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Bernie Sanders often declared that his is “a campaign of the working class, by the working class, and for the working class,” calling for that class to rise up, vote for him, and make the democratic socialist revolution. He was sorely disappointed. At this writing, soon after the second “Super Tuesday” primaries, it is clear that Sanders mobilized hardly any of the black working class and not that many of the white working class either.Debs

Sanders thus joins a long list of well-educated lefties (University of Chicago, 1964) whom the working class seems to have disappointed. Long ago William Jennings Bryan–who, in his 1896 “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” speech, asked “Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of ‘the idle holders of idle capital’ or upon the side of ‘the struggling masses’?”–lost repeatedly. Soon after, Eugene V. Debs, a hero to Sanders, ran several times for president–explicitly as a socialist on a Socialist ticket–and topped out, in 1912, at only six percent of the popular vote. Compare that to eccentric, conservative businessman Ross Perot who won 19% as a third-party candidate in 1992. Crushing disappointment.

The major exception to the working class’s spurning of the Left was, of course, Roosevelt’s successful 1932 campaign and then, his 1936 re-election. FDR’s New Deal created a couple of generations of working-class loyalty to the Democratic party. But it took the onset of the Great Depression to get that first win (much like it took the onset of the Great Recession to elect the first black president).

For the most part, the call of socialism, or of democratic socialism, or even of basic European-style welfare-state-ism has done surprisingly poorly with the American working class. Repeatedly, their passivity and even opposition has posed a frustrating puzzle for those of us on the Left: Cannot working-class Americans see where their interests lie? Repeatedly, as well, many of us had faith that, with just the right message or just the right messenger, the masses would rise up, vote the Wall Street bastards out, and vote social justice in. What’s gone wrong?

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