Sunday, October 22, 2017

36.6 - Special Comment: some sympathy and understanding for the white working class

Special Comment: some sympathy and understanding for the white working class

For the rest of the show, I'm going to be talking about something I've been meaning to raise for a time so I just decided I was going to go ahead and do it.

Although the thoughts involved are not new, the more immediate prompt was something that happened few weeks ago. Hillarybot Joy Ann Reid of MSNBC was on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and was going on about how the Democrats should be the party of, I forget the term she used, outsiders or minorities or those without power, something along those lines. The idea is that it should be the party of women, minorities, LGBTQ folks, and so on, rather than dwelling on economic issues and the working class. When Noah said why can't you do both, she said, referring to the working class, "Because they're Republicans." That is, "Hey, working class people, we should write you off. You're a lost cause. We don't care about you and shouldn't waste any time on you."

She is far from the first to say this and she certainly wasn't the last either, that implied and sometimes explicit declaration often offered with an undercurrent of "Our time is coming; soon we will outnumber you."

At this point it's important to note that when people talk about "the working class" they are really - and usually state directly that they are, in fact - talking about the "white working class," with the emphasis on "white" rather than on "working class."

That is, they mean specifically white people who are working class - a group that, according to the Census Bureau and using the Bureau's definition of "working class," makes up 42 percent of the population of the US, more then any other single group.

So let's be blunt: When we talk about in effect writing off the working class, when we talk about pursuing so-called "identity" politics as opposed to - not, I repeat, in addition to or in conjunction with, but opposed to - so-called "lunchpail" politics, we are being profoundly politically stupid. When we think we can just write off 42 percent of the population, that is stupid.

And even more bluntly we are being profoundly immoral. When we say "Who cares about you, we don't care about you, in fact we shouldn't care about you," we are being immoral.

This notion of writing off the white working class is usually justified by saying they were the people who put TheRump over the top - actually they weren't, it was more upper-class whites that did that, but this is the argument, the argument that the white working class is, as one writer put it, "allergic to voting for Democrats" and that the reason for that, the real reason, the only reason, is racism. Period, full stop.

I say that is narrow-minded, insensitive, even cruel. So here I am going to have some words of sympathy, of understanding, for the white working class.

Right at top, we have to say that we have been through this before, we have had this discussion before: There were for example the "angry white male" of mid-1990s and the Tea Party of several years back.

So it's absurd to say we got TheRump because of bigotry with no other factors involved unless you are making the ridiculous assertion that this racism suddenly just appeared in 2016. But the racism was always there, it has been there, and despite the rise in hate crimes, despite the rise in overt bigotry, we as a  people are no more racist than before. The difference is that now it's more acceptable to show it, to express it.

But why? It can't be simply because TheRump started his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, because that wouldn't have had the effect on what became his base unless it resonated with them in a way that wouldn't have in previous years - and,  more importantly, the increase in hate crimes began in 2015, before he declared.

For a "why" it would be better to look back to 2008, to the time when Barack Obama was attacked during the campaign for referring to people in western Pennsylvania as "clinging to their guns and their religion." The point was clumsily expressed and deserved a clearer explanation, but it was entirely valid: The people in the area were suffering real economic dislocations. Jobs were disappearing and the sort of stable communities on which those people had depended for generations were disappearing along with them. So of course they clung to their guns and their religion. When you are under pressure, constantly stressed, when the things you have counted on seem to be slipping away, you are going to cling ever more tightly to those things you have left, those parts of your world that still make sense, that you still can control. It is a natural, normal, entirely human reaction.

And let's be clear, those of the white working class are not without legitimate grievances: Their hopes are shrinking, their dreams for their family and their children are fading, they keep working harder and getting less for it - they are, in short, losing ground or at the very best, like Alice, running as fast as they can to stay in the same place. And it's been going on for decades.

Robert Reich recently said this:
Look at the past 44 years, 1972 to 2016. The average typical American is actually, adjusted for inflation, making less today than they were making in 1972.
That is, we have been working for 44 years to get exactly - nowhere.

Yes, yes, of course those of the white working class were not only ones affected, but the very fact of saying they were not the only ones means acknowledging that they were affected - that those grievances, those stresses, are real.

Meanwhile, things that they thought they could take for granted in social relationships - or,  more accurately, never thought about at all because privilege, the privilege which they possessed (and possess), is generally invisible to those that have it -  things that they thought they could take for granted have been subjected to almost constant assaults in which they are too often cast as the conscious villains of the piece rather than as what they are: the unwitting beneficiaries of standards and (pre-)judgments that profit them in the short run but damage them in the long run.

The result is that they feel pressured, frustrated, haunted by the suspicion that they've failed their families, that their efforts are unappreciated, and that they’re being blamed for things that "aren't my fault" - which combine to make them bitter and defensive; ready, even eager, to have someone to blame to relieve their own guilt and creeping despair.

Bill Clinton, of all people, expressed the idea well in a speech back in 1995, when the "angry white male" was the symbol du jour: Referring to middle-aged white men who when they were 20 looked forward to a "good life" of sending their kinds to college followed by a secure retirement, he said:
Now they've been working for 15 years without a raise and they think they could be fired at any time. And they go home to dinner and they look across the table at their families and they think they let them down. They think somehow, what did I do wrong? It's pretty easy for people like that to be told by somebody else in the middle of a political campaign with a hot 30-second ad, you didn't do anything wrong, they did it to you.
So the problem isn't that the "white working class"'s frustrations are without any legitimate cause. It's rather that the very people who are most responsible for that contracting future, for the sense of loss (and for the genuine loss of economic security) - that is, the corporate elite, the rich, the powerful, those who've selfishly gained from the economic trends of the past decades, those who benefit the most from the old oppressions and divisions - are the very people who are doing their damnedest (so far successfully) to get that white working class to point their fingers at anyone except them.

