Class Politics Essay

Submitted By likemagic
Words: 2118
Pages: 9

A distinctive feature of US politics, in comparison with most other industrialized nations in the world, is its virtual lack of class-based politics. President George W. Bush, for instance, has said that class is for ‘European democracies or something else—it isn’t for the United States of America. We are not going to be divided by class’ (cited in Harrigan, 2000: 6). And this seems to be the general attitude that pervades all of American society, to the extent where militating on the basis of class could even be seen as culturally abhorrent. It is a fact that in the 1990s, trade union membership accounted for only 15 percent of all wage and salary workers, down from 25 percent in 1975. This is despite 30 percent of all workers still employed in blue-collar jobs as of 1996 (McKay, 2001: 226; Vanneman and Cannon, 1987: 5). Between the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, there are only relatively minor ideological differences, with the former leaning slightly more to the ‘liberal’ side, while the later are more ‘conservative’, though neither articulates anything near resembling class politics.

This has led to much speculation among scholars as to why this could be the case. A number of reasons have been posed, including:

1. America is mainly a middle class society, with an individualistic culture; high levels of social mobility; and equality of opportunity, which are prized over collective action.

2. America does not have a feudal past, from which class cleavages can be drawn.

3. America is the richest industrialized nation in the world, and therefore has an overall higher standard of living, which minimizes any potential for class action.

4. The American working class is divided sharply along ethnic and racial lines.

5. The American two-party system makes it difficult for radical political parties to develop.

However, despite this lack of class politics, the US continues to experience some of the most exacerbated income and wealth inequalities in the industrialized world, with the gap between the rich and the poor growing over the past thirty years. In addition, the proportion of the population living in poverty, according to official figures, is at around 14-16 percent (McKay, op. cit. :27). This raises the question as to the nature of class in the United States, and as to how the US class structure (if one exists) is reflected in mainstream politics.

When political parties developed in the US, in the early 19th century, they were based mainly on ideals of political equality and democracy (as well as patronage), rather than on lines of class, race or religion. Thus from the beginning, ideology has been largely absent from US politics; what Vanneman and Cannon (Vanneman and Cannon, op. cit. :1) have called ‘American Exceptionalism’. Some have argued (e.g. Form, 1995), that until the economic hardships of the Great Depression, the labor movement was contained through the efforts of organized business. However, by 1932, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrats had managed to secure a seemingly unassailable coalition (generally referred to as the New Deal coalition), comprised of their traditional Southern rural segregationist supporters, and of large segments of the Northern urban working class. The Democratic New Deal focused on the redistribution of wealth to those who most needed it, and passed laws better enabling workers to unionise. From 1932-1968, the Republicans only gained two presidential elections, in 1952 and 1956 (sometimes called ‘deviating elections’ by political analysts), which were largely attributable to the overwhelming personal charisma of Dwight Eisenhower. Thus, for a time at least, America had some sort of a class-based politics.

Nevertheless, fractures began to appear in the Democratic coalition in the 1960s. Firstly, the traditional segregationist Southern voting base began to decline, as the party moved towards