Sunday, July 24, 2016

Yes, we can -- and should -- reach more of the working class (and the country at large)

I read an interesting article from The Daily Beast awhile back, suggesting more or less that the white working class voter -- the kind that votes Republican, anyway -- is basically a tribal racist who votes on us-versus-them biases rather than economic issues, and liberals should stop "pandering" to his whims. The economy really isn't the issue; it's the focus on the "other".

That voter certainly exists. I've met that voter; I'm sure you have too. No matter what the problem, fewer Mexican immigrants, closed borders, and stay at home moms would solve it. Oh, plus prayer. Always prayer.

The thing about that voter is, though, that he's often not actually a poor or lower middle class working man. He's the upper middle class business owner with a Trump sticker on the back of his pristine truck. He's the guy who doesn't actually have financial worries; he's the guy who pays his workers as little as possible while railing about illegal immigrants. He's the guy who pretends he cares for the working man, as he works hard to shaft him.

But the working man? The eight-to-five "lunch pail" carrying guy described in the article? You better believe the economy features into his worries (and he may wear a blue collar, but his worries are not that different from his struggling white collar colleagues). When you live paycheck to paycheck, you can't help it. When you can't afford the medical care, or car repairs, you need to get back to your job, the economy matters. When you know you will never be able to send your kids to college, when you see your jobs being shipped overseas, the economy matters.

Now, that's not to say the working man can't hold biases. It's not to say that plenty of Working Joe's don't hate immigrants, or hold onto bigoted ideas. We all know that voter too. But the thing is, in many cases, those views are directly tied to the economy. The Working Man may hate immigrants, but the Working Man is told 24-7 by conservative media and the Big Business Party that those immigrants are the reason for his low wages. He's told 24-7 that the reason his boss can treat him like dog shit is because of all the unskilled and illegal labor Big Government is letting into the country.So let's be absolutely clear: while the Working Joe can be wrong, and can be bigoted, both are tied closely to the economy.

The liberal solution to this is often to help alleviate the pain of the Working Man. Labor Unions are the primary and most effective means of accomplishing that (which is, of course, why conservatives have made them Enemy Number One). Now, plenty of working people hate unions. Of course. Sometimes it's a bad experience with a particular rep, sometimes it's the idea of paying dues when your job is  just fine at the moment (usually, and not coincidentally, "at the moment" is when you have a strong union). It can be hard to convince people that union dues are like buying insurance – only this is insurance against being treated like dirt at work. That's for two reasons – because conservatives have waged a full scale propaganda war against unions. And the other? The economy. Penny wise and pound foolish is not a great budgeting strategy, but when you're dealing with more pennies than pounds, it's sure as hell tempting.

The other way liberals try to alleviate the suffering of the working class is through assistance – be it the safety net or education resources. This, too, is the recipient of conservative hatred, and a focus of rampant propaganda. Which brings us to another aspect of the Working Joe. Joe may or may not oppose the safety net, but if he does, his motivation is usually economically driven at least in part. He's thinking of how hard he works, how much his family struggles, and hearing that he's working for people who don't work.

He may well be guilty of lazy thinking. His objection, whether he is aware or not,  may be tied to racist Reagan-esque fears of the black “welfare queen.” He may well be a complete hypocrite, who benefits from every program under he sun while complaining about moochers stealing his tax dollars. We all know some combination of the above. But usually, there is an economic factor at play; and often, it's the primary one.

There's only so much liberals can do alleviate this problem. Correcting the Right’s rampant misinformation and promoting the positives of (I can't believe I have to say this) not leaving our countrymen to starve in the hedgerows is of course helpful. While again we run into the dilemma of spending pennies to save pounds in providing a safety net that will protect us all, decent people do not need to personally benefit to acknowledge that preventing starvation is a good thing. And the average Working Joe, blue collar or white, is a decent person. This is precisely why conservatives work so hard to convince him that the people on food stamps are spending his tax dollars on lobster, etc. The working guy, even though he's pinching pennies to get by, won't let his neighbor starve – unless you can convince him that his neighbor doesn't actually need the help after all, and is just using his hard earned money to live it up. Countering the dedicated propaganda of the Fox, et al, sphere isn't easy. But assuming that the working person is just a selfish, unreachable  asshole doesn't fix this either.

What will? Two things. First, realizing that there is a tremendous difference between the real moochers, those of the one percent, and working people. Everyone talks a good game about wanting to earn what they've got. The one percent say this, while writing the rules and stacking the system to give them as much as possible. Federal land? Check. Huge tax breaks and refunds? Check. Subsidies, low interest loans and every kind incentive under the sun? Of course.

That’s a vastly different outlook from the rest of the country, though. The rest of us work hard, just to get by; we’re not looking to game the system. We just want to be able to pay our bills, live a little, and have a decent future. So if your solution to income inequality is to promise free education and free healthcare (looking at you, Bernie…), you may think you're targeting the working class. But the working man doesn't want free education and healthcare, because he understands that he's still paying for it – through the government rather than out of his own pocket. The working man doesn't want Uncle Sam to fix the fact that he's living in poverty by paying for his kids’ education. The working man wants to be able to pay for it himself. 

Which brings me to the second point: expanding our focus. Unions are vital. The safety net is vital. Education is vital, and so is ensuring access for those who can't afford it. Ditto on healthcare.

But you know what else is vital? Jobs. Good jobs that pay a living wage. Strong labor laws without jobs is only half the battle. Keeping manufacturing here, making sure we have plenty of solid union jobs, and that we're not rewarding those companies that ship jobs overseas to exploit foreign workers, is both a political and moral imperative. We should not be turning a blind eye to billion dollar companies that treat workers on the other side of the world so badly that they need to keep suicide nets outside the windows to stop mass deaths (looking at you, Apple…). We should not be turning a blind eye as corporations that rely on American markets would rather treat people like slaves than employ American workers for a decent wage.

And then there's the tax burden, and the corporations and wealthy who get to avoid their taxes while the middle class pays and pays. Can you blame the working man, whether he wears a hard hat or a tie clip, for being skeptical of a free education promise in a country where he pays his taxes on 45K a year, but  GE doesn't?

We don't need to pander to anyone. That's what conservatives have been doing for decades – playing lip service to individualism, religious preferences, etc. Their promises are empty, and the results are decades of increasing failure. (It's worth noting that someone who acknowledged the economic difficulties facing many Americans [while offering a plethora of empty, albeit different, promises himself]  handily beat all the Republicans who stuck to their standard lines of pandering this election). We need to actively, aggressively pursue fixes to a system that perpetuates economic inequalities. Even if that means crossing moneyed interests; and not with vague, pie in the sky promises. We need real, solid solutions. We may not always win.The Republicans will fight tooth and nail to protect their interests at the expense of the rest of us. We may never win back all or even most of any given target, and that includes Republican voting working class people. (Although I would argue that Trump’s success indicates the opposite – that people are so  desperate they'll  even settle for  vain promises to address their concerns). But there are better reasons than votes to try: it's the right thing to do. Demonstrating the hollowness of conservative trickle down, big business-coddling rhetoric will transform our nation, improving the lives of all Americans.

So, by all means, don't pander. But don't hate the people the Democratic message has failed to reach. Let's actually fix this mess instead. I suspect you'll be amazed how many of those unreachable people will suddenly become reachable when they have good, secure jobs.

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