It is in the second half of his book, “The Road to Wigan Pier”, where Orwell deals with a larger question: if socialism is the way to provide a fairer and more decent life for the most deprived, why was he not successful politically? His response—which unsettled the editor of his Left Book Club—was that there was a deep cultural chasm between the supporters of socialism and those they sought to persuade.
“I am,” writes Orwell, “defending the kind of person who is in sympathy with the fundamental goals of socialism…but who in practice always runs away when socialism is mentioned.
“Ask such a person and you’ll often get the semi-frivolous answer: ‘I don’t oppose socialism, but I oppose socialists.’ Logically, this is a bad argument, but it carries weight with many people. As with the Christian religion, the worst argument in favor of socialism is its adherents.
Orwell, himself a socialist, argues first that “socialism in its developed form is a theory entirely confined to [relatively well-off] middle class.” In its language, it is formal, stuffy, utterly removed from the language of ordinary citizens, spoken by people who are several rungs above their audience, and with no intention of abandoning that status.
“It is doubtful that anything now exists that can be described as proletarian literature…but a good music-hall comedian is closer to producing it than any socialist writer I can think of.”
In the most provocative segment of the entire book, Orwell also cites “the awful, predominance of early disputes by eccentrics wherever socialists are gathered. One sometimes has the impression that the mere words “socialism” and “communism” attract towards them with a magnetic force any fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex maniac, quaker, “nature cure” charlatan , pacifist and feminist. In England.” And he notes the flyer of a socialist summer school in which participants are asked if they prefer a vegetarian diet.
“That sort of thing in itself is enough to alienate a lot of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly healthy, because the eater is by definition a person ready to cut themselves off from human society in the hope of adding five years to the life of their carcass; a person disconnected from common humanity.
Why is this narrative, as old-fashioned as some of the language is, relevant to the condition of the Democratic Party today? Because at the end of the day, too many otherwise persuasive voters have become convinced that Democrats don’t understand or reflect their values.
One of the reasons this is the case is that the Democrats have not found a way to draw clear and convincing lines separating the most militant voices of their party from the beliefs of a large majority of their base. Consider Orwell’s argument that the language of the left is “completely removed from the language of ordinary citizens.” Many of today’s Democrats seem intimidated by favorite phrases of the week, even though few embrace or acknowledge such language. (A recent survey found that only 2% of Hispanics prefer the term “Latinx” to describe themselves.)
We’ve seen how clearly the extremes can drag the party after the disappointing 2020 election results, and again after last November’s Democratic defeats in Virginia, Long Island and in local races across the country. Most Democrats, including President Joe Biden, do not support defunding the police. But the failure to repeat this argument, in the most direct terms, has allowed this notion to take hold. As House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn noted, “defunding the police” is a lot like “burn, baby, burn!” chants of the riots of the 1960s. Most Democrats are not supporters of teaching critical race theory in public schools. But the larger argument that the United States is fundamentally a nation designed in white supremacy, where skin color is the essential aspect of a citizen’s life, has in fact been exposed in some of the redoubts left-wing political power. It is instructive that San Francisco Mayor London Breed helped lead the successful fight to recall three school board members who were pushing to rename local schools named after, among others, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Breed recently declared a “state of emergency” in his city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, where random acts of violence against property and people have become rampant.
In his blunt comments, Breed appeared to align himself with New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who promised a ‘crackdown’ on lawlessness and a return to some of the policing tactics former Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected. . (It’s an intriguing political possibility for Democrats that two of the voices most in tune with a more “working-class” perspective on crime are the black mayors of two cities deemed liberal.)
The issues raised by Orwell go beyond the Democrats’ frustrating failure to dodge accusations of being “soft on crime.” They reach for one of the most striking changes in the Democratic Party: the loss of effective political figures who speak to working-class and middle-class voters.
In another era, organized labor – which made up a third of all workers in 1960 – was a visible and powerful part of the Democratic Party. Those who worked with their hands, who worked in the mines, mills, and factories, also provided the foot soldiers and funds needed to keep the Democrats competitive. Today, organized labor represents less than 10% of private workers; public services—schools, government offices—now provide the bulk of organized labor. Indeed, the tension between public sector workers who are paid with tax money and private sector workers who provide that tax money is one of the significant unspoken conflicts within the Democratic Party.
The Democrats have another problem that Orwell might have recognized; its “message” is increasingly crafted by people too much like me: born and raised in the big city, products of an elite law school, a professional life whose tools are words, ideas – not hammers and nails. To say that my friends, colleagues, and I are estranged from the lives of “ordinary” Americans is a significant understatement.
Former Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock described his party’s image as “coastal, overeducated, elitist, critical, socialist – a collection of identity and interest groups with no common principles. The problem , it is not the candidates that we nominate, it is the perception of the party to which we belong.
It is of course painfully obvious that by turning to Donald Trump and his Republican cronies, voters are rewarding a party steeped in hypocrisy that barely conceals its own elite roots and its own indulgence in the privileged. It is, in fact, a measure of the failure of Democrats that so many ordinary Americans embrace a figure whose father illegally provided the money that enabled his rise, who repeatedly imported undocumented immigrants to working on his estates, who allegedly stiffened those who worked for him, whose father’s doctor helped him escape conscription, and whose tax cuts categorically violated his campaign promise to make the wealthy pay more.
It is – or should be – equally obvious that the political prescriptions of the Republican Party provide a very open playing field for Democrats to discuss on the friendliest political grounds. The economic core of the Democrats’ arguments — a higher minimum wage, lower prescription drug costs, a better chance of getting into college, with higher-tax-funded programs on the wealthy and mega- wealthy – enjoys broad public support.
But for decades, Democrats have seen those political advantages disappear when “cultural issues” dominate. Some of them were and are unavoidable. “Racial animosity” — or to be blunt, racism — began to turn southern states into Republicans in the 1960s and, alongside a backlash against urban and college unrest, pulled white voters from the working class to the right. Some of these issues have become less potent: crime has gradually faded as a major policy concern as violent crime rates began to decline in the 1990s and continued to decline until two years ago . (The recognition by the left that crime is an attack on the security of the most marginalized members of society is a crucial issue). It is at least possible that the wave of draconian anti-abortion laws from state to state, potentially sanctioned by a future Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wadecan put Republicans on the cultural defensive.
But the danger to the left described by Orwell remains, as Democratic polls warn, “alarmingly potent.” An electorate where many find the party “preacher” and “critic” will falter on this side of the Atlantic now, just as it did thousands of miles away and decades ago.