Pols Ignore Working Class Voters At Their Peril


The traditional Republican agenda has been jettisoned and the party hierarchy upended by the sudden assertiveness of working-class whites and small businesspeople unleashed by billionaire Donald Trump.

But Democrats, too, may experience a revolt against the pro-business policies that have dominated their party, exemplified by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the ongoing out-flow of US jobs to low-wage, high-repression nations like China, Mexico and India. The Bernie Sanders campaign, with its victories in economically-struggling Rust Belt states like Wisconsin and Michigan, is calling attention to the vast canyon separating potential Democratic voters plagued by declining incomes and disappearing dreams and pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street Democratic elites.

At this moment, it is among Republicans that full-blown class hostility has emerged, with some intellectuals on the Right claiming that the Republican program has been horribly distorted by the baseless grievances of working-class Republicans

Indeed, the rise of Trump as the leading Republican presidential contender, backed by key Republican constituencies like non-union white workers and small businesspeople, appears to mean the wholesale repudiation of the traditional Republican donors’ agenda of ever-expanding tax cuts for corporations and the top 1%, slashing Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements, “free trade” (and resultant unrestrained offshoring of jobs), and expanding immigration to attract low-paid info technology workers and engineers from India and China.

But this year, the Republican elite was caught off-guard by the resentment of the non-union blue-collar workers and small businesspeople who had been passive, loyal voters for the party. As the New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore explains, the “party elite… abandoned its most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty… From mobile home parks in Florida and factory towns in Michigan, to Virginia’s coal country… disenchanted Republican voters lost faith in the agenda of their party’s leaders.” Tithe outcome has been Trump-led turmoil among the Republicans.

In place of the traditional agenda favored by big Republican donors, Trump issues blistering attacks on trade deals with China and Mexico and flatly pledges that “jobs will not be leaving the country.” He defends Social Security and Medicare as essential. Instead of opening up immigration to serve corporate manpower needs, Trump underscores his xenophobia by proposing a wall at the Mexican border and a ban on Muslims coming to the US.

Some prominent Republican intellectuals are blaming the rise of Trump’s candidacy and his appeal on angry working-class voters whose rage is based, not on their declining wages and precarious hold on middle-class status, but on their own self-pity. (Actually, as Professor Jack Metzgar of Roosevelt University points out, the working class which makes up 70% of America’s workforce is under-represented in the Trump coalition, where they represent 55% of Trump backers. Meanwhile, college-educated Americans, who comprise 30% of US manpower, constitute 40% of Trump supporters, according to data from Brookings.).

Despite so many middle-class Trumpites, it is working-class Americans who detonate the explosive rage of a chorus of right-wing intellectuals like National Review’s Kevin Williamson. They are seething with frustration at the way that working-class grievances – and prejudices fanned by Trump, sure to discredit the party among many—have taken a leading role in the GOP.

Williamson denies any importance to declining wages and shrinking chances for social mobility. Instead he, places the blame for spreading poverty and social disintegration squarely on the shoulders of working-class people:

“They failed themselves… take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — [and ] you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington….”

Williamson channels the spirit of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who declared “poverty is not material but behavioral.” White working-class people who are maintain only a precarious hold on middle-class status or have fallen into the ranks of the working poor, Williamson continues:

“Nothing happened to them... Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.”

Nothing happened to them? America’s working class has sustained the loss of 5.6 manufacturing jobs since NAFTA’s enactment and witnessed the closing of an estimated 56,000 factories. America’s productive base has shrunken dramatically, with 50% of the production of the very largest US firms taking place offshore.

Evidence suggests that major US firms are creating substantial numbers of jobs overseas, while vaporizing jobs in the US. The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel, using Commerce Department figures, reported (4/19/11):

“US multinational corporations that employ 20 percent of all US workers, are increasingly hiring overseas workers…. US multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers, have been hiring abroad while cutting back at home, sharpening the debate over globalization’s effect on the US economy….

“The companies cut their work forces in the US by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million, new data from the US Commerce Department show. That’s a big switch from the 1990s, when they added jobs everywhere: 4.4 million in the US and 2.7 million abroad.”

The bombed-out economic landscape left by de-industrialization and offshoring leaves behind low-wage work and a shrinking number of family-sustaining jobs. Fully 9 out of the 10 fastest-growing jobs are in “low-wage” or “very low-wage” categories, according to the US Labor Dept. Median household income fell 7.2% nationally 2000-2014. A Pew study released in late 2015 grimly concluded: “the American middle class is losing ground, no longer the majority and falling behind financially.”

Despite such realities, major American cities and factory towns in America’s heartland, Williamson openly expresses his hope for the death of de-industrialized cities that have predictably spawned social dysfunction like domestic and street violence, a lost sense of community, and widespread depression:

“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns …”

Williamson may well see his wish realized unless Democratic elites reshape their fundamentally uncritical acceptance of corporate decisions over the fate of these communities.

Not only are these “Rust Belt factory towns” already dying, but so are many of their residents. A remarkable report by Nobel laureate economist August Deaton and his wife Ann Case found an unanticipated rise of nearly 500,000 deaths among whites aged 45 to 54. The death rate among working-class whites in this age group has increased 22% from 1999 to 2013, a revelation stunning demographers accustomed to seeing steady declines in US mortality rates. Opioid abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and heart disease have been crucial factors in ending these lives.

Deaton commented on what he saw as some of the central causes:

“These are the people who used to have good factory jobs with on-the-job training. These are the people who could build good lives for themselves and for their kids. And all of that has gone away. The factory’s in Cambodia, the factory’s in Vietnam, the factory’s in China, wherever.”

But just as Republican elites overlooked the pain felt by loyal constituents, Democratic elites–are similarly removed from insecurity faced daily by long-time Democratic loyalists and potential Democratic voters who have lost all faith in what Bernie Sanders calls the “rigged” economic and political systems.

For example, top Democrats have little to offer to discarded manufacturing workers and their suffering communities. The Democratic hierarchy, eager to bypass challenging corporate investment decisions about plant closings, reflexively proposes retraining programs despite the absence of jobs once workers are retrained workers. The other main response is to contend that globalization produces cheaper goods for American consumers, as if a cheaper T-shirt at Walmart is supposed to compensate for the loss of family-supporting jobs sent to China.

If top Democrats fail to recognize that they, like the Republican elite, are sitting on a volcano of pent-up outrage and frustration, they are in for an unpleasant surprise. The Sanders campaign is only the start.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based labor studies instructor and longtime progressive activist and writer who edited the Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email winterbybee@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2016


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