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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Greenfield: How Orwell Presaged the Democrats’ Problems with the Working-Class

At Politico, Jeff Greenfield gives George Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” a fresh read, finds parts of it to be highly relevant to our recent experience in the U.S. and uses it as a springboard for some well-stated observations about the Democratic Party’s failure to rally the working-class. As Greenfield sets the stage:

“Why are we Democrats losing the working class? Why do they like our policies but vote for the party that comforts the comfortable? What’s wrong with our messaging? What’s wrong with our candidates?”….Odd as it may seem, a partial answer can be found in the works of a writer who never set foot in the United States and who has been dead for more than 70 years. When George Orwell traveled to the Depression-ravaged north of England in 1936, his intention was to chronicle the horrific conditions in the mines, the towns and the homes of the people who lived and worked there. (His account of the near starvation, the hellish conditions in the mines, the sights, sounds and smells of life are still riveting all these decades later).

“It is in the second half of his book, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” where Orwell deals with a broader question: If socialism is the way toward providing a fairer, more decent life for those with the least, why has it not succeeded politically? His answer — one that unsettled his Left Book Club’s publisher — was that there was a deep cultural chasm between the advocates of socialism and those they were seeking to persuade….“I am,” Orwell wrote, “making out a case for the sort of person who is in sympathy with the fundamental aims of Socialism … but who in practice always takes flight when Socialism is mentioned.

Nowhere is this ‘deep cultural chasm’ wider than in the gap between the language of workers and upper middle-class lefties:

“Orwell, himself a socialist, argues first that “Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the [relatively well-off] middle class.” In its language, it is formal, stilted, wholly distant from the language of ordinary citizens, spoken by people who are several rungs above their audience, and with no intention of giving up that status….“It is doubtful whether anything describable as proletarian literature now exists … but a good music hall comedian comes nearer to producing it than any Socialist writer I can think of.”

Might that help explain why George Bush II and Trump connected to white working-class voters better than did Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton? Bush II and Trump were arguably America’s worst presidents. But their language sounded more ‘real’ than that of their adversaries. True, Gore and Clinton won the overall popular vote. But their share of white working-class votes declined in relation to that of  previous Democratic presidential nominees.

Greenfield adds that “Democrats have not found a way to draw clear, convincing lines separating the most militant voices in their party from the beliefs of a large majority of their base. Consider Orwell’s argument that the language of the left is “wholly distant from the language of ordinary citizens.” Many of today’s Democrats seem intimidated by the preferred phrases of the week, even if few of them embrace or recognize such language. (A recent survey revealed that only 2 percent of Hispanics prefer the term “Latinx” to describe themselves.)” Greenfield writes further,

We saw how clearly the extremes can drag down the party after the disappointing results of the 2020 down-ballot elections, and again after last November’s Democratic loses in Virginia, Long Island and local races across the country. Most Democrats, including President Joe Biden, do not support defunding the police. But a failure to make that argument repeatedly, in the bluntest of terms, permitted that notion to take root. As House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn noted, “defunding the police” comes across a lot like the “burn, baby, burn!” chants of the 1960s riots. Most Democrats are not proponents of teaching critical race theory in public schools. But the broader argument that the United States is fundamentally a nation conceived in white supremacy, where skin color is the essential aspect of a citizen’s life, has in fact been on display in some of the redoubts of the left’s political power. It’s instructive that San Francisco Mayor London Breed helped lead the successful fight to recall three school board members who were pushing for the renaming of local schools named after, among others, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Breed more recently declared a “state of emergency” in her city’s Tenderloin District where random acts of violence against property and people have become endemic.

In her blunt comments, Breed seemed to align herself with New York City Mayor Eric Adams who has promised a “crackdown” on lawlessness and a return to some of the policing tactics that former Mayor Bill de Blasio had rejected. (It’s an intriguing political possibility for Democrats that two of the voices most in sync with a more “working class” perspective on crime are the Black Mayors of two famously liberal cities.)

Greenfield notes “one of the more striking shifts within the Democratic Party: the loss of effective political figures that speak to working- and middle-class voters.” Also,

Democrats have another problem that Orwell might have recognized; its “messaging” is increasingly crafted by people who are too much like me: born and raised in the big city, product of an elite law school, a working life whose tools are words, ideas — not hammers and nails. To say that my friends, colleagues and I are distant from the life of “regular” Americans is a significant understatement.

