Exposing the rift in America’s labor politics
The Guardian has an excellent piece that dissects the Trump phenomenon with an honesty not found in American media: Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why.
“Here is the most salient supporting fact: when people talk to white, working-class Trump supporters, instead of simply imagining what they might say, they find that what most concerns these people is the economy and their place in it. I am referring to a study just published by Working America, a political-action auxiliary of the AFL-CIO, which interviewed some 1,600 white working-class voters in the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh in December and January.
Support for Donald Trump, the group found, ran strong among these people, even among self-identified Democrats, but not because they are all pining for a racist in the White House. Their favorite aspect of Trump was his “attitude”, the blunt and forthright way he talks. As far as issues are concerned, “immigration” placed third among the matters such voters care about, far behind their number one concern: “good jobs / the economy”.”
It’s one thing to be right. It’s another thing to be right for the right reasons. There’s some nuance missing here as to why these voters aren’t supporting Sanders instead, and that nuance is a mile wide, but to the extent that many on both left and right here in America are radically oversimplifying the reasons to oppose Trump, this’ll have to do. Most of the Trump opposition I’ve seen goes out of the way to also oppose his supporters en masse. That’s political suicide. To the extent there’s an intersection between individual bigotry/systemic racism and labor, that’s unfortunate, but if labor is to have a voice I’m not sure the best answer is to glibly throw out “bad” Trump-supporting labor in favor of “good” Bernie-supporting labor. As for my own glib throw-out, there is no “good” Hillary-supporting labor. Over and over again we’ve found that labor bosses support Hillary, but the people they represent, the actual labor, trend for Bernie. There’s a lesson there about the sorry state of labor in this country that could fill volumes. Then there’s the “lesser evil” contingent of American voters, the one’s who are so terrified of the opposition (as they always seem to be) that they’ll vote against labor every damned time because it’s so much more realistic to keep them out than it is to build a labor movement that works.
Them’s the real Vichy Dems, to be avoided like scurvy because their fear-motivated capitulation to the failed policies of neoliberal murderfiends like Hillary is craven, no matter how tarted up in high-minded apologies.
Capitulate, collaborate, kneel at the table hoping for crumbs and belly rubs. That’s as high as they’ll dare set their sights. Surely there can be no reasonable expectation that anything genuinely pro-labor will come out of the Wall Street-endowed Clinton machinery. And we certainly can’t expect anything pro-labor from anyone on the right, except maybe Trump.
Oh, wait. You mean you’ve been following serious media instead of Cracked? No wonder. Trump is portrayed in Left media as a one-dimensional buffoon who’s only running a decades-long scam on the GOP and his base can be dismissed as but so much undesirable rabble. These are givens and need not be questioned. These are the comfortable fictions we’re supposed to consume, the ones that will let us sleep at night after we dutifully push Hillary into the Oval Office at the expense of labor.
So, sorry, not sorry. I may not support Trump, but I’ll be damned if I hold my nose and wait for table scraps while labor is thrown under the bus yet again. Trump is a symptom, not the disease. Sloughing off his base like so much dead skin is a symptom, as well. Sure, some among Trump’s base may hold some odious positions (about 20% are fairly cut and dried outright bigots according to some polls), but until the Left figures out how to offer labor a solution that works for all under one inclusive umbrella, the real disease, a veritable cancer in the Democratic establishment, will only continue to render America’s labor all but useless as a revolutionary force.
Toward the end of the Roman Republic and, indeed, long afterwards when historians wrote about its decay and eventual demise, much attention was given to the “capite censi,” which literally means “head count,” but which had, for the Roman upper classes, semantic weight meaning “those who don’t matter.” (And I find it interesting that corporate executives these days, when doing layoffs, will often call it “reducing head count,” but I digress.)
Interestingly, the conservative rhetoric of the time closely mirrors that of our day. The head count was called lazy and shiftless, fickle and filled with lawless desires, an ignorant rabble, hotheaded, or one of my favorites from Plutarch, “the numerous diseased and corrupted elements in the polity.” And, like today, the wealthy classes postulated that they were corrupted to sloth by state-supported, below-market grain prices, and readily available, and free, entertainment. No one seems to have taken into account the fact that Rome’s free labor could not compete with very cheap slave labor, or that meager grain rations that kept one barely alive were hardly the stuff of incentives for sloth. In fact, Rome’s Subura district, the classical equivalent of the “ghetto,” was a cauldron of activity, filled with free men and women scratching out livings as best they could under ridiculously burdensome economic condition.
As the 20th century British historian, G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, says, “That notorious idle mob of layabouts sponging off the state is little more than a figment of middle-class prejudice, ancient and modern alike.”
Of course, the capite censi did count, and unscrupulous politicians used them and their anger to great political advantage upon occasion. On other occasions, well-meaning politicians, attempting to help them, managed only to harden opposition and worsen their lot. A thread running through the whole fall of the Roman Republic (if, indeed, “republic” it ever really was), however, is the failure of almost everyone to perceive the economic and political roots of the Republic’s instability. There were a few exceptions. The Gracchi. Marcus Livius Drusus. All three were assassinated. Diax’s Rake (http://johnlawrenceaspden.blogspot.com/2009/11/diaxs-rake.html) is a very powerful thing, indeed.
I believe, though, that Rome’s capite censi deserves a bit of slack from us for not understanding the roots of their own misery so that they could organize to attack those roots in a productive manner. Education, in those days, was private, and most families couldn’t afford it. Literacy was rare among the lower classes, and hand-copied scrolls and the rare codex were hideously expensive, even if they could read. I don’t believe the US working class has the same excuse.
Education, in this country, is free and available to all. Indeed, in most places, it is mandatory up to the late teenage years. If you want to complain that it is often inadequate, I would partially agree, but would also point out that educational inadequacy is often the product of a populace that rejects this precious gift as being worthless “book larnin’.” In other words, where I grew up, the relatively poor level of education was a direct result of a prevailing attitude toward education and the educated. With the exception of certain practical applications (medicine, building trades, etc.), education was considered both superfluous and positively dangerous. Education was thought to make one dumber. What counts, in many parts of this country, is the certainty that any thought that might cross one’s mind is instantly correct, and that actual evidence and logic are somehow subversive.
If Rome’s capite censi were ignorant, then America’s working class are often willfully ignorant, and there are consequences to that both for them and for society as a whole.
I’m sympathetic to chicken-and-egg arguments about why America’s working class is so often willfully ignorant, but in the end, there is something obnoxiously elitist in the opinion that one is so smart that one doesn’t need to read, study, analyze, and generally figure out what is going on in one’s life and the world; that whatever fleeting notion that crosses one’s mind, or whatever a demagogue says, is instantly and absolutely correct in every way. Scream in rage if you must from your diminishing economic condition, poorly educated white males, but understand that your inarticulate rage will not lead to solutions. You will simply enable the demagogues to use you worse than you have been used, to date.