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New Left Review I/123, September-October 1980

Mike Davis

Why the US Working Class is Different

In 1828—as Karl Marx once reminded his readers—a group of Philadelphia artisans organized the first ‘Labour Party’ in world history. Now, one hundred and fifty years later, a television news camera depicts a group of modern Philadelphia workers arguing in their local tavern over the candidates in the 1980 presidential election. Against a background of irreverent catcalls and hisses, one worker tepidly defends Carter as the ‘lesser evil’, while another, with even less ardour, tries to float the idea of a ‘protest’ vote for Reagan. Finally, with the nodding assent of most of the crowd, a rather definitive voice spells out the name of the popular choice in the campaign: n-o-t-a, (‘none of the above’). He underlines his point with the declaration that he intends to occupy a barstool rather than a polling booth on election day. In no other capitalist country is mass political abstentionism as fully developed as in the United States, where a ‘silent majority’ of the working class has sat out more than half the elections of the last century. [1] ‘The United States has consistently had the highest absention rate to be found in any Western political system during the past fifty years’. Walter Dean Burnham, ‘The United States: The Politics of Heterogeneity’, in Richard Rose, (ed.), Electoral Behaviour: a Comparative Handbook, New York and London 1974, p. 697. Arguably, this mute, atomized protest is the historical correlative of the striking absence of an independent political party of the proletariat in the country that once invented both the labour party and May Day.

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