Which Side Are We On?
Redefining Who's Us and Who's
by G. William Domhoff
In These Times magazine,
April 14, 2003
The standard story line for insurgent
social movements of the left and right goes something like this:
The country is sustained by good, hardworking, average people
in the middle like us, but we have little or no power. For the
left, these good people are the workers; for the right, they are
the middle class of small business owners, farmers and white-collar
workers. However, these good people are exploited and dominated
by the few at the top; capitalists for the left, and the bureaucrats,
internationalist financiers and atheists for the right.
The good, hardworking majority have a
right to be angry, and they should organize to create social change
that brings about a new social order. For the left, this is a
transition to socialism, gender equality and racial equality;
for the right, it a return to an idyllic world of small business,
small government, male dominance and white Christian rule.
Social science research supports part
of this picture through ~ studies of social stratification and
wealth distribution. There is _ indeed an obvious pecking order
from top to bottom in terms of jobs, education and social status,
although the reasons why some people end up on the bottom are
far different from what the political right imagines. It is also
well-documented that the few at the top have a highly disproportionate
share of wealth and income. Indeed, wealth has not been this concentrated
There's good reason to believe that the
top 1 percent of wealth-holders who, according to the most recent
figures, own 47 percent of the nation's financial wealth - have
a dominant role in the economy and government. They can invest
where and when they wish, and hire and fire most workers at will.
They have a monopoly on policy expertise through thousands of
charitable foundations and an array of think tanks. They have
a huge number of lobbyists and public relations people. They can
have a big impact on politicians through campaign donations. They
get themselves appointed to top positions in Washington.
In trying to bring about egalitarian social
change, however, it doesn't make good political sense to frame
this picture of economic concentration and class domination in
terms of one social class against another. Defining the "opponents"
as "the capitalists" or "the rich" is a strategic
mistake. Because the problem is developing new policies and gaining
political power, the struggle should be framed from the start
as a political one, not an economic one. The "in-group"
should be all those who come to embrace the program of the egalitarian
movement, and the "outgroup" should be all those who
oppose such changes.
If the conflict is framed this way, an
egalitarian coalition has a chance to win over the moderates,
neutrals and independents who currently identify with capitalists
and might be offended by blanket criticisms of them as a class.
It may even attract dissident members of the capitalist class
who transcend their class interests and in the process become
very valuable in legitimating the movement to those in the middle
who are hesitant to climb on board.
But the problem is not just labeling all
capitalists as enemies. Once the conflict is framed in class terms,
those defined as members of the working class take on all virtue,
and those outside the working class are ignored or demonized,
whether they are rich or not. Furthermore, doing politics in terms
of class categories does not sit well with most of the everyday
working people to whom it is meant to appeal. The whole thrust
of the average Americans' experience is to break down class distinctions,
not heighten them. They do not like to think of themselves in
terms of their class identity, which immediately reminds them
that they are not rich and have a lower status than they might
The ideal model for a more open-ended
framing of a social conflict is provided by the civil rights movement,
which defined the enemy not as "whites," but as "racists"
and "bigots." Racists and bigots included most whites
in the South at that time, of course, so there was a clear opposition.
But at the same time, there was room for pro-integration whites.
Drawing on the Christian tradition, the movement therefore was
able to utilize the concepts of forgiveness, redemption and conversion
in the service of strategic nonviolence to forge a black-white
coalition. By opening its doors to people who believed in equal
rights for African-Americans-whatever their class, race, religion
or previous beliefs-the movement enabled people to change their
attitudes without violating their self images as decent people.
Similarly, if a "cross-class"
coalition is needed to assemble a majority for an egalitarian
program in the 21st century, then it is better to begin with a
political framing of "us-versus-them" that does not
define one class or another as the enemy. Studies by social psychologists
show that an us-versus-them framing is a powerful basis for a
social movement. An in-group definition provides a strong sense
of solidarity. It makes possible social comparisons with privileged
exclusionary groups, which can generate a sense of injustice and
contribute to a willingness to act. The problem, then, is to define
the out-group in such a way that people can abandon this group
and join the in-group. Thus, the out-group should not be defined
by characteristics that it cannot relinquish, such as gender,
race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class origins.
So how should the conflict over transforming
American society be framed by nonviolent egalitarian activists?
The designated opponents of the egalitarian activists should be
the "corporate-conservative coalition" and the Republican
Party. Framing the general conflict in terms of egalitarians versus
corporate conservatives, and Democrats versus Republicans in the
political arena, has two distinct advantages in addition to avoiding
a demonization of "the rich" or the capitalist class.
First, these are categories from which people can remove themselves.
They can change their minds.
Second, these categories leave a great
many as "third parties"-people who define themselves
as independents and moderates-who do not feel labeled as enemies
and put on the defensive by criticisms of the corporate-conservative
coalition and the Republican Party. That leaves egalitarians with
a potential majority of liberals, moderates, independents and
Democrats to win to their side.
But who is the egalitarian "we"
that would battle the corporate-conservative coalition? It starts
with those who currently make up the nonviolent insurgent groups
in the United States: the coalition of white progressives, liberal
people of color, progressive trade unionists, feminists, living-wage
activists, environmentalists, gay and lesbian activists, global
justice activists, and anti-sweatshop activists who work together
on many issues and usually vote Democratic in partisan elections.
From there, the coalition has to build
out to the neutrals, bystanders, moderates and skeptics who are
the majority at the present time. The movement has to offer everyone
a shared common political identity that does not attempt to downplay
or erase their current social identities. And that is where the
concept of "egalitarian" comes into the picture. Egalitarianism
is not only a set of values that a great many Americans endorse
in the abstract, but it can provide the basis for a collective
social identity within the political arena for a coalition-based
Once a framing in terms of egalitarian
Democrats versus corporate conservatives and Republicans is in
place, the chief executive officers of major corporations become
fair game, because they call the shots for the corporate-conservative
coalition and regularly oppose egalitarian policy proposals. So,
too, should a wide range of business organizations be named and
criticized, because they are on record with a set of policy recommendations
that don't benefit those in the egalitarian coalition. For that
matter, specific Democrats can be criticized within this overall
context, such as members of the Democratic Leadership Council,
because they function as part of the corporate-conservative coalition.
But an attack on "the rich"
or "the capitalist class," or worse, "the capitalist
pigs and bloodsuckers"? Then what about, for just one example,
New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine, the multimillionaire banker who has
gone beyond his class interests to advocate a sharply defined
progressive agenda? This Democrat opposed Bush's tax cuts for
the rich, wants an "activist" government, sees a universal
health care system as a "basic right," and opposes the
Combined with programs for planning through
the market, full employment, and an expansion of the earned income
tax credit, the Corzine program would be a giant step forward
in improving the day-to-day lives of the 80 percent of Americans
who haven't really benefited from the growth of the economy since
the '80s. Is there an egalitarian in America who would hesitate
for one second in accepting this package as a great start? Shouldn't
Corzine, a rich, straight, white male multimillionaire, with a
wife who is a strong feminist, be in the coalition? Is he one
of "us" or one of "them"?
G. William Domhoff is a sociology professor
at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This essay is adapted
from Changing the Powers That Be: How the Left Can Stop Losing
and Win (Rowman and Littlefield). Domhoff encourages readers to
continue the dialogue at www.inthesetimes.com.