The Right Wing Working Class and Self-interest
This question started popping up a couple of months before the 2016 election in reference to Trump supporters. A quick look on the internet will reveal a dozen articles written on this subject in the past two months (regardless of what month you are reading this). Books have been published about it. Written by a Berkeley sociologist, “Strangers in Their Own Land” is touted as one of “6 Books to Understand Trump’s Win” according to the New York Times. The author determines that empathy is all that is needed to understand these lost souls as they are not voting so much against self-interest as for deeply held values and emotions. The book presents the information necessary to correctly answer the question, but fails to realize it. Many of the articles written about this subject refer to this book and most of those quote from it. There are now articles appearing that build upon the theme of “Strangers” and extend it.
The deeply held values and emotions ascribed to Trump supporters by the authors writing on this subject are those from America’s mythical frontier: hardworking, long-suffering, fiercely independent, loyal, and, most of all, self-reliant. They reason that these values and emotions are the source of their vehement and often violently phrased diatribes against America’s white poor and all nonwhites. They go that far and then stop. They know the formula for getting their material published and that is what they want. Some of them may know that we cannot handle the truth.
It is all very simple. When an operating system breaks down, the user reverts to what it knows. When the tractor won’t start at feeding time, the self-reliant rancher hitches up the team. When the power goes out right before dinner, the self-reliant rancher’s wife fires up the wood stove and gets the oil lamps down. And when the federal government breaks down, they both vote for the system that it replaced.
So, what did democracy replace? What would replace it if it breaks down? The vast majority of our popular “literature” (now known as “entertainment”) is in agreement. This includes the novel the title of which is paraphrased into “Strangers in Their Own Land”. In this genre, the one that treats with the future, feudalism supersedes democracy when it fails. Oh, there may be a Council of this or a Federation of that, but the vast majority of it is presented within the framework of a feudal society and, usually, the fiefdoms are formed by fabulously wealthy individuals and/or their corporations.
In the book “Strangers in Their Own Land”, the strangers are working class whites and the land is Louisiana. “Their own land” is an interesting concept for people that have been there for less than five generations. The book doesn’t tell us what the Chitimacha or the Caddo think of Trump, but it is about Tea Partiers who are, of course, all white. To its credit, the book does speak of these “strangers” actively participating in the rape, plunder, besmirching, and befouling of the entire state of Louisiana (their own land, which they made strange) and doing it for money. One of the opening scenes is of a meeting to discuss whether or not the bayous were really contaminated and how they got that way. The big corp guys were there and denied everything so the entire coliseum cat-called the government regulators blaming them for the paltry shrimp harvest, the need to buy drinking water, and the belly-up fish. Then an old guy got up with a card board sign that read: “I’M THE ONE WHO DUMPED IT THE BAYOU”. The place got real quiet. They had him answering questions for over half an hour during which he said that his boss had him dump drums of waste into the bayous after dark that made him so sick he missed work so after a while they fired him for absenteeism. They all knew where he used to work as he had worked there for twenty something years. They all knew that his old boss — the guy that fired him — was sitting in the front row. No one said anything to the boss or to the old man. They just moved on. And there — right there — -is the answer to the question.
The answer is that those who voted for Trump did not vote for a “President”, they voted for a “Boss”. And not only for a Boss, but for the form of government that they prefer. They do not live in a democracy and, possibly, never have. The social compact no longer requires them to live on the same parcel of land swearing fealty to the same lord that their great-grandfathers did (although many still choose to do so), but they still work for them and fight their wars when called upon. Especially, they voted against what was being offered to them by the Democrats: it was obvious that the Dems weren’t quite sure about democracy anymore, so it was far better to go with what they know. The tremendous release of energy around Trump’s election was the reassertion of traditional governance, the unpeeling and floating away of the last vestiges of the veneer of democracy, the exchange of a hundred possible futures for one predictable present. The allegiance being shown is not to Trump, but to that choice. Perhaps this is what the Europeans are so sad about.
The very thing that the Founding Fathers saw as problem number one: the return of the nobility and a royal family has not come to pass — it never left. It wasn’t the aristocracy that came here — they already had their manors and castles — it was the upwardly mobile merchants who couldn’t get one. They bought 10,000 acre tracts of land from the king and came over here to build their manors. They indentured their servants and brought them, too. The American War of Independence wasn’t personal for them: it was business. The rich merchants still measured their wealth in the old coin and dreamed of success in the old ways. If democracy was an attempt to graft a new tree onto an old trunk, then for about one-third of the citizenry it never took. The old tree lives on. But don’t think that the other two thirds are bright-eyed enthusiasts for democracy. Half of them don’t care, they just don’t see themselves as vassals (they are much too independent). That leaves us. And that is about how the American “electorate” breaks down.
Actually, when you adopt this point of view, even for a minute, a lot of things come into perspective. It explains why polling places are no longer protected, why voters are treated like chattel, why Presidents use the word “democracy” to justify blowing the limbs off of little children (say the magic word and you can kill anybody any time), why national elections are so transparently rigged, and why the courts are not interested in any of it except, of course, when they are given the opportunity to appoint a President. And who, really, needs more proof than that? Certainly, the two national political parties no longer operate within the framework of democracy and haven’t since at least the 1980’s. It explains why the members of the DNC look at us the same way that the members of the RNC do: naïve weaklings hoping for equality due no more respect than suckers who can’t take a joke. Think of the look on Boxer’s face as she left the Nevada State Convention daring anyone to complain. How could anyone who watched the Republican nomination process that ended up with Donald Trump see anything but a changing of the bosses? The vassals let it be known that it was time to drop all this democracy crap and install a Boss. Here come the new boss same as the old boss, but with democracy you never knew what you were really getting until too late.
Democracy can be reassembled and re-energized, but it will be a long, hard slog to do it and there are too few with the heart and the guts to get it done within the party system. We have all been discouraged and diminished by the duplicity and outright betrayal of the supposed champions of truth, justice, and the democratic way. The high point seemed to be the election of a woman as Speaker of the House. Yes, a tortured version of health insurance reform was enacted (saved only because it was found to be a tax), but that was about it, end of message. The last thing this country needs is another political party. The two we have now have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that political parties have outlived their usefulness as the catalysts for an American democracy. Whatever vessel arrives to attempt the rescue of the shattered remnants of American democracy from the tides of feudalism must needs be much, much different from those. I wonder what it might be.