Harvard’s dining hall staff has been on strike since Oct. 5 to protest stagnant wages. Hundreds of students joined their ranks. As of Oct. 24, word has it that the striking workers and Harvard have reached a “tentative agreement.” Details of the agreement are not yet released.
It is common knowledge that Stanford and the surrounding environs are solidly blue/liberal/democratic. But what does that mean? Are all liberals created equal?
Many in the area would fall under what the right-wing media especially likes to call “limousine liberals.” As defined by Wikipedia, “limousine liberal” is:
“[A] pejorative American political [term] used to illustrate perceived hypocrisy by a political liberal of upper class or upper middle class status; including calls for the use of mass transit while frequently using limousines or private jets, claiming environmental consciousness but driving fuel inefficient sports cars or SUVs, attacking income inequality while being wealthy themselves, calling for firearms restrictions while protected around the clock by armed guards, or ostensibly supporting public education while actually sending their children to private schools.”
I reproduce the entire definition because it is quite clearly written by a fairly incensed right-leaning Wikipedia contributor, and also because it captures much of the sentiment that detractors hold against the left-leaning elite. Say what you will about whether these accusations are fair, but they do capture a powerful sentiment that cannot be ignored. This negative perception threatens the credibility of the entire American left. It is why groups like working-class white voters, for example, are deserting the Democratic Party en masse. It is not necessarily because of problems with the party’s policies, but more due to a distaste for the elitist attitudes in the party’s leadership and a gut feeling that the party is simply not for them.
I think there is a fairly universal consensus within the left of what we as a political force ought to do, and that is principally to help the less fortunate — help defend the weak who are unable to do so themselves. This is the spirit that ought to — and does — pervade everything that we do and stand for, from fighting for the inclusion of marginalized groups, to keeping people and families out of poverty, to providing children with a sustainable future free from the existential threat of climate change.
But our progress has not been uniform, and one group that we’ve consistently left behind has been the workers. Gay marriage has been legalized, environmentalism has taken important strides forward (think the demise of the Keystone XL pipeline) and so on. The Obama administration was gridlocked, but it was not without its successes.
And yet, the federal minimum wage remains at a depressing $7.25 an hour.
And that is not acceptable. The fact of the matter is, the low-wage worker is the most vulnerable constituency within the American left because it is the most powerless. Whereas other groups, such as the LGBTQ community, hold positions of power and influence that serve as advocates and champions. Working class people are, by definition, without such advocates and lack resources with the exception of grassroots manpower. Even the union, the traditional mobilizing force for the working class, is not what it used to be. Existing unions are fading away fast in terms of membership, and simply the act of forming new unions is posing to be a significant struggle (as we’ve seen with Walmart workers’ attempt to unionize). And in the present American political climate, when influence and money alike play such a significant role in the process, the interests of working class people are likely going to continue to fall by the wayside (as Bernie Sanders, who best represented the working class this election, eventually did this primary season).
That is, unless the Democratic Party can bring itself to be an advocate for working people.
This is not simply a moral obligation; it is a necessity. The only way the left can continue to be an effective and credible advocate for the powerless is if it does not fall into the trap of becoming too entrenched in an ivory tower, focusing too much on social justice for those on top of the economic ladder and not enough on economic justice for those on the bottom. Social justice is important, but it cannot be carried out without a focus on economic justice to bring marginalized peoples and groups out of poverty and hardship.
And in that spirit, I give the students at Harvard infinite credit for demonstrating what good liberals and leftists ought to be — fighting for the advancement of the powerless, wherever they may be. And I hope if it ever comes to it, we here at Stanford would do the same.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.