Class divergences and the Astor Place election

Class is just as important now, in framing the US elections, as it was during the Astor Place riots of the 1800s.

John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco
28 November 2016

Trump protests New York. Mary Altaffer AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.While touring the United States in 1849, English Shakespearean William Charles Macready suffered a string of attacks. Known for his title role in Macbeth, Macready received considerable support from cultural luminaries, among them Herman Melville and Washington Irving, urging him to continue undeterred by the nightly ne’er-do-wells. Scheduled to perform at the posh Astor Place Opera House on the night of May 10, Macready was interrupted by a crowd led by Bowery ruffians and encouraged by Tammany Hall notables. Thousands of working-class New Yorkers rose up against the paragon of foreign refinery, preferring instead the American Shakespearean Edwin Forrest, a longstanding rival of Macready’s who was also playing Macbeth at the Broadway Theater. The feud had ballooned into something nationalistic and rooted in class sensibilities around the politics of artistic tastes and public spaces. Forrest’s Five Points supporters wanted an American at the top of the playbill rather than an Englishman. This night was particularly violent, with protesters overrunning the streets. The National Guard intervened and by the night’s end at least 22 people were killed and dozens more injured.

Just as the Astor Place riot is emblematic of class divergences taking place in Jacksonian Democracy, so too will the 2016 election be seen as a referendum on neoliberalism and the class politics of American whiteness. In Forrest and Macready’s day, the upper echelons of New York society were leery of the European revolutions of 1848, and while Astor Place was a local matter, it was also symptomatic of broader changes taking place nationally on the issue of class. Astor Place proved that class was something much more than wealth. Tastes, values, aesthetics, and language were cultural variables that also comprised one’s social standing. This was evident in the changing theater decorum of the day. For a long time, working-class audience members had been able to make their presence known in the stage pit, where they could interact with the actors on stage by voicing their opinions in raucous ways. But Astor Place was built with privilege in mind, following new protocols and conventions in arts appreciation. Those who previously could attend performances and participate in the collective banter would no longer be able to do so at Astor Place, which adopted a dress code (men had to wear white gloves) and higher ticket prices. 

Today we stand witness to new class divisions that are holding tight to cultural attachments ensconced in whiteness and heterosexual masculinity. But often the class portions of these dynamics remain invisible. America’s minimization of class struggle entered a new phase after World War II, when the ideal American now belonged to a middle class that was to be a tireless purchaser of consumer goods. Since the 1950s, America’s culture of abundance has relied on the notion that most Americans are part of, or have access to, the middle class. Year after year, polls have confirmed that most Americans have identified with some form of middle class (including upper- and lower-middle classes). In doing so, Americans have been able to cling to the myth of classlessness. If we’re all some part of the middle, we’re all the same. 

Just as the Astor Place riot is emblematic of class divergences taking place in Jacksonian Democracy, so too will the 2016 election be seen as a referendum on neoliberalism and the class politics of American whiteness

In six decades of civil rights movements, Americans by and large have not confronted inequality along class lines as vigorously as they have along race, gender, and even more recently sexuality. Class is still allowed to structure inequality in ways race and gender are not. It is why in New York City there can be differential treatment of tenants based on the rent they pay in mixed-income or rent-stabilized dwellings. In some buildings, tenants who do not pay market-rate rents must enter through different doors or are prevented from some building amenities like courtyards or gyms. If these same buildings were to make African Americans or Jews use a different entrance or prohibit women from using a gym, Americans far and wide would cry foul. Such classism has spread across America’s stratified income landscape. 

The myth of the middle class is the bedrock of neoliberalism. But this year a new poll by Marketplace and Edison Research showed that 71% of Americans believed the economic system to be “rigged.” While analyses such as these focus mostly on income and economy, few look at class in terms of culture and ways of life. It is why religious leaders or university professors may earn less income but still enjoy social prestige. It is why class is often glossed over in American films and television series, unlike our European counterparts. 

Like Astor Place, this election was not about income or economy alone. If so, presumably the Democrats would have won easily because they were the party advocating a raise in minimum wage and tax protections to all but the wealthy. This election was also about our music, what we read, our preference for wine or beer, where we get our coffee. In addition to the liquidation of jobs and opportunities, many Trump voters are tired of being told by arbiters of culture – government representatives, artists, writers, media spokespeople, academics, and others that disproportionately shape representations of proper Americanism – that their America is a vestige of a bygone era. They could care less that Saturday Night Live or Stephen Colbert poke fun at their America. It makes no difference that Hamilton is a Broadway sensation or that President Obama welcomed Lin Manuel Miranda to the White House. 

The myth of the middle class is the bedrock of neoliberalism

Trump’s rural and suburban followers believed that he would not only reinvigorate communities bereft of economic modernity but that he would not kowtow to normal political expectations. Theirs is a political movement based on anti-political correctness, which forgives adultery, excuses physical transgressions against women, and advocates building walls. By ratifying Trump, they also encouraged a political discourse founded in racism and misogyny, even though the majority of Trump’s supporters do not consider themselves to be racist and misogynist. They do not see themselves outside the norms of civility. Just as Trump critics saw arrogance in the candidate, his supporters saw arrogance in the cultural elite. 

History will also mark this election as a massive restructuring of Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, now abandoned by large sections of the white working class. Therefore, this moment also presents a new opportunity to rethink Party strategy and geography. Clinton won Orange County, California, which has not gone to a Democrat since Roosevelt in 1936. The conventional red state South has also transformed in the last fifteen years due to demographic changes in urban settings, where more young, multicultural and multiracial populations are moving because there are jobs in affordable living environments. Rather than placing so much effort in the Rust Belt, future strategists may look to where Clinton won—Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Dallas, and Austin—as a trail leading to a new electoral map. These are places where new and future Americans live in large numbers. The last six Houston mayors have been Democrats, and this election witnessed a much tighter race in Georgia than in Ohio. 

This election differs immensely from the days of 1849 because of the expanding rift between cities and rural areas. For those of us who remain invested in a pluralistic, tolerant America, we must ensure that the messages of hate and fear mongering that spelled success for Trump be quarantined within its own wall. It is the time for the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump to refuse that vision of America besieging the electorate. But in addition to that pursuit, we need to rethink class alliances and frailties in the making of new coalitions going forward. We should follow the example, for instance, of the San Francisco’s Gay Men Chorus, which recently cancelled its international tour in order to visit red states. This is the endeavour to expand class democracy through art, to acknowledge other voices in the theatre.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData