America Is Headed for Class Warfare | Opinion
Joel Kotkin, Newsweek
Nothing has revealed the class divide in the U.S. quite like runaway inflation and skyrocketing gas prices. But in addition to the economic impact the staggering incompetence of the Biden administration is having on the working class, there is a political one; it’s undeniably driving working class voters even further from the Democrats and toward the GOP.
Amazon vote to unionize could be a precursor to something less appealing to the Right: a nascent rebellion among the vast armies of service workers who for decades have inhabited the lower economic rungs.
The truth is, the rising tide of class conflict is problematic for both parties. The Amazon vote challenges the GOP’s anti-union stance and its free market dogma. But Democrats, too, face an embarrassing conundrum, since the companies most likely to face continued union drives—Amazon and Starbucks among them—are themselves core funders and media stewards of the Democratic Party.
This is not the discussion either liberal oligarchs or Right-wing activists want. They would rather battle over media hot buttons like climate, race, and gender, than meaningfully address working conditions, wages or rapidly rising rents.
In other words, neither party has developed a program to boost proletarian aspirations.
And this despite the fact that the growing class divide could well be the dominant issue of the next decade. Middle- and working-class Americans are widely—and correctly—pessimistic about their economic futures. Even before the civil unrest of recent years and the pandemic, Pew reported that most Americans believed our country was in decline, with a shrinking middle class, increased debt, alienation from leaders and growing polarization.
Almost 70 percent of Americans told pollsters last year that the next generation will be worse off than their parents. And it’s not just the masses. Young people across the country are pessimistic as well: Most people 15 to 24 also think life will be worse for them than for their parents.
They aren’t wrong. The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent in 2019, and the pandemic appears to have accelerated this pattern, hitting low-income workers hardest while the recovery helped them least.
Meanwhile, those at the top are raking it in. CEO compensation reached record levels this year, investment bankers on Wall Street enjoyed record bonuses and the giant tech firms now boast a market capitalization greater than the bloated federal budget.
As millions struggle to fill their tanks and pay their rent, sales of business jets to the rising ranks of billionaires have soared to new heights.
This could prove to be a propitious moment for America’s working majority to press their case, not least because the labor market is tighter than ever. U.S. population growth dropped from 20 percent in the eighties to less than 5 percent in the last decade. To make matters worse, an estimated one-third of American working age males are not in the labor force, suffering high rates of incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse and other health issues.
And while the pandemic largely hit lower-wage workers, as the economy opens, labor is ever more in short supply, particularly in the service class. There is a persistent lack of workers amidst massive shortages across the employment front—from nurses and delivery people to farm laborers, retail and hotel workers, truckers and restaurant workers.
Nearly 90 percent of companies surveyed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce blamed a lack of available workers for slowing the economy, more than twice as many as blamed pandemic restrictions. And such labor shortages exert wage pressure. Corporations like Target and Walmart have announced sweeping wage increases, while an estimated 500,000 manufacturing jobs have been left unfilled.
Some traditional Leftists like Bernie Sanders have expressed hope that workers’ new leverage could benefit labor unions, particularly at large chains like Starbucks or Amazon. But a full-blown return to unions seems unlikely given that the number of strikes were well below those of previous years and private sector union membership has declined through the pandemic; younger workers’ total unionization rates now approach 4 percent of the workforce.
Given the weakness of unions, government policy must step in to promote social mobility. The question is how.
Many working people do not want to be dependent on alms from the oligarch-dominated government, as they increasingly are in California and in proposals like the Green New Deal. As the Pew Research Center has found repeatedly, most Americans don’t want a handout but would prefer to make their own living.
Longtime Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira has pointed out that most working class voters won’t rally on issues like transgenderism, critical race theory, defunding the police or draconian climate policies. Anyone who wants their votes will need to speak to their everyday, pressing concerns; imposing cultural issues from on high will only drive voters away.
Democrats need to transcend the obsessions of the academy and media talking heads—overpaid and insulated in their Washington or New York studios—and focus instead on more popular things like traditional social democratic policies aimed at raising wages, expanding healthcare policies or reshoring production from overseas. Gallup found that only a tiny share of Americans sees Biden’s core concerns on climate, race or gender as the nation’s priority; voters of all races are instead focused on the highest inflation in 40 years, government incompetence, and the aftershocks of the pandemic.
Of course, the Right has its own challenges to speaking to the working class. If green and tech oligarchic pressures weigh on Democrats, the GOP’s drive for working class support is threatened both by their residual laissez-faire free market religion and their corporatist roots. Republicans love to talk up the dangers of woke corporations, but they don’t seem to mind if companies may be short-changing their workers.
The GOP also faces a cultural conundrum: The vast majority of Americans may not embrace the extreme agenda of the new style progressives, but extreme Republican positions on issues like abortion or the legitimacy of the 2020 elections are not widely shared by the voting public.
At the end of the day, our political future will not be shaped by the cultural warfare that defined more prosperous times but by pocketbook issues. Wages, the price of buying a house or rent, food costs and the battle for leverage between employers and the fate of smaller businesses against oligopolies will be the defining issues. The class politics that have long dominated Europe are now here with a vengeance, and they will stick around until they are addressed.
Under his headstone in Hampstead Heath, Karl Marx should be smiling.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin.