Keeping the Faith

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun a discussion about politics, usually about Donald Trump and the enabling Senate, only to have friends say: “Please.  No more!  I can’t stand it!  I want to shut out all that noise so I can live my life.”

Often enough, they invoke the privilege—or the earned vulnerabilities—of age to shut off conversation.  Their arguments range from plaintive to enraged.  On the mild side, it might go like this: “I just want some peace in my old age.”  Some are more indignant: “I only have so much time left.  I’ll be damned if I’ll jerk dominate it.”

Almost everyone seems a little taken aback by my passion, and I’ll admit that I lack emotional distance when it comes to the high-jacking of my country by a narcissistic, greedy, ostentatious, ignorant, child who has the compassion of a stone and the inclinations of an autocrat.

My persistence seems to go against the cultural grain.  At my age, my observations and reactions should be leavened by my hard-won perspective.  “This too shall pass,” I should intone.  I should have turned my full attention to philosophical and spiritual pursuits.   Or to amusing myself. I should tend my garden and mind my own business.  What’s wrong with me?

The polling data are clear.  They tell us that, generally, the older you get, the more conservative you get.  Psychologists explain; We draw inward when we age: “…when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are more likely to engage in protective or defensive behaviour.”

But, of course, I’m not a general idea.  I’m an individual and my mother’s son, to boot.  Let me give you just a tiny example of her spirit.  At the age of 87, in the middle stages of dementia, and imprisoned in a “memory unit,” my wife, Franny, said that she had to get home to vote.  “Is that jackass Bush still there?” she snorted.  There was no let up from her.  I loved it when Franny first told me the story and feel buoyed by it now.

In my family, politics defined character.  When my parents described someone, they would first say: “She’s Left” or “She’s Right.”  Not that the person was nice, generous, stingy, smart, talented.  The core of a person’s identity and values could be found in their political views.  If you were Right, you were probably selfish, unwilling to share the national largesse with the majority of people.  If you were Left, you were generous.  This language might have been cryptic to outsiders, but to us it was crystal clear.

I have gained some sophistication over the years, reading extensively in political theory and psychology, working with scores of people, sympathetically practicing therapy with every kind of person, and living through many decades; but, truth be told, just like political researchers tell us, I haven’t wandered very far from the proverbial family tree.

Politics was like religion in my family.  As deeply as some people held their belief in God and the prophets, my family worshiped our nation’s ringing declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident:  that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”  We were patriots in that very literal way.

Admittedly, we practiced our patriotism in a form that others considered unpatriotic—we were socialists in the 1940’s and 1950’s, during the ‘red baiting’ fury of the McCarthy period.  We never doubted that ours was a truer representation of the American faith.  Others did. We were censored and ostracized.  But the experience of being outsiders simply fortified our commitment to “the Left.”  We would be damned before caving to the convenient and conventional views of the majority, whose interests, we believed, had been appropriated and then discarded by the 1%.

To this day, I have no inclination to grow mellow or to acquiesce to what we then called “the power elite.”  The idea that the Trumps and the Koch brothers and even Democratic-leaning bankers and hedge fund managers should tell us what’s best is no more palatable to me now than it was to my parents.  I’d prefer a rejuvenated labor movement and the continued growth of grass roots activities.

At times of upheaval or before then – when change is in the air – liberals invoke the curative effects of moderation and political centrism. Bill Clinton, for instance, is famous for, downplaying poverty and disparities of wealth, and the increasing corruption of our political system.  He helped to dismantle important parts of the welfare system. Democrats and Republican moderates have long soft-pedaled environmental degradation and other key issues of our time.  In other words, they sacrificed the greatest good of the greatest number for their own victories, and convinced enough people that they were right.   We the American people need to do better.  We need to risk defeat as we aspire to a better world.

There are a slew of contemporary politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC, who will compromise on strategy but won’t readily compromise their core values.  And because of their utter sincerity, and the trustworthiness of their values, they may capture the American imagination more vividly than the appeasers.

I know that victory over Trump and his bigoted authoritarianism is paramount.  But isn’t it possible that those who sincerely stand for values, not just victory, stand a better chance of winning in 2020?

I know that people of my vintage tend towards moderation and what some would call wisdom.  But I don’t believe centrism is wisdom.  I believe that it is wiser and stronger to take a stand.  At this great historical crossroads, much like the times leading up to the Civil War, we will be measured—and need to measure ourselves—by our moral stamina.  So many of the people now in their 70’s stood up for Civil Rights and against the injustice of the Vietnam War.  Even as we worry about the costs of retirement, even as we want quiet and calm, we must stand again.

As I look back over my years and over our history, it is clear to me that wisdom doesn’t always trend towards moderation.  Sometimes it trends towards a stark, clear, and immoderate vision of doing the right thing.  Now is one of those times.

 

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Do Working Class White People Vote Against Their Self Interest

I can’t count how many times I’ve scratched my head—no, begun to pull my hair out—trying to figure out why poor and working class people ever vote for contemporary  Republicans, no less Donald Trump.  My puzzlement—and yours, I imagine—persists no matter how many times the apparent contradiction is explained to me by observers as shrewd as Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?).  And even I know that the question of why people vote against their self-interest is a terribly narrow way of framing the question, because it focuses almost exclusively on economic concerns instead of all the social, class, racial, and religious concerns that people have.

