Joshua Zeitz wrote a December 31, 2017 article in Politico Magazine asking whether the white working class really votes against its own interests. It’s on line. Read it. Citing multiple studies and sources, his answer was no. It sounds counter intuitive because they’ve obviously voted against their economic interests, but there are other kinds of interests important to them, and they have voted accordingly. Their history is one of voting for social and psychological pay in the form of maintaining their advantage over non-whites, especially blacks.
Overt racism plays a part, but a more subliminal form plays a much larger role, with no conscious racism intended. What is intended, if left unsaid, is preservation of two hundred years of systemic white advantage that is what it should be because it is what has always been. Zeitz dramatically rehearsed that history from the time that Indians didn’t count at all; slaves counted as 3/5ths of a person without the right of citizenship, or even freedom; women were counted in full, but as male property without the right to vote; and full citizenship was understood to adhere to free white men over the age of majority. That was then, and it established a pattern extending into our own day. My high school years were in the late ‘50s, and I recall the oft use phrase “free, white, and twenty-one” to claim one’s place in a town known for its progressivism. Federal agencies required redlining to separate neighborhoods in which mortgages wold be insured from those where they weren’t: whites OK, blacks not OK. Expressways, freeways, and utilities were designed and constructed to protect “valuable” real estate, which meant they destroyed or walled off the “wrong side of the tracks.” It made a certain kind of economic sense, but it enforced segregation and denial of opportunity as effectively as any Jim Crow law.
It was an established pattern that extended into and through the passage and enforcement of federal and state civil rights laws, all that followed, and, in more subtle ways, right into the 21st century. What Trump blatantly appealed to was fear that systemic advantages were being stripped away from hard working white men (and their women) to make way for undeserving, lazy, illegal, criminally minded others who aren’t white. How fair is that? Did he have their votes? You bet! He even promised them greater economic prosperity: a bonus. Will they recognize the economic flimflam pulled on them? They’re not dumb, but, says Zeitz, they’ll likely forgive him because he has delivered on what they most wanted – preservation of their systemic advantage, even if it’s increasingly illusory, held together by tweets and pep rally rants.
In the meantime, the nation continues its slide toward plutocratic oligarchy.
To date, progressives have continued to harp on the impact of economic policy on working class Americans, hoping they will wake up, return to the Democratic fold, and help restore responsible democratic government to the nation. That drum can be beat loud and long, but it’s not likely to be heard by the ones who need to hear it because, at some level, they know progressives, liberals, Democrats, are not interested in preserving the privilege they deny exists. They need no more proof than eight years of a black president who was loved by urban liberals, and had a black attorney general as his enforcer. Who trailed behind him? A socialist Jew, a scheming woman, and on the side lines, an uppity female ex economics professor who lectured everybody from her seat in the senate.
The economic drum won’t do. Progressives need to add more instruments to the band. Quit talking about energizing the black and Hispanic vote, and really bend to the task of doing it. Direct the economic argument to suburban and upper middle class persons regardless of race. Frame the highest standards of American justice free of systemic white advantages not as taking from one to give to another, but as moral obligation that cannot be negotiated away (the psychology of certainty).
It won’t be easy. The honest Trump stands in the way. What? In some bizarre way, Trump is an honest snake oil salesman. Disgustingly immoral though he may be, in his self confident ignorance, pugnacious habits, and predictable reactions, he really believes in what he’s selling. Blundering ahead with executive orders on whatever enters his field of vision on any given day, he also believes he is in charge. After all, he’s the president, and no one else is. He’s got some real constitutional power on his side. Working class white voters like that. True blue racists love it. He’s doing what he said he would, and that’s OK.
Trump is important, and not to be dismissed. He’s aided and abetted by sycophantic members of congress hoping to gain power and influence, and that adds up a serious force to reckoned with. But on another stage not far away is a more sinister force, a collection of Koch like plutocrats, would be plutocrats, corporate elites, and their sophisticated political allies. They know what they’re doing and have the money to do it. They’re far more dangerous to our future as a democratic nation dedicated to opportunity for all. Doing what they can to play the Trump administration like so many fish hooked by their bait, they feel confident about having front loaded congressional campaigns with enough money to keep legislators under control. They care nothing for Trump’s working class base. The middle class is but malleable market fodder to them. The pretentious upper middle class and lesser wealthy are merely ambient elements of the economic atmosphere. They are poised and skilled to do what is needed to free their hands to do business any way they like, with the federal government as their protective shield.
Against this cast of characters, progressives have to be more pragmatically enlightened, out-trumping Trump with his base, educating the middle class, calling politicians to be publicly accountable, and engineering full public disclosure of plutocratic activities. Then they have to deliver.