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The Peasants Are Revolting!

George Salamon
December 1, 2016


by George Salamon

“The calculus of material well-being...hinges on an historic assumption that between the world of culture and the realities of life for the masses there is an unbridgeable gulf.”
—Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972)

THE LIBERAL elite supporting Hillary Clinton’s quest for he presidency did little to bridge that gulf during the 2016 campaign. Bernie Sanders, whom Hillary defeated in the Democratic primaries, observed after her loss to Republican Donald Trump: “It’s not good enough to have a liberal elite. I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I come from” (on “CBS This Morning,” November 14, 2016).

“Cannot talk,” or doesn’t want to talk to them? Maybe it’s a mix of both. So when the editor of Jewish Currents proposes that progressives “foster conversation about a world as it should be” and carry on such a conversation across the mainstream media, I agree that this constitutes a requirement for forming a new coalition pushing for social and economic change.

But do enough progressives know how to talk to working-class Americans, who are fed up with the indifference from both parties to their plight and fear? And how can progressives gain access to mainstream media that have regularly branded anyone advocating progressive goals and agendas as “extreme,” “radical” or “hopeless” and excluded people like Gore Vidal (1925-2012), Noam Chomsky or Joseph Stiglitz from their panels or bevy of “analysts?” Can progressives raise enough cash to do what the rightwingers did and establish a network of radio and television stations and reach the blue-collar and white-collar voters who cast 27 million votes in the 2016 primaries for “outsiders” Sanders and Trump, and convert Democrats and Independents to their cause?

And what matters as much, can progressives themselves and those willing to join them convince Americans to commit to efforts that will take years to bear fruit, to abandon the expectations and demands, so ingrained now, for “results” by the next quarter or next election?

These are questions to be answered before setting out to organize. There are also problems to be dealt with and to be overcome. Will the Democratic Party, particularly its liberal leadership, depart from the path it set out on since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980? Reagan, lionized by millions of Americans, even praised by our current Democratic president as a great “unifier” of the people, campaigned for states’ rights, railed against “welfare queens” and poor urban blacks “buying steak with food stamps” and, once in the White House, served the interests of big business through deregulation and anti-union measures.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton incorporated Reagan’s policies into the agenda of his party and instituted harsh welfare cuts, financial deregulation, and trade integration, all of it hurting blue-collar workers and the “working poor.” Since then, the Democratic Party has concentrated its efforts not on reversing the socioeconomic decline of its old coalition of workers, women and minorities, but toward issues of race, gender, ethnicity and the “self.”

Even before then, some raised red flags. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Jesse Jackson was asked “How are you going to get the support of the white steelworker?” His answer: “By making him aware he has more in common with the black steelworkers by being a worker, than with the boss by being white.” But the Democratic, liberal elite had already changed by then and was in no mood to engage in one of the mainstream media’s favorite sins, the “class war.”

CHRISTOPHER LASCH was one of the first to describe what the elite -- pretty much a bipartisan entity by the time his The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy was published in 1995 -- was thinking and feeling:

Middle Americans...are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill-informed about changes in taste and intellectual trends...They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing ...they wish to preserve the old order...but their defense of it is deeply irrational...and expresses itself in fanatical religiosity, in a repressive sexuality that occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity.

Sound familiar? Yet during the Clinton years, the class war waged by corporate America, Wall Street and the rich upon “middle American” and “middle class” masses out there in flyover country was unchallenged and even streamlined -- and Hillary Clinton had little to say about it unless she was ready to disavow her husband’s policies as well as many of Barack Obama’s.

Who was it, after all, that pushed for passage of trade legislation, NAFTA, and the China trade deal, which permitted American companies to off-shore production? Bill Clinton. Who pushed through deregulation of transportation, utilities and banking? First Carter, then Clinton. Who approved of privatization of of government services and in education? Clinton and Obama.

Jeff Faux, author of The Global Class War (2006), imagines a corporate executive gloating: “Republican politicians have always been in our pocket. Now we have most of the Democrats.” Capitalism’s globalization has for decades hurt the multi-ethnic working class in America and impoverished much of it. It cannot be surprising, therefore, that in 2016 its members, those who chose to vote, backed Sanders in the Democratic primaries and Trump in the presidential election. Millions did not vote at all -- 96.4 million of our country’s eligible 231 million voters, or 41.6 percent, stayed away.

STILL, the liberal supporters of Clinton, the elite professionals -- government officials, doctors, lawyers, professors, administrators, managers, consultants, media personalities, and mainstream media editors and journalists -- heaped the blame for Hillary’s defeat on the people whom her party disappointed and abandoned. A rare exception was Harvard professor of economics David Laibson, who told a crowd of weepy Clinton supporters at a post-election grief support session: “People trusted us (the liberal elite) to help make the decisions for society, trusted us to give the right policy advice, trusted us to take everyone hasn’t worked for everyone. It’s worked for us.”

Empathy for the people left behind as globalization and high technology benefited the elites is in short supply among the elites, despite access to excellent stories about the plight of struggling industrial workers or unemployed coal miners and their families in the Rust Belt or Appalachia in the New York Times. The urban elites prefer to play the blame game or mock the dumb rednecks who voted, as “we” know, against their self-interest -- Trump will not save you. Most likely not. But why, they ask in disgust and with condescension, should we talk to you, you who are “deplorable” and “irredeemable?”

Yet to form a coalition big enough to form a third party, or to instill in the Democratic Party the will to work for class equity -- which is what progressiveness needs to be about again -- we must talk with each other. It can be done. The people in the Times’ stories, and in a new book about Trumpsters in the most polluted swamps of Louisiana, what the author calls the “sacrifice zone” of America (Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right), quite a few understand what American capitalism had done to them and their communities. They tell stories that show how they have been serfs, ruled by a network of wealthy local families, by bankers, real estate developers and businesses, shaping them into a cheap, obedient labor force who paid high rents and big medical bills and were tossed aside when the business folded.

They know how their towns’ environment was polluted by industrial waste: “Pollution,” one says, “is the price we pay for capitalism.”

Instead of empathy, they often get mockery from the liberal media. Sympathy for the downtrodden whites who voted for Trump is dismissed (by Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent), as “perpetuating a false narrative of white innocence.”

Joe Bageant, in his splendid 2007 book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, shows again and again how the downtrodden in his hometown had the “humanity hammered out of them” by “gangsta capitalism.” The same capitalism that benefited the elites, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. Perhaps progressives can help them regain a feel for “common humanity” and we can learn how to talk with workers and the poor, people who don’t share our tastes and partake of the culture we treasure. It is essential if we want democracy for the people to have a chance in America. And it is essential, to do this successfully, to remember Brecht’s admonition: “First the stomach, then morality.”

If we fail, the story by which 21st century America might be remembered remains this one: For the market crash of 2008, which resulted in a million foreclosures, wiped out as many retirement accounts and jobs, not a single leading investment banker was held accountable and charged. But a 43-year old black man, Eric Garner, was choked to death by NY City police officers for selling “loosies,” cigarettes that cost 75 cents a piece or one dollar for two.

George Salamon taught German at three elite colleges on the East Coast, at a time some of his elite students belonged to SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. Let’s see if an updated version of the spirit that moved them could be reconstituted for the 21st century.