We Need Class Politics to End Our Second Gilded Age

Matt Karp

We talk with historian Matt Karp about how ending our great age of inequality will take a renewed working-class politics.

People gather in Washington DC in support of former president Donald Trump and in protest of Joe Biden winning the 2020 presidential election. (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

Interview by
J. C. Pan
Paul Prescod

Political commentators have always sought historical comparisons to contemporary political moments. Most common of late is a comparison to Germany’s Weimar Republic and the chaotic times before the rise of Nazism. However, as Jacobin contributing editor and historian Matt Karp argues in his essay, “The Politics of a Second Gilded Age,” in many ways our political environment — characterized by intense economic inequality coupled with high turnout, intense negative partisanship, and partisan and cultural-identity driven voting patterns — is a repeat of America’s own nineteenth-century Gilded Age.

Jen Pan and Paul Prescod sat down with Karp on The Jacobin Show, our weekly YouTube broadcast, to discuss his essay, as well as his broader political analysis of the early Biden administration. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.


JP

In your article, you draw a connection between the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century and the kind of politics that we see unfolding now. What is the connection between the two time periods, and what’s interesting about electoral politics in these two eras?

MK

I just hit on that analogy as a sort of provocation to think beyond the typical fare in most liberal media, where everything is historically analogized to the Second World War or the Civil War. Those are both very useful to inspire — or, in some cases, to discipline — various forms of left politics. I’m as guilty as anyone of using various Civil War analogies, and I will not stop doing that. But, thinking about 2020, three things jumped out at me.

This was a really high-turnout election. People ran to their ballots in this Trump-Biden election, which was almost a caricature of two unpalatable, out-of-touch, ancient dinosaurs stumbling toward the White House, clearly unfit for the office, mentally and ideologically. Yet the Trump-Biden election got far more voters than any election with Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or any of the “dynamite political talents” of our era.

You have to go back a hundred years to get up to 67 percent voter turnout. That high turnout broke a lot of the narratives that we’ve been working with, and it combined with what a lot of people have observed as intense negative partisanship. This turnout was driven not by adulation or identification with a movement, or even a set of ideas, but with opposition and deep-seated antagonism toward “the other guy.” This isn’t a new thing in American politics, or any form of politics; it’s always about friends and enemies. But the negative end of that stick has grown larger and heavier in recent years.

The third thing to note is class de-alignment and the Democratic coalition’s removal from its New Deal–era base, or even its 2008 working-class base. The point of my article was that, leaving aside the Democratic Party’s long-term change from the party which most working-class people supported, you don’t have to talk about the difference between Biden and FDR or LBJ. You can just talk about the difference between Biden, the Biden coalition, and the Obama coalition. This difference is striking in places like Michigan, where Barack Obama rolled up massive working-class majorities among black voters in Detroit and among white workers in the old auto-industrial areas. Biden underperformed dramatically in both those groups of workers, and he compensated by winning traditionally Republican suburban managerial-class strongholds.

This three-part combination of high turnout, intense negative partisanship, and politics driven by culture geography — partisan identity, rather than anything to do with class — reminded me of the electoral politics of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, from the 1880s to around 1910. There’s a new book by a historian named Jon Grinspan called The Age of Acrimony that compiles this era together, hitting a lot of these same notes.

It’s not that significant economic policy didn’t happen. Class politics were happening in an intense, embodied, material way, in mines and on dockyards. This was the heroic era of labor organization and anti-labor violence, but very little of that made its way into the electoral system. None of those positions on the tariff, or on currency, or on any of the other economic issues of that period translated into structural economic change or class politics.

We’re on a steam engine train toward a similar set of politics. We have intense, feverish debate about a lot of issues. There are significant economic policy differences between Republicans and Democrats; we don’t need to pretend those don’t exist. But, decoupled from class politics, can those policy differences become structural changes, fundamental changes? I’m very skeptical.