These people, who too many among us would dismiss and condemn, have been misguided. Misled. Lied to. Manipulated. Manipulated into directing their frustrations at the weak, not the strong; at the victims, not the victimizers; at the servants of the powerful (in and out of government), not the powerful themselves (mostly not in government).

The sad fact is, it's always easier to blame those weaker than yourself for reasons that are not only sociological but also psychological: In a foot race, you may resent or envy those in front of you, particularly if you see them pulling away - but it's those coming up from behind who make you feel a threat to your position. Meanwhile, challenging the legitimacy of the position of the leaders would require an adjustment in how the structure of the race itself is viewed. In other words, blaming the poor, blaming undocumented immigrants, blaming minorities, blaming affirmative action, blaming who- or whatever, that requires only calling them names. Blaming the rich requires re-thinking the nature of society. Which of those is more likely to be seized on by lost people who feel - and have been misled into feeling - their world no longer makes sense?

The thing is, social changes can cause confusion and resentment, but you get over it, you adjust and move on and, usually, the next generation isn't sure what all the fuss was about. Economic recessions, even depressions, cause genuine hardship, but you hunker down, you survive, and expect, in what I maintain is the real American dream, that at the end of the day your children will be at least a little better off than you were. Instead, we have seen an unremitting stagnation in personal income that has come to look as though it has no end, that this is no "slump" or "downturn" that will eventually reverse itself, that rather this is the way it is and is going to be, that it's not going to change, that work gets you nowhere and more work gets you more nowhere. Perhaps never before in our history, certainly never before in this century, has such a large portion of our population (and not just that white working class, either) looked at their children and felt that those children will wind up worse off than they themselves are - felt, that is, like failures.

What has this has done to that white working class? It's made them a little colder, a little harder, a little more inured to others' suffering, and a lot angrier. It's prompted them to regard as "unfair" anything that they don't see as benefitting themselves, personally and immediately. It's propelled them toward isolation from their own communities, fragmentation of any sense of mutual responsibility, and condemnation of anyone different or "other."

It's been demonstrated often enough by both psychological testing and historical analysis to be common wisdom that the one common factor that unites those who call themselves "conservative," crossing all lines of age, sex, race, nationality, and gender, is fear of change. The more change, the more conservatism grows. Conservatism, bluntly, is based on fear - the internal fear, the personal fear, that the world around you is no longer comprehensible. I've talked before of the idea of a "worldview," a way of organizing the world we perceive around us such that it makes sense. Our worldview significantly shapes our views on matters of philosophy and morality and it informs our positions on issues of public policy. What that worldview consists of can vary greatly from person to person, but every sane, sentient being has one; you can't function without it.

If the world, if society, around you is changing in ways you can't seem to understand, that don't fit your personal worldview, you can become disoriented and frightened - and that fear, that fear of the changes, will make you more conservative, angry at the prospect of change and with an increasing urge to show that anger, to have someone or something on which to focus that anger. (Which is also why people in general tend to become more conservative as they get older: The more "set in your ways" you are, the more used you are to things being a certain way, the more disturbing changes can seem.)

So why is all this relevant? Why does it mean that dismissing 42% of the population is not only politically stupid and immoral but also counterproductive?

Because people who feel economically secure can accept more change, can deal with, can adapt to change to a degree that others without that security can't. (Remember here we are not talking about changes you want or seek but about adapting to, accepting, changes you never sought and which are being thrust upon you.)

For an example, think of the 1960s. Think of social disruptions of civil rights movement, of the Indochina war, of emerging feminism, of the environmental movement (which at the time was charged with being a communist-inspired plot to "undermine the American way of life") and more. The divisions that were generated were not just between red and blue states or political parties or even between friends, these divisions were deep enough to rip up families. We had sit-ins, mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, riots, wars, terrorism.

But we survived and managed to get through it without generating the sort of calcified divisions that we are seeing today.

Why? One good reason is that the economy was pretty strong. You knew as member of the white working class that you could get job. Heck, you very likely had a job, one that you looked forward to staying with until retirement. In the six-year period of 1966-1971, unemployment was always below 5%; in the four years of 1967-1970, it was always below 4%. Except for a couple of years in the mid-1950s, it was the closest to the so-called "full employment" level of 3% in the past almost 70 years. And remember, it was not accompanied by that stagnation in personal income and unlike today, unemployment was not low because of a mass of low-paying, low- or no-benefit jobs.

And because you felt that security in your economic life, you were better able to handle the changes in society that you saw around you. Not to say you liked or even approved of those changes, but you could, at the end of the day, deal with them.

So, again: The racism has always been there. The difference now is that it is being justified, legitimized, exploited. We were no more racist in 2016 than we had been before, it was just more acceptable to show it - and there was more of an urge to have the anger focus on someone or something, just as with the "angry white male," just as with the Tea Party, because that white working class had felt so insecure for so long.

So we can't just say we got TheRump just because of bigotry without reference to the economy because it was the economy, it was that decades-long, growing frustration and feeling of failure and fear and anger that was lever, the crowbar, that was used to pry open the emotional gates containing the bigotry and use it as a weapon.

So when we propose to ignore 42% of the population, we are politically stupid. When we say we can't be bothered addressing the legitimate economic concerns of the working class in general or the white working class in particular, we are being immoral.

And when we ignore the reality that by not addressing those concerns we are enabling the reactionaries to marshal the emotional stresses arising from those concerns to their own greedy advantage we are doing damage to our own cause, that cause, the only one worth fighting for, being justice, political and economic and social.

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