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It is the genius of the American system to make people vote against their class interests
A Slowly Unfolding Catastrophe:
Two decades ago, I worked in the small town of Madisonville, Ky (population 20,000). A four lane highway was the main road in and out of town. As one approached the town two empty factories stood, one on each side of the highway, awkward, forlorn even lonesome, as though surprised that all the activity they were used to had ceased.
One was a Whirlpool factory that had made washing machines, the other, across the road, Zenith, had made TV sets. No new factories had replaced the two. These factories had relocated either to Mexico or somewhere else. Coal mining, another staple in the area had also declined. White males had suffered the loss of jobs that paid a decent salary and provided benefits such as health insurance, paid vacation and sick leave. Similar job losses and factory closures occurred all across the United States. They also affected large cities like New York and Chicago, both cities over the past four decades had lost over a million manufacturing jobs .
The era where a white male with a high school education could easily raise a family of four, buy a home which would be completely paid for by the time he retired, be assured of a regular pension, was passing into history. As family incomes fell, women entered the job market to make up the loss, generally earning low wages in occupations that left little room for learning new skills. But family earnings did not rise over decades, indeed real income has not increased ” ever since 1979 , the vast majority of American workers have seen their hourly wages stagnate or decline. This is despite real GDP growth of 149 percent and net productivity growth of 64 percent over this period. In short, the potential has existed for ample, broad-based wage growth over the last three-and-a-half decades, but these economic gains have largely bypassed the vast majority.(1)”.
The top one-tenth of one percent of the US population owns as much wealth as the bottom 90% (2). The Waltons of Walmart alone are worth $145 billion equal to the assets of nearly 2 million American families.
From the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s to the early 1980s the lower 90% of the population got 70% of the share of the growth in national income. Since 1997 it has got zero percent.
This economic hollowing out of working class employment security was carried out over four decades in which the Democratic party, the party that working people gave their allegiance to since the New Deal, was in power for half the time. It turned its back on fighting for jobs to be retained at home and enthusiastically promoted ‘free trade’ agreements that further increased job losses.
Neoliberal ‘mantras’ of privatization, ‘public-private partnerships’ carried the day. Sub contracted labour became common. Harsher conditions of work and fall in wages were skillfully disguised by a terminology that would have done Goebbels credit: Flexibility, be your own employer, set your own pace and so on.
The necessity of seeking the voters’ approval every two years in Congressional elections and every four at the Presidential level made for elaborate charades of “throwing red meat” to the loyal party base.
For the Republicans racism, overt or blatant, became a habit skillfully improved since the days of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ of 1968. Various euphemisms were used from Ronald Reagan’s ‘States Rights’ in 1980 to the staples of ‘family values’, ‘safe neighbourhoods’ etc.
The fierce emotions aroused by the limited success of the women’s movement were channelled with the campaign against the right to abortion providing many a grass root worker and innumerable votes. Thomas Frank has vividly described the anomaly of working class voters favouring Republicans in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” (3)
In the country, as a whole, the Republicans mobilised voters by appealing to their race, their anti-immigrant, anti-gay rights and anti-women’s rights views. Once in power the party served the wealthy by decreasing taxes on unearned income, virtually eliminating estate taxes, and diluting the public sector by subcontracting whatever promised a steady revenue stream to their patrons.
For instance the US military began subcontracting many jobs to ‘Security’ firms. Several prisons were privatised yielding a captive and cheap source of labour to the owners. This was merely the tip of the policy changes that allowed capital sway, and big business free to ignore irksome environmental and safety laws.
Agencies dealing with these issues were either deliberately underfunded thereby understaffed or their leadership did not vigorously enforce safeguards previously enacted.
Meanwhile the reality that people faced was one of factory closures, of a future worse than that of their parents. Drug use, once considered a problem of the ‘inner city’ began to extract a toll across the land. (4,5,6).
The top one-tenth of one percent of the US population owns as much wealth as the bottom 90%
I remember an establishment scholar Nick Eberstadt writing about rising death rates in the former USSR in the 70s and the later astounding rise in death rates in Russia since the 90s as a failure of state policies in the earlier period and of loss of hope in the later.(7) The rise in white male mortality in the US has also been attributed to pessimism about the future.