JP

In your article, you zero in on certain districts to look at how they voted and what kinds of policies they supported in order to make your case about partisan identity politics and class de-alignment.

In various wealthy suburbs, like Barrington, Illinois, you see voters flocking to Joe Biden but also rejecting initiatives to tax the rich. On the other end of the spectrum is Sweetwater, Florida, which broke for Trump but overwhelmingly supported a $15 minimum wage ballot initiative. Do you see an opportunity for the Left in here?

MK

We can debate the different political contexts for a lot of these initiatives. Some people will push back and say, “Actually, it depends on the initiative, the state, the situation.” Some upper-middle-class voters do seem to be more willing, in this Democratic coalition, to support tax increases. But there’s a lot of evidence that this willingness is limited and incapable of supporting the much larger, more sweeping redistributive measures that we would need for anything like a Bernie agenda, much less something beyond that. That’s a real problem that I don’t think the new architects of progressivism have figured out. I think they’re deferring it out of necessity.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer talk during an event at the US Capitol on January 16 in Washington DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

This is the sticking point. It’s not the case, unfortunately, that the Left has a clear answer about how to get Sweetwater Latinos to vote their class, or to get Upper Peninsula working-class white people to vote their class. The Democrats haven’t really failed. They’ve done exactly what they wanted. Chuck Schumer has made it clear a hundred times: This is the coalition that his wing of the Democratic Party wants, precisely because it affords the party a stable voting base that isn’t dependent on real economic redistribution. But it will support the piecemeal social reforms and “one step forward, two steps back” economic changes that we’ve been discussing.

We’re not getting what we want, but the problem is that we don’t have a clear answer about how to win back those voters. The harder truth is that even our socialist candidates with great victories — Cori Bush, Jabari Brisport, great candidates who’ve won working-class districts — have largely won at least at the primary level by mobilizing young middle-class voters. We don’t have a magic formula or a silver bullet to do this. The first step is recognizing that this is a problem and making it a priority.

PP

Part of the problem is that it can’t be done purely through an electoral campaign, or a series electoral campaigns because of the limited timeframe. By their very nature, you’re always trying to quickly mobilize voters, and you’ll always want to mobilize people who are more likely to vote. This isn’t an argument against elections and against doing primaries, but there has to be another element to this effort.

JP

The first Gilded Age famously ended when the Progressive Era began. And after that, of course, was the New Deal, which arguably marked the high period of class voting in the United States. Is there anything from that transitionary period that can guide us through our current awful moment of class de-alignment?

MK

As a historian, I’ve been trying to make sense of this era, because I think it has answers. To a certain extent, mainstream liberals and progressives are coming around to this view. Jamelle Bouie wrote a column lionizing the New Deal as a political movement that didn’t just equalize the economy, but helped save American democracy.

But we have to be materialists. As anyone who reads me closely can probably tell, I’m not a very good materialist, but the conditions of working-class struggle today are different than they were in the Industrial Era. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to organize workers in warehouses, or to organize workers in hospitals, or to organize the more atomized, marginalized workers that make up most of the working class today. But it is a very different situation. We can’t expect to run that tape back.

That being said, it would also be a mistake to go too far in the other direction, where we say, “The New Deal era is over, so let’s forget about it. Let’s drop the nostalgia for that kind of working-class politics and forge an entirely new way forward, one that is more or less indifferent to huge sections of the traditional working class, in order to sustain this progressive momentum.” I think that would be disastrous.

PP

In your article, you mention that class de-alignment is not inevitable; it’s a choice. You cite that class de-alignment is happening all over the world, in labor parties, socialist parties, social-democratic parties. One could say, “If this is happening everywhere, it’s inevitable. There’s nothing we can do.” Why isn’t it inevitable, and how has the Democratic Party leadership tried to make it inevitable?