Former Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has described the image of his party this way: “coastal, overly educated, elitist, judgmental, socialist — a bundle of identity groups and interests lacking any shared principles. The problem isn’t the candidates we nominate. It’s the perception of the party we belong to.”

It is of course painfully obvious that in turning to Donald Trump and his Republican acolytes, voters are rewarding a party awash in hypocrisy that barely disguises its own elite roots and its own coddling of the privileged. It is, in fact, a measure of the Democrats’ failure that so many ordinary Americans embrace a figure whose father illicitly supplied the money that enabled his rise, who repeatedly imported undocumented immigrants to work on his properties, who reputedly stiffed those who worked for him, whose father’s doctor helped him evade the draft, and whose tax cuts flatly violated his campaign pledge to make the rich pay more.

Greenfield adds that “The economic core of Democrats’ arguments — a higher minimum wage, lower prescription drug costs, a better chance for college education, with programs paid for by higher taxes on the affluent and mega-rich — enjoy broad public support.” He concludes “But the danger to the left that Orwell described remains, as Democratic polling warns, “alarmingly potent.” An electorate where many find the party “preachy” and “judgmental” will falter on this side of the Atlantic now, just as it did thousands of miles away and decades ago.”

Read the rest of Greenfield’s Politico article.

5 comments on “Greenfield: How Orwell Presaged the Democrats’ Problems with the Working-Class

  1. spatrick on

    ” An electorate where many find the party “preachy” and “judgmental” ”

    Is Greenfield saying Republicans can act “preachy” and “judgmental” and actually write laws that are “preachy” and “judgmental” ” and Democrats can’t? I’m confused and he and others do feel that way I’d like to know why because I think it has become one of the great unanswered questions in politics.

    • Victor on

      Why is it so hard for Democrats to understand that the Democratic coalition is (and has for the most part always been) a coalition of fickle voters with incoherent interests and values?

      The Republican coalition is kept together by a united interest: opposing change (whether economic or cultural).

      Libertarians may be turned off by the preachiness of the dominionist fundamentalists but they look away as long as they help block taxes and regulation.

      The working class component of the Democratic coalition would maybe do the same for the woke component. But Democrats also have the plutocratic funders and the middle class voters who oppose taxes and regulation.

  2. MartinLawford on

    In “What’s the Matter With Kansas”, Thomas Frank argued that Republicans use social issues to fool working class voters into voting against their own economic self-interest. Now we are watching the Republicans do the same thing with boogeymen like critical race theory, “grooming”, and all the traditional racist dog whistles. Since the Republicans are unlikely to abandon a successful tactic, we must make it unsuccessful by exposing it for the bigotry it really is.

    • Victor on

      This idea that you can “expose” bigotry is infantile. Everybody knows what the GOP is about. The problem with Democrats is that people would rather have that than an incoherent ineffective party holding both Congress and the White House.

      Periods of divided government aren’t seen as bad.

      Voters hope gridlock will lead to some compromise or at least not major mistakes. Interparty gridlock is tolerable, intraparty gridlock is not.

      The Trump 2011-12 period was pretty good. Covid policy was better for the working class in that period with Trump implementing populist Democratic ideas like stimulus payments, enhanced Medicaid and ACA, pandemic unemployment insurance, etc.

      The remaining cultural issues of the day aren’t clear cut Democratic victories.

      A good example is how Republicans have given up on gay marriage and are not focusing on the teaching of LGBT issues in primary schools. That shows they are smarter and more adaptable than leftwing activists.

      Democrats are battling last decades battles while Republicans have shifted the terrain to issues they can ostensibly win. So yeah, we also need to fight bigotry, but it is not as simple as “exposing” it.

  3. Watcher on

    See, it is possible to do challenging posts that aren’t tedious or exasperating.

    More specifically, I think Greenfield raises a good point about economic messaging. If it is true that many working class voters prioritize opportunity and growth, how do you reconcile that with concerns about inequality or neoliberalism. If the most mild correctives can easily be demonized as “socialist threats”, then no amount of cultural conservatism will overcome that.

    I think there is a way around this tension but we need to talk about it.


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