Manufacturing jobs continue to disappear and under the present dispensation (8) this loss is presented either as a natural phenomenon or as a problem governments have no power to influence or modify.
Versatile politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama never talked about the poor in their campaigns as though they were non-existent or a kind of blight that might herald bad luck?!! Bill Clinton for one always talked of ‘well paying jobs’ making me think what about those jobs that did not pay well? Were those who worked at them to be ignored?
Analysis in mainstream newspapers like the New York Times offer contradictory surmises. For instance Government can help says an article( 9), a few days after another has declared that a rise in productivity makes well paying jobs increasingly few in number(8).
The discussion never argues in favour of say controls on the flow of capital, or of making an annual increase increase in minimum wage mandatory.
Image: Rolling Stone
Education served as a panacea, a sure fire way to climb the economic ladder, is another source of anxiety for most Americans. College has become progressively more costly with most students having loans of around $30,000 to pay back.(10).
For some colleges, whether private or state run, the debt can be double that. Private colleges and online ‘franchise’ colleges have low graduation rates of 16% compared to a national average of 55% (11) along with high student debt.
The for-profit school Trump University, started by the presumptive Republican nominee, has been shown to be “an unscrupulous business… with unqualified instructors…” (12).
The ‘Great Recession’ of 2008 further increased the vulnerability of the mass of Americans. Home ownership, a major part of their assets, was no longer a safe and trusted ‘nest egg’ for their old age needs.
Many found themselves having to pay mortgages on homes that were no longer worth what these families had originally bought them for. Housing was one asset that had always increased in value, therefore the decline in housing values, which overwhelmingly affected the middle class, was a shock that reverberated through US society.
Meanwhile the reality that people faced was one of factory closures, of a future worse than that of their parents. Drug use, once considered a problem of the ‘inner city’ began to extract a toll across the land.
In 2008 the “Hope and Change” candidate Barack Obama swept to victory. His supporters’ hopes were soon dashed as he became what Angela Davis so aptly described as : “the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change”. Early in his Presidency he was quick to reassure Wall Street titans: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” (13).
With even the party of working people – the Democrats – assiduously courting and catering to the very rich the stage was set for a reaction from the party base.
Unintended Consequences of Unforeseen Contests and Candidates
What was to be a ‘coronation’ for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned out to be anything but. A non-telegenic septuagenarian, self-declared socialist, and mediocre speaker began to draw big crowds as he campaigned from those winter days in Iowa to the just concluded summer primaries of California and New Jersey.
When he entered the race Senator Bernie Sanders’ candidacy (14) was never regarded as anything but a token opposition to the formidable Hillary Clinton. Campaigning on the urgent need to reduce inequality in wealth and income he found a responsive audience as he thundered “This campaign is sending a message to the billionaire class: “you can’t have it all.”
"You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry. You can’t continue sending our jobs to China while millions are looking for work. You can’t hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, while there are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation. Your greed has got to end. You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities as Americans. “(15)
Promising action to make college tuition free, getting big money out of politics to restore democracy, combating climate change, he won several early primaries and forced Hillary Clinton to move to the left on these issues, and to at least publicly disavow the ’ Trans Pacific Partnership’ trade deal which is in the offing.
The millions of people who voted for him, and their enthusiasm for a different society, more equal and just is indeed a welcome phenomenon. But it is unclear if this campaign will be able to shake the Democratic ‘poohbahs’ sufficiently to compel them to implement policies that Senator Sanders’ supporters favour.
The Democratic establishment, which worked hard to ensure that Hillary Clinton is the nominee, will do whatever it can to secure her victory in the November election. The party has become very adept at making historically symbolic choices as its Presidential candidate: an African-American in 2008, and now a woman.
These choices, while not to be dismissed completely, do little to affect the US’ power equations where wealth, corporate interests and the maintenance of an imperial lock on global resources holds sway.
Campaigning on the urgent need to reduce inequality in wealth and income he found a responsive audience as he thundered “This campaign is sending a message to the billionaire class: “you can’t have it all.”