Since Thomas Frank and others have already been so insightful, why write about a contradiction that isn’t a contradiction.   It is simply that I want to get this straight in my mind, straight enough to move beyond my frustration and anger at all of those “ignorant” people, and to think productively about how to build the type of alliances that make democracy viable.

Let’s begin with some of the most familiar drivers of “voting against self interest.”  Social issues include: opposition to abortion and gay marriage; a preference for school prayer (and a Christian country), gun rights and the need for self defense against a government just itching to steal the rights of loyal Americans; and opposition to immigrants who steal jobs from those same loyal Americans.

According to Arlie Hochschild’s new book, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, “…white Americans … have worked hard and believe themselves to be waiting in a long line for their chance at the American Dream, only to see others—African Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women, gays—cutting ahead of them.  And the line cutting, they believe, is enabled—encouraged!—by the government, the very government they support through their too-high taxes.  To add insult to injury, the cheaters consider them ignorant and backward.”

It is easy to dismiss this as an illogical and misinformed argument.  For example, haven’t African Americans and Latinos been here for a long time themselves, and haven’t they been even more disempowered?  But let’s leave the comparison for another time.

What is indisputable is that these White voters get highly skewed information from TV,  radio, and politicians.  They were told that the United States Army’s exercises in Texas were prelude to a federal coup.  They are led to believe that climate change is a myth, that crime is on the rise in our cities, that immigrants are far more dangerous than native-born Americans—even though scientists and social scientists have demonstrated otherwise.  It doesn’t matter that pollution is worse in poor communities – White, Black, and mixed.  As Arlie Hochschild tells us, poor Whites remain loyal to local corporations and indignant about the incursions of the federal government trying to diminish to pollution.  Local politicians, dependent on funds from fossil fuel corporations, create this story line.

What is also indisputable is that the media who publish this misinformation—in the spirit of a nation at war—are mostly run by Republican businessmen with a powerful interest in lower taxes, continued use of fossil fuel, and support of the arms industry.   Are the voters to blame (or to be pitied) for acting on this information?  That’s a complicated question, also to be debated at another time.

As the current presidential campaign has brought even more glaringly to the surface, race and racism play a role in White people’s choices. Many White voters certainly see it as in their interest to limit Black and Latino (and Asian) voting rights, access to quality education, and union jobs.  We know that race affiliation is often stronger than class, and shapes the reality that people believe. As Chauncey DeVega has argued, “Poor and working class white people possess much more wealth and assets than do black and Latinos who are nominally ‘middle class.’…   Nevertheless, it is the perception of white insecurity and suffering that matters, not empirical reality. Those who have historically been privileged will feel like equality is oppression.”

Racial resentment has been central to American politics since its founding.  The Constitution, for example, enshrined slavery.  The Democratic Party and the Dixiecrats long dominated Southern governments that made Black Americans second and third-class citizens. Beginning with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Republican Party (yes, the party of Lincoln), has taken up where the Dixiecrats and George Wallace left off, cynically playing on the fears of White folks.  The George HW Bush-sponsored Willie Horton ads epitomize the cynical scare tactics that have pervaded the Republican strategy for the last half century.  White people want to stick with their own kind.  They want to vote for those who will promote their interests and not the interests of the “other.”  Is this voting against one’s self interest?  It may be regrettable, but it makes a kind of sense.

I still shake my head, when I realize that poor and working class people vote against funding for health care, education, and environmental protection, and roar their approval for political spokesman who vote in such a powerful block against the incursions of the Federal government.  But I understand the logic: Take your finger out of the dike, let the feds in just a bit, and they will take over.  The feds will favor people of color.  These fears may be emotional but who said that emotions—voting the way that your gut tells you to—are less effective than voting according to the thoughts of Eastern elitists.

There’s another reason Tea Party voting habits make sense.  Beginning with Bill Clinton, the Democratic leadership can be seen as betraying and abandoning the working classes of all races and religions.  Many “liberal” policies favor financial interests.  The imagery that accompanies the policy is often more damning.  It is not hard to think of all those Wall Street interests in back rooms advising the President.  Most damning of all, Democratic politicians court the suburban middle class.  They hardly even mention poverty or working class people anymore.  Bernie Sanders’ popularity and the rebirth of the term progressivism speaks loudly and eloquently to the need for an alternative to the current form of liberalism.

Just for fun, ask yourself who is the more conservative presidential candidate this year.  It’s hard to identify Trump’s interests as anything but self-interest and resentment of others, but he is disruptive; he is anti-establishment.  So a pretty good case could be made that Hillary Clinton is the conservative in the race.  We might see her desire for reforming the health care, child care, education, and workforce reforms as a focus on change, but it’s easy enough to see her as trying to shore up things as they are, which in turn, means defending the status quo.

This country simply has almost no sustained and organized effort to reach out to poor and working class Whites.  We have not created or recreated institutions like the unions and political “machines” of old to provide progressive answers to the truly vexing problems that dampen their hope and depress their energies.  Here’s hoping that the Sanders movement does have some staying power, which means that it develops local power throughout the country.  I seriously doubt that poor and working class White people will believe that there is a genuine convergence of their felt self-interest with Progressive policy unless, in fact, there is such a convergence.  And that will not come from the media and the corporate-dependent politicians.  It will likely take decades of ground level, grass roots activism.  It’s time for the long game.