How progressives can win back America’s workers

(Part 1 of 2)

Nancy Pelosi was genuinely taken aback.

Appearing as the featured speaker at a January 31, 2017, CNN “town hall meeting” broadcast, the House Minority Leader was questioned by a middle-aged man in plain dress who described himself as a former steel worker from Ohio. He asked her, in a somewhat confrontational tone, how the Democrats planned to “win back” the blue-collar voters they had “abandoned.”

Pelosi was almost speechless.
How, she wanted to know, how could anyone believe that the Democratic Party had abandoned workers. She did admit that Congressional Democrats had discussed the issue, albeit from a somewhat skewed perspective.

“In our caucus, we’ve had this discussion,” she said. “How did they not know we’re there for him [the worker]?

“It’s not about who we are, because who we are is to be there for the America’s workers, and we fight that fight every day,” Pelosi added. But she still seemed nonplussed to be challenged by a citizen who genuinely felt abandoned by Democrats.

The questioner went on to say that the Democrats seemed to be more interested in their “big tent” coalition of students, minorities, transgenders and others than in him and his family. Pelosi answered that the Democrats would stay committed to their big, inclusionary tent, and that he was welcome to join in. The gentleman took his seat, looking unconvinced.

Perhaps Pelosi can be forgiven for her naiveté. While she is correct from a policy wonk’s viewpoint — indeed Democratic policies are far more friendly to the needs of working and middle class people than anything the Republicans have proposed — and because she works in the Washington bubble, not among disgruntled Rust Belt folk, she is out of touch with what white, blue collar people feel and believe, and the extent to which propaganda from the Right has molded their opinions. So, she and her caucus have been asking the wrong questions.

The real question Pelosi and the Democratic establishment should be asking itself is not why “the worker” fails to see that they are “his party.” They need to ask what they have done to create the impression that Democrats are out-of-touch elitists who are cozy with the Wall Street fat cats and global corporations who have screwed the American worker and been rewarded, by Democrats, with bailouts, bonuses and the perks of crony capitalism.

If they are willing and able to look, establishment Democrats (as opposed to the Progressive wing of the party) can easily see how they created such bad “optics.” Hillary Clinton refused to release the transcripts of her speeches given to Wall Street insiders for six-figure payments. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law, over the strenuous objections of progressives and labor unions centered in what is now the Rust Belt. Obama pushed for, and Clinton flip-flopped on the secretly-negotiated TPP, a policy called “NAFTA on steroids” that progressives and others felt was being rammed down the public’s throat. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was caught conspiring against Bernie Sanders, in what was perceived to be an attempt to censor any pro-worker, anti-one-percent sentiments the party might champion. After all, it’s important to keep those wealthy donors happy.

And that was just the real stuff. While the Democrats were busy shooting themselves in the foot, propagandists on the right, the most ubiquitous sources of canned opinion in the South and Midwest, were busy helping them pull the trigger with entirely fabricated narratives. A day or two after Obama won his first Presidential election, Rush Limbaugh was on the radio accusing him of creating the crash of 2007-8 that actually was the work of George W. Bush and real Wall Street insiders. Limbaugh and the rest of the right-wing blabosphere went so far as to say that Obama was responsible for the bailouts: and indeed he was responsible for the auto-industry bailouts which were a smashing success and have been repaid. But the hate radio jockeys managed to associate his name with all the bailouts of the period, including the disgusting and infuriating bailouts of big banks and Wall-Street speculators.

So, the centrist, establishment Democrats have proven themselves to be both culpable and incapable: culpable of “donor class” collusion, and incapable of effective messaging, or even countering deceitful messaging from the Right.

They are also proving to be somewhat obtuse in their dogmatic pursuit of the “big tent” narrative. What they are not getting is that a middle-aged, white steel worker from Ohio might not be all that interested in getting in a tent with a transgender hairdresser who lives in, say, Venice Beach, California — any more that the hairdresser would die for an opportunity (or die of the opportunity) to go hunting with the steel worker. While the steel worker might or might not have any particular moral repugnance of, or animosity toward the LGBT community — and might even defend their right to exist (in someone else’s back yard) — tenting up with that crowd is unlikely to be high on his agenda.

If Democrats want to unify what they consider their natural, diverse constituency, and, in an ideal world, unify the country, at least to the extent that it once again has a functional government and some sort of shared American vision, they have to find a way to address grievances and hopes that are based on what people actually have in common, not what they are likely to resent about each other. People are more unified by common threats or dreams than they are by mixing with people they might not feel a natural kinship with or, worse, might have an aversion to.

So, what does the steel worker have in common with most transgender people, blacks and Latinos; with the starving student, the single parent, and a the elder on food stamps? Put succinctly, and it’s always good to put such matters succinctly in the face of the endless shitstorm of simplistic Rightwing propaganda, they are all victims of America’s extreme income inequality. They have all been cheated and manipulated by the o.1 percent of the population that controls the country’s wealth, and they all want a better deal.

But having these economic realities, fears and hopes in common and being aware that they are shared with others in the “big tent” are two different things. Thus, naturally enough, the steel worker is not nearly as concerned about the rights of transgender hairdressers to use the public restroom of their choice as he is about his own job security, or, if his job’s already gone to China, the security of his unemployment check. And he’s got enough “existential anxiety” to be easily manipulated into believing a simple but plausible narrative that goes: The Democratic (and Republican) elitists in Washington and their chums on Wall Street have conspired to outsource your job to some dirt-wage country and give your hard earned tax dollars to welfare cheats, illegal immigrants and assorted weirdos — and nobody’s doing a damn thing for you!

Enter the charlatan — in this case Donald Trump — and his transfixed supporters — my carpenter being one of them.

I knew that my carpenter, Jerry, a friendly guy who’d done several small jobs for me over the years, was a working-class conservative…


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