The DNC Convention:
Many of us enjoyed watching the Democratic National Convention. It featured a diverse demographic from across the country speaking about their hopes and fears. It also included individuals delivering confessions, “ I voted for Trump in the last election, and I made a mistake”.
Bernie and Elizabeth were featured with a snapshot of AOC to ensure that progressives in the audience didn’t lose hope for genuine change. Kamala was her delightful self, hair and appearance a bit softer, and articulate Joe. The scene with the young boy with a stutter was emotionally brilliant. And the representation of people of color was inspiring. Viewership of Joe Biden accepting his party’s nomination was 24.6 million.
Trump’s ghost was there in spades, cast as the devil ripping everybody off. Little did the Democrats imagine at the time that the Republican National Convention, which was a week off in the future, would draw 23.8 million viewers on the final night, and Trump’s popularity, according to national polls, is roughly 40 percent, within striking distance of Biden. Deplorable or not, lots of people are interested in this devil.
The Missing Link:
The DNC, and its leaders, are making the same mistake Hillary Clinton made in 2016. Where are all the representatives of the White Working Class? What’s the agenda to bring this group of people into the tent and secure their vote? It was, after all, the surge of White Working Class voters, most without college degrees, that captured the rustbelt and swing states that put Trump into office.
Any democratic leader who bets on union representation alone, as their answer is delusional: union membership has rapidly declined since mid-century. More than one-third of non-agricultural employees belonged to unions in the mid-1950’s; since then, membership has fallen to less than 10 percent in 2017, with almost equal numbers of union members in the public and private sectors.
I have complete respect for unions and their battles to elevate workers. Years ago, I called on the Teamsters, one of the largest unions in America with 1.4 million members, to help unionize a hospital. They supported me and hospital employees against corporate management that tried everything to defeat us but failed. We were able to secure a grievance procedure, eliminate arbitrary firings, and increase wages and retirement benefits.
The issues are deeper now, however. The White Working Class is being decimated economically. According to Deaths of Despair, a recent book, chock-full of data: White Americans without a college degree are not the poorest group in the US; they are much less likely to be poor than Blacks. However, their economic decline has been happening more rapidly than Black Americans. Globalization, technological change and corporate centralization of economic power and wealth are gutting all communities of workers, and the White Working Class are victims as much as anyone else.
“The White Working Class by every measure is suffering: rates of marginal employment, suicide, drug addiction, alcoholic liver disease, and depression are skyrocketing. Not only this, American workers’ earnings generally peak between the ages of 45-54. Fully 25 percent in that age group who left school with a high school diploma were not in the labor force in 2017 compared with only 10 percent of those with at least a bachelors degree” (Deaths of Despair, p.51).
No work does not make “Jack a dull boy” it makes him angry and depressed.
The flood of capital in America is going up the ladder off the backs of workers: Whites, Blacks, Latinos and all minorities. Among America’s 350 largest firms, average CEO earnings in 2018 were $17.2 million, 278 times average earnings. In 1965, the ratio was 20 to 1.
President Obama, who loves to give speeches, recognized this trend by saying that “inequality is the challenge of our times”, but failed to grapple with it in practice; much like the Democratic Party at the convention is failing to address the depth of despair among the White Working Class.
In a brilliant graph, the authors of Despair of Death plot the fraction of White Working Class reporting pain—a data universe of 1.8 million—compared to comparison countries. It indicates greater suffering in the US.
However, it’s the side note that was telling for me: “the fraction of people in an area—geographic areas– who voted for Trump in 2016 also strongly correlated with the higher fraction of social and psychological pain” (p87). In other words, the pain experienced by individuals who are part of a declining social class is driving them to the right, to a demagogue and narcissist. Anger and fear are at the roots of populism, and bad choices in leadership.
In a brilliant graph, the authors of Despair of Death plot the fraction of White Working Class reporting pain—a data universe of 1.8 million—compared to comparison countries. It indicates greater suffering in the US. However, it’s the side note that was telling for me: “the fraction of people in an area—geographic areas– who voted for Trump in 2016 also strongly correlated with the higher fraction of social and psychological pain” (p87). In other words, the pain experienced by individuals who are part of a declining social class is driving them to the right, to a demagogue and narcissist. Anger and fear are at the roots of populism, and bad choices in leadership.
