of David Roediger’s latest book, The Sinking Middle Class. Roediger, professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas and a trenchant observer of the nexus of race and class in the US, discussed with us why every American politician’s goal now seems to be to save this near mythological class, always conceived of—though rarely acknowledged as—white, and how this strategy has been pursued at the expense of a broader politics of class and racial justice

Verso Books: I want to start with a relatively straightforward question, which I think will be on many people's minds: Given how 2016 and the subsequent four years in the US have played out, were you at all surprised that we find ourselves in, more or less, the same position as we were four years ago? Is the country really that polarized or have we not accounted for the notion, as you suggest in the introduction of The Sinking of the Middle Class, that, for so many people, "making an electoral choice might be the least important political activity"?

David Roediger: If we go back also to 2012, the popular vote tallies are eerily alike over three elections, even though the historical moments were very different as were the specific pairings of candidates. The pattern is typically read as an enduring split of party loyalties, a deep polarization. Since the turnout increased, especially in 2020, a case could be made that the nation is very politicized and divided into camps having irreconcilable differences or at least receiving quite distinct algorithm-driven news feeds on their social media. 

Indeed, when the 2020 election looked like it might take weeks to be decided, pundits talked about the deep parallels with the deadlocked election of 1876. But in both cases the splits were more emotional than policy driven. 

In 1876, the two parties had more or less resolved—at the expense of freedpeople, women, the Indigenous, and workers—the profound fissures following from the Civil War. The troops protecting Black life and civil rights in the South were all but gone, women's suffrage was already put off for what would be many decades, the symbolic laws seeming to support an eight-hour working day were dead letters, and imperial expansion onto Indian lands was threatened by neither party. Nonetheless partisan divides consumed a nation emotionally, vote counts were challenged, and some believed a new civil war loomed. 

In 2020 too both presidential candidates often agreed on the most sharply posed issues—no Medicare for All, fund the police, oppose the Green New Deal, keep fracking—and the preceding decades had seen a fantastic redistribution of wealth towards the richest proceed under both parties. Both parties made the same class appeal: to save the middle class. 

To say as much is not to deny that Trump was and is a special case in terms of megalomania, white nationalism, instability, and sleaze. Nevertheless, in my view we do not live in a period of enduring and serious electoral clashes between parties with fundamentally different policies. Perhaps many of the 150 million plus voters in 2020 did realize that their voting was not a surpassingly important political act but did so expressly to pronounce a verdict on Trump. On the other hand, media so portrays the election politics as the grandest expression of all politics that it takes some imagination to maintain such a sense of proportion.

To follow up on your last point, I was struck by your observation, also in the introduction, about how each subsequent election is touted by corporate media as epoch-making. Is this largely the result of a deep awareness by people in media of the problem you mention above, namely, that we live in a period without serious clashes between parties with fundamentally different policies?

Imagining that we are seeing the battle of the century every two years where elections are concerned certainly serves the media’s interest in ratings and also the skill sets of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and other news opinion outlets. Its twin is the pretense that there’s BREAKING NEWS almost all the time. Important, too, is a media appeal to a certain kind of very low-level wonkiness imagining electoral politics as a specialized knowledge of technical matters, thus the endless repetition of red and blue national touch-screen maps. Personality-driven coverage—the news personalities as well as the political ones—has little space for, say, deep political reporting on Medicare for All. It is hard to know if the state of political debate impoverishes political journalism or vice-versa and surely best to see them as dialectically related. 

This has been another bruising season for election forecasters and pollsters and your decision to devote a chapter of the book to the career and legacy of Stanley Greenberg is fortuitous. Do you foresee pollsters like Greenberg experiencing any lasting backlash from this? What alternatives do we have to the focus group or national polls? 

I suspect the polls producing projected percentage results will be hurt in terms of reputation more than those by focus group experts like Greenberg, who is often paid more to figure out what issues might be most usefully exploited to reach which constituencies. He will claim that he helped with a 2020 Democratic victory. 

The traditional polls on the Presidential race were spectacularly off again. What seemed to be the most plausible explanation for 2016’s miscues—that some people (often this was said of suburban white women) knew that they were not supposed to prefer Trump, a sexual predator and racist, and told pollsters they supported Clinton before casting votes against her. 

That Trump Embarrassment Factor may have applied to some extent again but the explanation would seem not to tell us much about the even more wrong prognostications in Senate races. Why, for example, would big percentages be so ashamed to say that they supported the boring but mostly scandal-free Republican Senator Susan Collins in Maine as to produce particularly farcical polling numbers there? 

Exacerbating the polls’ faults was the tendency of national media to trumpet the results most showcasing how disastrous Trump’s behavior was for his own prospects and those of Republican candidates down the ballot. Simple alternatives to the poll-mania would be to hold fewer polls and to report on them less breathlessly but this seems unlikely.  