MK

Progressives engaged in electoral politics say, “This is a transatlantic, half century-long trend that has afflicted all sorts of working-class parties, in many different contexts.” Obviously, there’s truth to that. There are broader forces that have to do with the transformations and evolutions within capitalism: globalization automation, the political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, which basically went capital’s way, and the consequent weakening of labor unions. We have to contend with these things. Despite our recent victories in the Bernie era, we are still a generation born in the wake of a mammoth defeat. Recognizing that is a starting point.

As I said after Bernie’s loss, we’re finally strong enough to realize how weak we are. It’s a long, long haul back. There are massive forces arrayed against class politics, and I don’t want to pretend this is just about Chuck Schumer’s calculated malice.

That being said, these are the artifacts of certain kinds of political struggle. And if you look at the difference between the Obama campaign and the Biden campaign, you see not just broader trends that are working against class politics, but you see the calculations of Chuck Schumer. You see the political rhetoric, the style, and the milieu of the Democratic Party from those ubiquitous “Love is Love” lawn signs — which don’t mention any material issues — to the party’s various positions on economic versus social issues. You also see the extent to which it offers direct hostility to labor, or a very soft support.

You see all sorts of ways in which these calculated decisions, both on the policy front and on the campaign trail, have produced this coalition that they want. Just because this also happens elsewhere doesn’t mean that these weren’t political struggles waged and fought in these different contexts.

For instance, at least some of the UK’s de-alignment based on wealth was reversed by Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, which is striking in the context of, you know, fifty years of de-alignment. With Obama in 2008, there were twinkles of a reversal in income polarization and, to some extent, in education polarization. Obama did well with working-class candidates of all races, in comparison to John Kerry, Al Gore, etc.

We should think about to what extent Obama did well — not because he was an Ivy League law grad, but the extent to which that 2008 campaign engaged in the theater of populist, bottom-up politics. This wasn’t a socialist kind of working-class politics, but the “Si se puede” energy of that campaign drew its strength from an idea of mass democratic politics from below, which is very different from the Biden campaign.

The aesthetics of the campaign don’t deliver every vote, but Obama himself was the embodiment of an outsider, whatever his actual class position or ideology, which proved very centrist. The way in which he represented something outside the mainstream is not hard to recognize. I’m not lionizing the 2008 campaign, which broke so many promises. But I do think there are things to learn about a style of politics that says, “Even within our shrinking, defeated world, there are different paths.”

JP

Partisan identity politics is the focus of your piece. How is identity politics a different creature from class politics?

MK

We’ve known for a long time that white voters have been the backbone of the Republican Party, and that non-white voters, by and large, do not vote Republican. That was the case when it was Romney versus Obama. We didn’t talk about it as obsessively in the liberal media, for any number of reasons, but that was even more true in 2012 than it was in 2016. In 2020, it was even less true.

Liberal commentators like David Shor have said that class polarization or education polarization is trumping racial polarization. There are large numbers of Latino voters, some Asian immigrant voters, and, to a smaller extent, black voters moving away from the Democratic camp to not voting or, with Latinos and Asians, voting for Republicans. We’re past the point where we can simply describe our party system as being more racialized than it ever has been before. That’s just not true.

You don’t want to overstate the rainbow coalition that Trump assembled; a trend is different from a flat reality. The truth is that most non-white, working-class voters did still vote Democrat, and the biggest problem that Democrats have — the biggest problem in class polarization — is still the biggest chunk of working-class voters, white voters, who are trending Republican.

My point about partisan identity politics is that, alongside education polarization or class de-alignment, voters increasingly identify almost beyond their own specific personal identity, whether it’s racial, ethnic, gender-based, geographic, or religious. Whether voters identify with or against a certain sort of political brand, this form of identification is heightened in this era of negative partisanship. Who can you talk to as a Trump voter? Are we allowed to speak to Trump voters on the holidays? Do these people even have material form, or are they just raving animal zombies?