Hillary Clinton impresses with her tenacity, grit, and intelligence. It is the uses she puts them to which is troubling! Though she is the most likely winner of this year’s election, her victory would not herald the beginning of a new progressive era if her husband’s and President Obama’s policies are anything to go by.
Her own record in domestic affairs is of one who favours Wall Street over Main Street. In foreign policy she is a consistent hawk, who besides being a crucial player in a coup that overthrew a democratically elected government in Honduras(16), was in no small measure responsible for the havoc that Libya and Syria, to name two countries, are experiencing.
A book that deals with Mrs Clinton’s imperial world view has a title that seems unkind “Queen of Chaos” but maybe apt (17). She has a high ‘dislike’ and untrustworthy’ index (18) but her opponent’s is even worse!
Meanwhile on the Republican side a most improbable individual will head their ticket. A crude, bombast of a billionaire who promises to “Make America Great Again” won over 17 other candidates including the Bush scion Jeb.(19)
At one level ‘daring’ to say things other politicians would or could not Donald Trump appealed to those who have lost jobs and status, who feel adrift in the sea of globalisation, who resent the changing demographics of the country especially the rise of the Latino population from 17.3 million forming 6.5 % of the population in 1980 to 55.3 million or 14.8% of the total in 2014.(20)
Those who turn out for Mr Trump’s rallies and may even catapult him to the White House represent a segment that every ruling elite fears. Not those with nothing to lose but those who had something and see it slipping away, maybe forever.
Their anger at their changed situation is deep. Their sense of betrayal by the party leadership, which egged them on solely to win elections and forgot their needs once in office, is raw and enduring. Trump has mobilised these sentiments by mocking the Republican leadership for their many sell-outs, for ignoring the base and being craven to the rich and powerful.
He promises to bring back lost jobs, to cut foreign competitors to size, to end migration from Latin America indeed to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. What might in ordinary times be dismissed as the rantings of a crank have reverberated all across the United States, from ‘sea to shining sea’.
Misogynistic, feeding into racist and anti Muslim sentiment, with utter disregard for facts, he holds nothing sacred. Hurling insults at individual reporters, contemptuous of the press (21), he recently lashed out at a judge (22) and routinely speaks of Mrs Clinton as ‘crooked Hillary’.
Come November, I feel Mrs Clinton will easily win major states like New York and California, as also overwhelmingly get the Latino and African-American vote. The election will depend on how the ‘swing states’ of Ohio and Pennsylvania vote, the ‘rust belt’ where deindustrialization has taken a heavy toll.
Whether he wins or loses Donald Trump has already achieved something worrisome in the American political discourse. He has brought racist and anti-Muslim sentiment into the mainstream, made them respectable as it were.
A victory for Trump would ensure that the views of chauvinists and bigots flush with the trappings of power occupy ‘centre stage’, with his ardent supporters trying to cower those who dissent into silence, while fostering an atmosphere of fear.
(The author is a semi-retired neurologist who divides her time between the US and India)
1. 2014 Continues a 35-Year Trend of Broad-Based Wage Stagnation
2. Bernie Sanders, in Madison, claims top 0.1% of Americans have almost as much wealth as bottom 90%
3. What's the Matter with Kansas?
4. Why Are White Death Rates Rising?
5. Overdose Death Rates
6. Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures
7. The Dying Russians
8. The Mirage of a Return to Manufacturing Greatness
9. Government Must Play a Role Again in Job Creation
10. Average Student Loan Debt Approaches $30,000
11. University of Phoenix
12. Former Trump University Workers Call the School a ‘Lie’ and a ‘Scheme’ in Testimony
13. “Progressive” Obama: He’s Melting, He’s Melting
14. Bernie Sanders
15. Income and Wealth Inequality
16. Hillary Is Being Misleading About Her Role in the Honduras Coup
17. Queen of Chaos- The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton
19. Thank You For Your Support
20. Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States
21. Donald Trump Lashes Out at Media While Detailing Gifts to Veterans
22. What Donald Trump Thinks Judges Are Good For