In your account, Greenberg's coup was to go to Macomb County, Michigan, and synthesize so many of the prior assumptions and beliefs of union bosses and conservative Democrats into a coherent political strategy. One that implicitly argued for the centering of white, male skilled-laborers as the key demographic for continued electoral success even as you note "Democrats still campaign on the basis of racial justice." Greenberg initiated this strategy in the wake of Jesse Jackson's 1984 insurgency, executed it with Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, and has to some degree maintained its supremacy within the Democratic Party ever since. I know union people who are still on weekly calls with Greenberg. How costly has this been for a broad, movement-based politics of racial justice which has only really started finding its feet again post-Ferguson? 

 “Movement-based” is the key phrase here. No liberation movement has made “save the middle class” or “pay attention to the white working class” its watchword. And yet regularly we see organizing initiatives interrupted in order send activists to support electoral campaigns making just such demands. If this were for a week it would be one thing but from primaries, to general elections, to runoffs, the season of electoral politics threatens to become most of the time. 

Moreover, the logic as well as the rhythm of electoral politics does seep into popular movements. Take the Macomb County example that your questions raise. When Greenberg wrote the section on Macomb County in his Middle Class Dreams, he cited research positing that “working class” was probably about as popular an identification as “middle class” nationally but he chose to use the latter because he heard it more in the all-white focus groups he had convened, none of them workplace-based. By the time unions in Michigan attempted to turn back anti-labor Right to Work legislation passed in 2013, they did so overwhelmingly in the name of defending the middle class not working-class institutions. The analysis that Greenberg developed and recycles around Macomb County also buttresses the assumption that fighting for the rights of people of color and of workers who are white and often called middle class is too difficult to be sustained and that minimizing the threat of white backlash makes sense. 

You're circumspect about designating your object as "the middle class," preferring, for example, C. Wright Mills's "middle classes" or speculating that many who see themselves as middle class are in fact working class. Nuance always feels like an uphill battle, especially when "middle class" is so freighted with aspiration and deployed free of context by politicians and union bureaucrats. Are we stuck with the term while we wait for the so-called middle classes to "fall" into the working class as Marx and Engels presaged?

Thanks for this question as it touches on what I regard as the least successful part of Sinking Middle Class.  My writing failures, placement of key matters near the book’s end, and US vocabularies of class and race obscured matters. However, the point that we are not so much stuck with “middle class” as beginning to be in position to speak to the middle class/working class divide in more productive ways is an important one to resurrect. 

In terms of social stratification clearly there are middle classes, plural. By some definitions 96% of those in the US are middle class and they share with each other neither a standard of life nor social relations on the job. The last remaining farmers, the self-employed and entrepreneurs, the middle managers and the clerks and salespeople whom they manage, all of these differ greatly. So do the adjunct professors making $12,000 per semester and the associate dean pulling down $240,000 each year. 

The traditional left’s obsession regarding the middle class/working class divide gets lots right. It notices that many people who call themselves middle class clearly hold working class jobs. Their survival depends on a wage or salary and their time and motion is controlled by a boss who also determines their access to healthcare. The task, as it is usually thought of, then becomes to educate such employees to identify as working class not middle, or to wait for real life to educate them regarding that cold, sinking realization. To an extent, that is happening. Polls show fewer in the US identifying as middle class.

However, this still leaves an enormous number of workers seeing themselves as middle class or more exactly seeing themselves sometimes as working class and sometimes as middle class. We need to learn to speak to this reality by seeing it not simply as false consciousness and Chamber of Commerce manipulation but as having material dimensions of its own. 

What Sinking argues is that historically and in the present the majority of the middle class—clerks, salespeople, nurses, government workers, teachers, and even unionized workers in heavy industry—have experienced exploitation on the job to be sure but also a set of other miseries beyond those of wages. These anxieties center on debt—credit was long associated with middle class status—and management of personalities by the employer, a practice much more and earlier associated with white collar work than blue. Overwork in terms of hours of labor was also often been a problem associated with the middle class, insofar as unpaid overtime featured in some salaried positions. Debt itself drives overwork and vice-versa. Managed closely in terms of productivity and personality, the middle class “needs” more to be make ends meet both financially and psychologically. 

Because middle class problems are material ones, but reach far beyond those on which, say, unions bargain, we ought to be able to speak to workers thinking of themselves as middle class with fair hope that social movements can be built around their miseries on and off the job.

The corporate media's discovery of the "white working class" in 2016 has persisted despite writers such as yourself pointing out that the GOP rode into the White House on a wealthier, petite bourgeois vote. How do the “white working class” and the “middle class” intersect but also get used at different moments? Why is the upper middle-class sector of the Trump base so consistently ignored?