Donald Trump wearing a Friends of Coal hard hat on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. Mark Lyons / Getty Images

You see this on the center-left, but obviously it’s true on the Right, too, in terms of the idea that every Democrat is a raving antifa terrorist. This kind of heightened partisan identity — “I’m defined by not being a part of this loathsome other” — operates almost strictly along the lines of red versus blue. The deeper we go into that territory I worry that it undermines the possibility of reaching out to those Sweetwater, Florida working-class voters who said, “I like minimum wage. A lot of people I know would benefit from this; I’m voting for that.”

Our partisan machine drives them into being Republican. The more that happens, the less likely they are to vote for a Democratic initiative that’s identified in partisan terms, whatever its class content is. That’s dangerous, with our current trends. If class de-alignment weren’t happening, then partisanship would be great. If the Democrats were more working-class, I would be thrilled about Democratic partisanship, but partisanship on these terms is dangerous.

PP

What are the dangers of left-wing and socialist candidates leaning into this Team Blue partisan identity? Even if it’s good in the short term for fundraising — which, I think, is why they do it — how do left-wing electeds break out of this?

MK

That part of my article is targeted as the socialist or lefty, post-Berniecrat left in electoral politics. Most democratic politicians are going to lean into partisanship. That’s our system. I’m not trying to say that we should bring back bipartisan posturing. But the Squad-style politics that many people have been playing is a tightrope between working with the Democratic leadership and the Democratic brand — maintaining influence and support from intense democratic partisans — and carving out some kind of independent identity, whether it’s a left-wing or working-class identity.

It’s risky for the strategy to be that we want everything that the Democrats say they want, but we just want more of it — and that we are the most intense Democrats, which we show by hating Republicans the most. This deepens the sense that all politics is who-said-what in a feverish cycle between the two parties, the good guys and the bad guys.

This was heightened after the Capitol riot; this binary became the only dividing line in politics. And when it becomes the only binary, there’s no difference between post-Bernie politics and Nancy Pelosi’s politics. The election just happened, and you’re trying to do things in a party that now has a slender majority. I do understand the tactical logic of leaning into that, but there are many dangers associated with that strategy, too, that basically make the Democratic Party’s left wing the most deal-aligned portion of that party.

The progressive caucus puts Bernie politics in a box that is at the mercy of Pelosi and Schumer. I can see why you want to do that in order to claim victories and say, “We helped get you your $2,000.” But there must be a concerted effort to build an independent political identity that claims working-class and left-wing economic redistributive questions like Medicare for All, jobs for all, the Green New Deal, and support for labor. This identity must be more loyal to these issues than it is to Team Blue.

PP

It’s a strange phenomenon that in the last Gilded Age and in this one, when economic inequality is at its most extreme, culture war issues still rise to dominate political life. What explains this? When economic quality is so stark that it’s staring you in the face, why does everything pivot on the culture war?

MK

A cynical explanation is that it serves the short term and maybe the long-term interests of partisan political leadership and the capitalist ruling class. This class has no problem with a culture war between Facebook and Shell Oil, between various sections of capital identified with certain kinds of progressive politics versus others that are cast as the villains. These very powerful forces in our society don’t fear this, nor do they fear partisan polarization around these issues.

Does the organized working class have the power to disrupt that paradigm? During the first Gilded Age, they didn’t; they were too busy being murdered by Pinkertons, and divided by brutal racial and ethnic divisions, which are a big part of that story. These divisions made working-class organization very difficult in late nineteenth-century America in some places, although there were also enormous triumphs that were later beaten down by the state. We’re in a similar position now, although, fortunately, union organizers aren’t being murdered. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the intensity of mobilization within labor politics is not as fierce as it was in, say, the Haymarket era, or in the general strikes of the 1870s. We’re not really there yet in terms of mobilizing workers, as we saw very brutally in the Alabama Amazon vote. Even though the rules are more favorable to us, the workers themselves are not. There’s a lot of work to do on that front, but it’s the only way to break through this. As long as the working class is divided, disorganized, and weak, you’re going to have a politics that’s primarily culture, with a few arguments about tax rates on the side.