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Most historians would say 1968 was one of the most tumultuous in post-WWII American history. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. America was torn by riots, the apex of which was the anti-Vietnam protest at the Democratic National Convention, which led to the arrest and trial of a group who became known as the Chicago Seven.
The influence of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was also at its height in 1968, a faction of which believed a revolution to overthrow capitalism would have to come from oppressed workers, not students. This line of thinking represented a return to purer Marxist roots of revolutionary action. The faction who wanted this focus was also influenced by the importance Chairman Mao’s China placed on workers and peasants. At the time, Mao was like Che Guevara: an inspiration to many on the left.
The SDS plan was simple. Send students and others in its ideological ranks into factories and other working-class locales to radicalize workers by explaining to them SDS’ belief that they were being exploited.
The SDS learned lessons about the priorities of the working class that summer that the modern-day Democratic Party should consider revisiting — especially after President Biden made little headway with those voters in 2020.
While not a card-carrying member of SDS, I was, like millions of students, aware of their vision on how to end the Vietnam War and promote economic justice — in short, to remake America. So, I decided my high school summer job would be in a factory, where I planned to engage my fellow workers in discussions about my anti-war and anti-capitalist ideology. Today this might seem like heady stuff, but as an 18-year-old, it seemed reasonable.
Into an X-ray film factory on the North Shore of Long Island I went. My job was to count the sheets as they came out of a machine: count to 100, put a layer of cardboard down, repeat. All in total darkness, save for a tiny red light. Eight-hour shifts, nine to five, two fifteen-minute coffee breaks, and one-half hour for lunch.
As the only student there, I treaded carefully. Everyone else had families and mortgages. This was a living-wage paying job in 1968 — one could support a non-working wife and family.
I grew to really like some of my fellow workers. They tolerated me and my long hair. On the factory floor I did everything not to let them down.
Eventually politics came up. When it was my turn, I explained my views on the class system: how the rich sent the poor to die in foreign wars of aggression; how the rich wrote the laws on taxation, subsidies and inheritance to benefit themselves; even how the owners of the factory grew rich by not sharing the profits of our labor.
They were having none of it. Each and every one had a capitalist plan to better themselves. Two examples: One of the workers was saving to buy a franchise that cleaned carpets, furniture and draperies. Another, whom I went for a beer with (you could drink at 18 then), was studying nights to get a real-estate license. None of my co-workers, it turned out, were interested in “the revolution” or any collective action to throw off their oppressors.
To some extent this mirrors the difficulties the Democrats had in 2016 when they lost the blue vote in the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania to Trump. Winning back three of those states in 2020, importantly, with votes from a multi-racial working class, put Biden in the White House. He understands working class America wants opportunity and prosperity. His message mirrors this. He’s demanding trade fairness and avoids aggressive messaging on some culture-war issues.
There has been a spate of books exploring the Democrats’ failure to resonate with the working class over the years. In “White Working Class,” Joan Williams points out that by focusing on race, gender and other cultural issues instead of economic ones, Republicans were able to win blue collar votes. Thomas Frank’s “Listen, Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People” excoriates the left for turning its back on programs like the New Deal, while catering to Silicon Valley billionaires, and endorsing the myth of free trade that destroyed Rust Belt jobs. As Tobita Chow in his review of the book puts it, they seek to explain “how the Democrats went from being the party of the people to the party of the rich elites.”
Clearly Biden and his advisors were aware of the Party’s past mistakes and were laser-focused on relating to the working class. That strategy gave Biden victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. As Biden has said, “We can revitalize our industrial base at the heart of the American middle class.” The recently signed New Deal-ish $1.9 trillion COVID Relief Bill, unlike Trump’s tax cut, puts money directly into the pockets of American workers and goes a long way towards acknowledging that racial inequality translates to economic inequality.
Unfortunately, the wage disparity between workers and the corporate elite has grown exponentially since the 1970s, regardless of which party has been in power.
Internally the Democratic Party needs to craft a blue-collar message that resonates. While Biden, AOC and the progressives are pushing minimum wage and union-organizing as a focus for workers, other Democrats are focusing more on educational opportunities and crafting a more equitable tax structure.
No matter what policies the Democrats ultimately adopt and promote, I learned something important from my co-workers that summer. Fifty years later it still resonates.
Workers believe in themselves. They want the opportunity to work hard and provide for those who depend on them. If you take this hope away, they will vote for anyone who promises its return. Even if it is Trump, a wealthy con man who has spent a lifetime stifling their brethren.
Joe Biden has blue collar credentials. He won enough blue collar votes this time to become President, primarily with blue collar workers of color. It would be smart of the Democratic Party to internalize this by truly understanding the needs and beliefs of the working class. Even if it is a shrinking part of the American workforce, clearly this demographic can make or break presidential elections, largely because of the Rust Belt’s influence on the electoral college.
While the 1968 SDS worker outreach summer is long gone, they were prescient in knowing workers need an outlet for their voice.
Jonathan Russo has been an executive in the New York media world for 40 years and has written about politics, economics, foreign policy and cultural issues for over a decade. His work has appeared in The HuffPost, Observer, Daily News, Times of Israel, Worth.com, Real Clear Markets and Real Clear World.