While Joe Biden will be America’s next president, the Democrats’ narrow election victory hardly represented the vaunted “blue wave” predicted by many pollsters. Indeed, the most striking takeaway from the 2020 result is how much it mirrored the profound splits of the 2016 election—literally, give or take the shift of a hundred thousand votes or so in a few key Rust Belt and Sun Belt states. And despite charges of racism, more than a quarter of Donald Trump’s votes came from nonwhite Americans, the highest percentage for a GOP presidential candidate since 1960.
This may seem strange until one realizes that the issue of economic precarity—the elephant in the room seldom explicitly addressed by either party—transcends issues of ethnicity, gender, rural vs. urban, and race. As one of us has observed, the phenomenon of economic precarity remains a hallmark of contemporary capitalism: The combination of automation, globalization, and cuts in social provision has generated massive economic instability for ordinary citizens—for men and women, young and old, Black and white, skilled and unskilled, for the middle classes and the poor alike. The challenge, therefore, is to build a more stable, secure, and sustainable society, which means explicitly addressing the issue of economic precarity that largely characterizes today’s capitalist system in the United States. Democrats have long styled themselves champions of the working class, but until the party more credibly addresses this problem, blue waves are unlikely to be more than occasional blue ripples.
One key problem for Democrats remains their inability to counter the persisting working-class shift to conservatism. This incapacity is itself rooted in the modern-day left’s failure to diagnose the nature of economic precarity and its corresponding pathologies because it has largely focused its social justice campaigns on race- and gender-oriented issues, which in turn create a cultural disconnect for the more socially conservative working class. The latter are increasingly ignored, rather than being seen as a building block in a larger coalition.
Since the days of the New Deal, Democrats have championed policies favorable to blue-collar workers. But many current indicators suggest that they are less engaged with the grievances of modern-day workers, especially when it comes to addressing the persistent anxiety that many face over the costs of health, housing, education, the quality of public services, and job security. Indeed, in many instances, Democrats actually exacerbate these problems, thanks to the party leadership’s ongoing attachment to neoliberal economic policy solutions.
A case in point is California’s Proposition 22, a neo-feudal piece of legislation from the bluest of blue states that has effectively entrenched economic precarity for a large chunk of that state’s workers by undermining the long-standing employee protections and benefits that exist in California’s labor laws. Even though both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both publicly opposed Prop 22, their message to the electorate was undoubtedly muddled by the fact that Harris’s brother-in-law and adviser, Tony West, led the campaign in favor of Prop 22 and is Uber’s chief legal officer; her niece, Meena Harris, also works at Uber on its diversity and inclusion team. Now that California’s labor laws have been gutted, workers at gig economy firms will continue to be classified as contractors, without access to employee rights such as minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and health insurance. No doubt, other states (and oligarchs) will take note. If it is true that as California goes, so goes the country, that’s undoubtedly a worrying signal.
This kind of mixed messaging potentially creates a huge opening for the GOP—especially if it can also adapt to the new realities of work and relinquish trickle-down economics policies its donors demanded of the party for the past 40 years. That won’t be easy.
In fairness to the Democrats, the traditional industrial working class is rapidly disappearing, having been eviscerated through a combination of automation, globalization, attacks on private-sector unions, cuts in public services, and the rise of the gig economy. Countervailing power for this cohort needs to be established in ways that can replicate the historic role of labor unions, even if unions themselves become the relics of a bygone form of capitalism. But until the party realizes that work is nothing like what it was, and increasingly won’t be, it will be hard for it to offer credible solutions.
At the same time, if the Republicans are to become a more broadly based multiracial party of blue-collar conservatism, as Josh Hawley, for one, has advocated, they too will have to understand that what constitutes blue-collar work, life, existence, and identity are now quite different from the 20th century blue-collar workers of the New Deal coalition, and are going to be even more different in 10 or 20 years. There are some recent indications that the GOP is beginning to recognize this—but the party still needs to consider a reversal of many policies that have long been part of its orthodoxy, notably supply-side tax policies heavily biased to favor society’s top earners, the ongoing support of “right to work” laws on the labor front, along with a tolerance of American manufacturers’ proclivity to outsource production to low-cost labor jurisdictions, all of which have eroded labor’s position, accentuating both inequality and economic precarity.
The outrage against inequality has been a rallying cry for the Republican Party, especially in Rust Belt states such as Michigan and Ohio. Here poverty is a result of broader industrial decay caused by automation and the offshoring of manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor, which has led to urban decay and rising criminality. Those states responded well to Trump’s campaign rhetoric in 2016 and 2020, with Ohio specifically becoming more of a red state, as opposed to a traditional swing state.
Beyond the Midwest, there are other regions suffering from economic stagnation (as opposed to rising inequality per se), such as Alaska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Iowa, and Utah. These states all remained firmly red, because here too the Democrats still have no policies that address their specific pathologies: Alaska, Oklahoma, and Wyoming were 20th century resource-based economies that saw declines in reserves or devaluation from global competition. Advocates for the Green New Deal have hitherto failed to make the case among workers in those states, even though numerous studies illustrate that green manufacturing jobs are inextricably linked to higher quality employment and enhanced economic security.
Tellingly, the states where Trump made inroads among the working class (Alaska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Iowa, Utah, and Michigan), saw the smallest increases in inequality nationwide since 1989, but their troubled economies have not generated good and stable employment. This suggests that by focusing so strongly on inequality, while neglecting the broader issue of precarity—as the Democrats have done—is proving to be a diagnostic error. And the Republican Party is successfully capitalizing on this error. Economic instability nurtures a psychological need for stabilization—which the cultural conservatism and law-and-order rhetoric of the GOP appear better fit to satisfy. The capacity to attract the vote of the growing precariat has been crucial for the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party in the era of Trump.
The last two elections reveal a country that is profoundly divided, with the economic precariat being the most profound and tragic manifestation of collateral damage. The GOP talks about security in militaristic terms or via guns and religion—but seldom addresses economic insecurity. The Democrats evince an interest in redistributing income in order to alleviate the worst aspects of economic precarity, but resist making the structural changes that gave rise to this problem in the first place. Until the American precariat’s long-standing economic grievances—the lack of jobs, prohibitive cost of health care, absence of workplace safety, spreading pollution, a government detached from broader public purpose, and above all, the loss of stability and employment security over long periods of time—are adequately addressed, the United States will remain profoundly divided, and elections will continue to reflect this split.