John Buell

Redeeming the Deplorables

Secretary Clinton’s characterization of many Trump supporters is deplorable on both moral and tactical grounds. Were the media interested in more than the immediate electoral impact of Clinton’s remarks, she might have occasioned a broader discussion of what the nature and origins of racism. Like Obama’s disparaging reference to the “guns and Bibles” politics of the white working class. Clinton fails to acknowledge the harsh economic and social environment from which some of the anti-immigrant, anti-African American, anti-gay, anti-muslim sentiments emerge. These circumstances have become worse over the last two decades due in part to policies her husband enacted and which she consistently supported. And as for casting aspersions on minorities, the Clinton era omnibus crime bill initiated a mass incarceration that fed and in turn was fed by crude racial stereotypes.

Of all people, liberals should be willing to listen to those whose purported agendas they are inclined to disparage. Interviewed by Amy Goodman in connection her recent work, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild has done just that. Embedded with Tea Party supporters for nearly five years she conducted numerous in-depth interviews of citizens of the in rural Louisiana, a community in which Obama received very little support.

Based on her interviews she conducted a “deep story” of the concerns of her subjects … It’s a story that feels true to you. You take the facts out, you take judgment out. It’s as felt.You’re on a — waiting in line for something you really want at the end: the American dream. You feel a sense of great deserving. You’ve worked very hard. And the line isn’t moving. It’s like a pilgrimage up, up to the top. It’s not moving. Then you see some people cut in line. Well, who were they? They are affirmative action women who would go for formerly all-men’s jobs, or affirmative action blacks who have been sponsored and now have access to formerly all-white jobs. It’s immigrants. It’s refugees. And from — as felt, the line’s moving back.”

Hochschild found consistent resentment about the charge that these Southerners were racists. They pointed out that they did not use the N word and did not hate African Americans. From the point of view of many white liberals, this scenario underplays the force of institutional racism, the enduring effects of seniority systems, vastly different school systems, decayed urban neighborhoods, resumes stained by undeserved prison records, old boy networks — all of which operate to the disadvantage of African Americans even without any intended malice.

Giving such a concept a presence in the dialogue may be difficult but not impossible. How one holds and expresses central doctrines and narratives is as important as the doctrine itself. By this I mean the intensity of conviction, the willingness to explore the limits of one’s own convictions and the viability of alternatives as well as one’s attitude to purveyors of the alternatives.

Hochschild found that her own willingness to listen, to turn off her alarm system and constantly to seek to experience the world from the vantage point of her subjects paid off in some insights and in at least some possibility of constructive change. Thus one subject, a passionate fisherman whose livelihood and recreation had been destroyed by oil company pollution, regularly blamed the government:

“Although when I put it to him that the companies were taking tax money and giving gifts so as to cultivate gratitude, and that — forcing the state to be the bad guy, and that’s why he hated the state, he nodded his head yes. So not only are there crossover issues, there’s crossover thinking. It’s not that you agree on everything. And this book isn’t saying that we can, but it’s saying we can find common ground on certain issues and start there, and that a lot of people who think liberals are the enemy, and are insulting them and calling them reprehensible, are actually agreeing on a lot of things. So, there are possibilities — that’s what I’m saying — long-term possibilities, that I think the shoe is on our foot to reach across.”

Those possibilities will be increased to the extent that liberals acknowledge their own contributions to this racial stalemate. The less severe but real plight of the white working class must also be addressed. John Hopkins political theorist William Connolly suggests the white working class: “has been caught between weak state efforts to respond to the neglect of urban areas, policies that siphon most of the income and wealth advances into the hands of a very small minority, and pluralizing forces that pass it by. Bernie Sanders started pursuing policies that would speak to the white working class, African Americans and other minorities together. Those of us who care about all these constituencies must now press actively for programs that reduce income inequality, support job security, universalize retirement benefits and support universal health care … The existing [trade] agreements have played a role in the deindustrialization of America. New laws, for instance, could make it impossible for a corporation to leave the town or city that had invested so much in it until it paid back those subsidies. The bias of bankruptcy laws against workers and in favor of corporations also requires overhauling.”

Secretary Clinton could build bridges and burnish her image by a bold gesture — promise to lobby vigorously against ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership should Obama shamelessly press the lame duck Congress.

Why do we hear so few discussions/debates of such alternatives in this campaign? The two-party duopoly is an obvious first answer. The first past the post electoral system disadvantages third parties, and state election laws have made it hard for them even to get on the ballot.

The media, however, are the silent partner of the party duopoly. I am tired of hearing that the debates are sponsored and regulated by the Commission on Presidential Debates. A poll ought to test citizen knowledge of this commission. I believe such a poll would reveal almost no recognition that this commission is a corporate-sponsored organization that usurped regulation of the debates from the League of Women Voters.

When the media routinely describe this commission with its bland, self-chosen label, they are demonstrating a clear bias. That commission should better be described as the two-party debate cartel. Like all cartels it thrives by limiting the number of competitors. I believe there is no unbiased way to cover an election. Blatant contradictions can be recorded and exposed and denial of facts that everyone accepts in daily life can be exposed, but ultimately all media have some perspective though which they view events. I opt for a commitment to expand democratic rights as broadly as possible.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016

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