 Some precooked analyses of the 2020 election go even further in the direction of a “white working class” explanation for the huge vote for a reactionary and authoritarian figure than did those for 2016. Trump and his forces push such a view. They want to imagine that they have realigned politics around working class whites joining increasing numbers of Black and Latino/a voters to produce a Republican party representing the oppressed who want to get rich and ban abortions. The data on the election so far suggest that such shifts were at most marginal. But it is not only segments of the right-wing corporate media that invent a white working class and aggrandize its role. We see it in liberal corporate media like CNN and MSNBC with their promotion of Democrats fretting about the talk of “socialism” and “defunding the police” scaring off “white working class” voters.

The idea that there is a particularly reactionary “white working class” that must be appealed to by soft-pedalling calls by Democrats for racial justice is both old and new. When strategist Stanley Greenberg went in the 1980s to Macomb County, Michigan, to puzzle out how to reel “Reagan Democrats” back into the Democratic ranks he variously described those whom he polled as the (implicitly white) middle class or as explicitly white and working class. In the wake of the disappointing Obama performance in the 2012 election, Greenberg and others turned to the term “white working class” in a series of analyses and roundtables eager to move the Democrats away from all “identity politics” except an imagined white working-class identity politics. The spate of books on the “white working class” just after Trump’s 2016 election overwhelmingly had its origins in the maneuvers of leaders, including Biden, of the center-right of the Democratic party before the election and mostly prior even to Trump’s rise as a candidate. 

In 2020, Trump apparently split voters with $200,000–250,000 annual incomes with Biden while winning the large numbers making from $100,000–200,000 overwhelmingly (58% to 41%). He lost those making less than $30,000 by 8 points and those between $30,000 and $50,000 by 13 points. 

The support for Trump among poor and working-class white voters is overcooked because so many experts make college/not college the dividing line between working and middle class. Many very prosperous white Americans succeed without college and they overwhelmingly skew to Trump. Similarly, one of the bases for Democratic support lies among whites with college educations and relatively low incomes, who not only voted against Trump but poll overwhelmingly as for Black Lives Matter. That’s definitely not a part of the “white working class” that center-right Democrats aim to listen to. 

I, too, have noticed this obsession with education as the new class, so to speak, from pundits and strategists on center left in both the US and England. Is there is some connection with both country's higher education experiencing greater capture by neoliberal economics (David Graeber waxed about the endless tools of management professors had to endure) and its attendant ideology of meritocracy that leads to this kind of overdetermination?

 COVID has very much underlined, at least in the US, the extent of the neoliberal capture of the university that you mention. At University of Kansas, where I currently teach, state-of-emergency governance procedures authorized incredible secrecy and lack of consultation with faculty. The full extent to which public-private partnerships on building construction and maintenance amounted to privatization became clear when staff, faculty, and graduate students became targets of sharp cuts while the claims of corporate partners on university resources were ironclad. The universities collectively joined private corporations in seeking liability waivers in order to reopen while taking minimal responsibility for results. Kansas administrators enjoyed the protections of a model, for business, law in that regard. The resulting austerity, was justified in terms of standard neoliberal logic: There Is No Alternative.  University of Kansas meanwhile sits on a two-billion-dollar endowment.

That some students move left in college owes less to the “liberal professors” that the right vilifies than to the neoliberal university itself. Anti-intellectual at its core, increasingly disinterested in vast areas of knowledge and beauty, vocational in its approach, and inflated in its tuition, such a university is bound to disappoint many of its best students as it sends them into deep debt.  These become some of the middle class but radical graduates showing up in US political life.

Finally, you said before that there is a hope that "social movements can be built around [workers'] miseries on and off the job." How do you see the articulation of such movements in light of the spontaneous militancy this year, foregrounded by police executions, but clearly stemming from the nexus of continued frustrations over policing, economic immiseration, a pandemic, and the dawning realization that the world is warming uncontrollably?

I’ll give one example. Some years ago, my friend and younger-than-I-am mentor, the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, wrote a delightful provocation about what might happen if unions joined the movement supporting reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. They could join out of a commitment to social justice and out of a plan to build and staff structures that would address structural racism—public housing, gyms, schools, computer centers, and cafeterias in Black areas but inevitably serving broader populations of often poor people. That this in some ways immensely practical idea seems utopian measures our lack of political vision. Unions can get behind policies supporting the building of pipelines, stadiums, expressways, minivans, and prisons far more readily. 

In the spirit of Kelley’s meditation, we might ask what would happen if contingents of workers showed up in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations. Sadly, few unions have even bothered to endorse, let alone mobilize for, such initiatives. Maybe some will as it becomes clearer that the next dozen years will decide if labor movement finds new things to say or accepts irrelevance. But more important is whether workers themselves move—as trans activists did early and climate activists have recently—toward a movement in the streets and discover what intersections can result.

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John W. W. Zeiser is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books as well as a proofreader for Verso Books.