Portland Matters: Recent events in Portland, Oregon concretize the tensions highlighted above. Protests, punctuated with violence, have been occurring over the last couple of months. Recently, a pro-Trump car caravan of an estimated 600 cars wound its way through city streets, fighting with counter-protestors along the way. The caravan was supposed to be confined to freeways. A shot rang out, killing a white suspect who was wearing a hat with a logo of Patriot Prayer, and trunks with a blue stripe indicative of supporting the police. Patriot Prayer is a far-right protest group that has fomented violence at previous protests. No arrests were made.
The identities of the pro-Trump protesters at the rally can be captured by a couple of quotes: “I know for the most part, everyone here is ‘gonna’ support the president in a safe way; we’re not ‘gonna’ be looting, burning or anything—obviously we’re going to be in our cars” so it’s hard to do anything else. This statement of ‘piece’ didn’t include the pick-up trucks at the rally used to ram into protestors.
“We’re gonna be a major parade and showing strength for our president. We appreciate all that he’s done, keeping the economy going, fighting China on this virus, keeping us free and saving our Second Amendment”, which legitimates the right to own guns.
While it’s clear that this pro-Trump caravan was comprised of far-right groups that would never support Biden and not worth chasing, one thing is for sure: they are overwhelmingly White Working Class people who may represent the angry fringe of their class- people who may be more reachable and up for grabs to vote. We can’t afford to lose these votes.
The punch line for me, however, was indicated in their statement “White Working Class attitudes changed little from 2006 to 2016”. President Obama, Democrat, occupied the White House in 2008 and 2012. Viewed differently, Democrats did little to address the White Working Class sense of powerlessness or desire for the government to step in and manage the economy to help their situation. It left the door open to populist appeals, and in walked Trump. The potential for repeating this history is high; Democrats are still, perhaps unwittingly, disenfranchising the White Working Class.
What To Do Next:
1. Call or email your representatives to explicitly request that announce strategies—specific strategies—to include the White Working Class. Stop selling ‘hope’ and address clearly their pain and what to do next. They are, in fact, facing hard times, and their future without concerted actions from the government looks bleak. They deserve to be helped.
2. Tell your representatives and pundits to stop exclusively pitching, strengthening the middle class and small businesses at the expense of others. The data doesn’t support this fabrication of reality. We’re not all middle class, nor business owners, measured by education, occupation, neighborhood and income. Most individuals avoid the rubric working class because they harbor hidden injuries and a sense of humiliation. The American dream of a ‘classless society’-one big happy middle class is just that, a dream. It’s depreciatory to working-class individuals and counterproductive to capturing votes.
3. Call or email Black Lives Matter and tell them to build coalitions and get out the vote for Blacks and Whites alike. Without strong coalitions across racial lines, Martin Luther King would have been far less effective. Malcolm X demonstrated that the go-it-alone by race is bankrupt for lasting change. Blacks and Whites alike must reach across racial lines to eliminate Trump.
4. Do all that you possibly can to support peaceful protests. Protests need to be conducted with candles and sit down strikes to avoid any message of provocation. Angry or violent groups of people make observers watching the media insecure. When people feel insecure, they look for a powerful father figure to protect them. In other words, they move right, and will ultimately support Trump. This is why Trump supports violence while calling for law and order. From a psychological perspective, Trump was very skillful in filling key speaking spots at the RNC with family members; the underlying message was just ‘dad at home’. It was certainly calculated to appeal to the need for security, and not done haphazardly.
5. Finally, go out into White Working Class neighborhoods wearing masks for Covid-19, and ask to put up signs for Biden/Harris. Also, make telephone calls to get out the vote. Be ready with specific answers to the question, why Biden and Harris in 2020? Focus on class issues and programs for jobs, pay, massive retraining and education, and health care, not just the racial divide. Black Lives Matter may not matter much to a social class in decline, as unfortunate as that may be.