In June, my friend and I sat in one of the tackiest crab restaurants in Bloomington listening to veteran union leader Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, expound on his fight to keep jobs at the Carrier Corporation plant in Indianapolis from moving to Mexico.
He described how he met with United Technologies, Carrier’s parent company, how Bernie Sanders was their quiet hero and how then-president-elect Donald Trump lied about the job numbers, took all the credit for Carrier’s reversal and then called Jones a loser on Twitter. The post promptly roused an online lynch mob on Jones, a self-described ‘regular working guy.’
The story was disturbing, but familiar. The more striking thing about the event was the composition of the audience.
The average age was around 50. Everyone appeared white, blue collar and definitely not vegetarian. It was difficult to imagine Students against State Violence or your local Queers against Fascism club represented at this meeting, to say the least. That event illuminated two alternative narratives competing for control over the Left.
One is a culturally left-wing politics concerned with stigmatizing oppression, detached from national politics and deeply sensitive to identity roles.
The other is a Left rooted in the labor movement that possesses a historic memory beyond the 1960s, prioritizes class over race and sex, and cares more about practical policy victories than out-philosophizing the opposition.
Right or wrong, my generation’s Left apparently favors the former.
Leftist millennials seem to venerate the Stonewall riots more than the Pullman Strike, know more about the Selma March than the Wagner Act and can talk about John Oliver any day but have probably never heard of the Wobblies.
Part of this is a shorter collective memory. Part is plain policy interest. Leftists in my generation appear more absorbed by the struggles of oppressed minorities than the stagnation of the white majority. They talk about stigma more than money.
Prompted by public revival in interest, I read some passages from late philosopher Richard Rorty’s compilation of lectures “Achieving Our Country.”
In it, he lampoons cultural elites who demand a unified moral purity for the movement, who naively disparage national borders and idle in the forest of abstractions.
“This Left will have to stop thinking up ever more abstract and abusive names for ‘the system’ and start trying to construct inspiring images of the country.”
He claims that the cultural left rejects the melting-pot rhetoric because it wants to respect and preserve otherness. This strategy will fail because only a rhetoric or commonality can hope to create a winning coalition.
Retreating to the ivory tower is also unhelpful because you can’t “philosophize one’s way into political relevance.” Academics wrongly assume the more sweeping their analytical tool, the more subversive their critique of the establishment.
The consequence is strikingly prophetic. “The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”
The post-Trump Left will have to return to labor unions to regain power. The 2018 midterm elections will be the litmus test.
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