I’ve stated before that even the most prominent scholars can say incredibly myopic and shallow things about contemporary politics, even Eric Foner. And as a labor historian, I have to say that I’ve seen really smart labor scholars say some really dumb things, including at the conference portrayed here. But I was just at the Labor and Working Class History Association conference, and maybe it was that I attended the right panels, but I heard nothing that made me roll my eyes. Then I check the blog of the organization. And there is this:
Like many of my friends and colleagues who study class and are worried about the increasing economic inequality of this country, I was at first overjoyed that the recent presidential election would force us to reckon with the subject of class. Usually ignored, working-class people were now becoming subjects of a national conversation.
As a labor historian, allow me to say that if you found anything joyful at the election of Donald Trump, I just don’t even know what to say to you. Me, I cried for 2 days. Sure I’m just a massive neoliberal sellout, but I think that the actual suffering of millions of Americans somehow does not make up for people talking about the white working class in national politics. Again, neoliberal sellout here so what do I know. But the idea of being “overjoyed” at Trump’s election? I have to say that this might be the single most reprehensible sentence I’ve read about the 2016 election. But hey, both parties are the same, right?
Honestly? This election wasn’t a referendum on anything. We had no good candidates to choose from. We didn’t choose either one of them. Millions of Americans sat out the vote (or were pushed out, but that is another story). And each of the millions of people who did had their own reasons for casting their vote. Most likely we’ll never be able to get to the bottom of how much racism, sexism, and other prejudices motivated voters in this election. (On a side note, is it really that surprising that a critical mass of white people respond to racist dog whistles?) Yes, we need to try to understand the attraction of a strange man who seems to appeal to our worst instincts and desires, but not at the risk of failing to come together to continue the fight for a better world for all of us. Politicians manipulate. Let’s stop focusing on who is manipulated and why and focus instead on making sure this doesn’t happen again.
What do you think the chances are she would have written these words if Bernie Sanders had been the nominee and lost? Is there something lower than 0 percent? If Bernie was nominated by the same numbers Hillary was nominated, it would have been the most important referendum in the last century for this scholar. And it’s not as if she is wrong about many of the points she discusses. She’s right that racism, sexism, etc. played a huge role. But you know what didn’t help fight that? Saying that “we didn’t choose the nominees.” Call me a neoliberal sellout again, but I think people did choose the nominees. I’m sorry that Bernie got into the race really late and had no ability to speak to the black voters who make up the actual base of the Democratic Party, as opposed to leftist labor scholars who may lower themselves to vote for a centrist Democrat with a progressive platform under the right circumstances. However, that’s the reality. Hillary Clinton won more votes and it wasn’t because of History’s Greatest Monster Debbie Wasserman Schultz either. But, no, on the labor left, you can say anything completely ignorant about elections so long as the Democratic Party sucks.
The rest of the piece is bog standard stuff about Republicans, which is fine, and then bromides about how we need to build coalitions that cross class and race lines, which is about as original and fresh as a box of Hamburger Helper. The sad reality is that being a scholar of the labor movement or the left does not ensure that your takes on elections are any better than something you would here from a stoned 19 year at a party in the apartment of the head of the local student activist group. Such arguments would actually be completely fine at that age and in that stage of activism. From an experienced scholar, it’s really bad.