Unilateral Dehumanizing Disarmament

The Rabbi Michael Lerner is a wise man. He wrote this column right after the election, and I missed it at the time, but I am pointing to it now.

Though job loss and economic stagnation played a role in his victory, so did shame. As the principal investigator on a study of the middle class for the National Institute of Mental Health, I found that working people’s stress is often intensified by shame at their failure to “make it” in what they are taught is a meritocratic American economy.

The right has been very successful at persuading working people that they are vulnerable not because they themselves have failed, but because of the selfishness of some other villain (African-Americans, feminists, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, liberals, progressives; the list keeps growing).

I also blame liberals/Democrats for not doing a better job of bringing a different message to the white working class. I’ve been ranting about the iron curtain of right-wing hegemony. In vast parts of the country, most people are never exposed to progressive views. They don’t see them on the teevee, they don’t read them in their local papers. Unless you make an effort to seek out other opinions, the only opinions you ever hear are right-wing opinions.

This accounts for a lot of the lingering racism in the U.S., by the way. Yes, this racism is real, and it is pervasive. But we could have moved further beyond it by now, if the Right weren’t allowed a media monopoly in large parts of the country. And we could have moved further beyond it by now if progressive voices had been heard everywhere in the U.S. Maybe more folks would have gotten a clue that working people of all colors have many common causes.

In short, the Democratic Party’s near abandonment of the white working class — to the point of not even talking to them — makes Democrats at least partly responsible for the racism that frustrates and defeats them.

The dominance of the iron curtain came about because right-wingers started working back in the 1970s to put together an integrated institutional-media infrastructure that hones right-wing messages and gets them in front of the public. After all this time, the Left hasn’t come anywhere close to creating anything similar. Chip Berlet published a fine rant about this on Facebook last week, and I recommend it highly.

But let’s go back to Rabbi Lerner. This part is not going to sit well with a lot of folks:

Instead of challenging this ideology of shame, the left has buttressed it by blaming white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans and a host of other sins, as though whiteness itself was something about which people ought to be ashamed. The rage many white working-class people feel in response is rooted in the sense that once again, as has happened to them throughout their lives, they are being misunderstood.

The truth is, if you’re a rust belt white guy who is stressed out of his mind about job insecurity, layoffs, underemployment, loss of opportunity and decaying communities, being called out for “white privilege” is utterly infuriating. I understand that white privilege is real, but I really wish we could retire the term outside of academia. Any demographic group experiencing rising mortality rates is not “privileged.” See also “All Hollowed Out: The lonely poverty of America’s white working class.”

Skipping down a bit, the Rabbi concludes,

Democrats need to become as conscious and articulate about the suffering caused by classism as we are about other forms of suffering. We need to reach out to Trump voters in a spirit of empathy and contrition. Only then can we help working people understand that they do not live in a meritocracy, that their intuition that the system is rigged is correct (but it is not by those whom they had been taught to blame) and that their pain and rage is legitimate.

After the election I saw a lot of rage directed at Trump voters. Urban liberals passed many judgments on them and spoke of white working class Americans in clinical terms, as if they were an exotic aboriginal tribe recently discovered in the wilderness. And those were the polite comments. The less polite dismissed the white working class as racists and rubes and fools, and according to one widely cited article they couldn’t think properly because their brains have been scrambled by religion. I saw little sympathy; just contempt.

Part of the problem is that “Trump voters” are all presumed to be just like the neo-nazi fanboys who show up for Trump rallies and threaten dissenters with violence. Yes, Trump tapped into a faction of racist extremists who hate modern civilization and want to destroy it. But “Trump voters” also include people who just want some attention paid to their problems, which have been ignored by both parties for too long.

Like it or not, Trump spoke to them and seemed to “get” them. Clinton didn’t speak to them at all. Yes, Trump’s pitch was a con, but as I keep saying, nobody speaks to the white working class except to manipulate them. That’s been true for a long time.

Sarah Kliff went to Kentucky to find out why people who really needed Obamacare voted for Trump. The answer: It’s complicated. They didn’t believe he actually would end it; they thought he would make it better. And of course, there’s a belief that somehow, somewhere, there are undeserving (and probably dark) people getting better benefits. We might all be frustrated by how ignorant that is. But who told them anything different? Who actually explained to them that if they vote for Trump they might lose their insurance? Did a single one of Hillary Clinton’s ads about Trump using naughty words or getting his ties made in China talk about the ACA?

I’m writing this from Trump Country. People here are mostly walking around with standard human brains in their heads. Most of them possess the standard amount of human empathy. They can read and write and find foreign countries on a map about as well as average city folks. Most of them are not members of the Klan or actually expect the Second Coming to happen any day now. They have a one-side view of politics because the Right talks to them, and the Left doesn’t.

I repeat: The Right talks to them. The Left doesn’t. That didn’t use to be true. I can remember when a liberal politician of the John Kennedy mold could get a respectful hearing here. But that was decades ago.

Not everyone gets this. Amanda Marcotte recently wrote,

Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that many people are arguing that we need more empathy and communication across partisan lines in this country. And clearly we do! The problem is that such efforts are almost always one-sided: Liberals are instructed to reach out to conservatives and practice empathy for them, as evidenced by the series of preachy articles published in the wake of the election, urging urban liberals to get out of their supposed bubbles and talk to conservatives in the heartland.

The irony in all this is that the reason pundits ask this of liberals and not conservatives is because they know liberals are likely to listen. Everyone understands, on some level, that asking conservatives to reach out to liberals will be met with a bunch of guffaws, a profane invitation to perform anatomically difficult feats and more stereotypes about how liberals are a bunch of useless welfare sucks.

Okay, let’s think about this. The Democrats just got clobbered in a national election. We didn’t just lose the White House to an odious toad. We lost all across the U.S.

Republicans control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Those 32 states cover 61 percent of the U.S. population. Democrats, meanwhile, control the legislature in just 13 states, amounting to 28 percent of the country’s population; only four of those chambers have veto-proof majorities.

With a firm grip on the presidency, Congress, and soon the Supreme Court, Republicans have won more political power in 2016 than in any election since at least 1928, when Herbert Hoover was elected to the White House. Democrats now face a deep hole they need to climb out of to fight back against the coming reactionary policy shift of the pending Trump administration and its allied state governments.

We’re not going to turn that around until we stop stamping our feet and wailing, but it’s not fair! I don’t wanna talk to those awful other people! 

Indeed, the biggest reason we are losing is that we don’t talk to those people. So maybe we should change our attitude, if only because it’s in our own bleeping self-interest to do so.

We are the ones who need people who are being hurt by The System and The Plutocracy to unify.  The Right benefits by keeping us divided. Got that?

Marcotte complains that the Right dehumanizes liberals, and that’s absolutely true. Liberals are the boogyman here. Throughout the campaign I saw one political ad after another in which the Democrat was sneered at as a liberal, as if nothing more needed to be said.

But the reason that works is that liberals are perceived to be snooty rich city folks who look down their noses at us and think they are better than us, and nobody tells them any different. And, truth be told, sometimes they have a point. Urban, educated professionals really do live in their own bubble and don’t see what’s going on out here in Walmart Land.

So, I am proposing unilateral dehumanizing disarmament. The white working class needs progressivism, even if they don’t understand that themselves. It’s up to us to do outreach and find a way to bring as many as we can into the progressive fold. And I say it’s do-able. You won’t get all of them, especially older people, but if we don’t get some of them, we are doomed.