Wednesday, June 12, 2019

How'd We Get Here?

I was sort of a sleeping Rip Van Winkle for a few decades and then woke to find the world around me had changed considerably - particularly in our own USA. How did we get here? 

A writer and speaker named Thomas Frank seems to me to have a pretty good explanation for how we got where we are. Thomas Frank was born in Kansas, has a doctorate's degree in history from the University of Chicago, and was a founder and editor of The Baffler.

He's written many essays (available on his website) and various books. The two books I'm familiar with are What's The Matter With Kansas? and Listen Liberal - Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? - that critique today's Republican and Democratic parties respectively.


Frank is a cultural critic as well as a political critic. In this five minute video made in 1993 he explains some of the thinking that went into the founding of The Baffler. He says one of the reasons for founding the Baffler was to find ways to resist the culture industry and mass culture. Depending on your religion you may have heard similar ideas about resisting mass culture, expressed using different words, from a Christian minister or priest.

Why would we want to resist mass culture - or as a Christian minister might ask - things of this world? Mainly because it allows you to live your one singular beautiful life - because it gives you freedom.


Mass culture produces fake rebels and suppresses actual rebellion.

Why work to better the world when it's as simple as buying the world a Coke? This 1971 Coca-Cola advertisement is sort of the quintessential example of what Frank and other Baffler writers call the commodification of dissent.

The Coke ad is interesting because of when it occurred in our history. The sixties were still going on in the 70's - in that the ideas of the sixties - sustainability, peace, love, back to the land movements, suspicion of elites (the man/the bosses), questioning authority, anti-consumerism, and rejection of mass culture were very much alive in 1971.

Those ideas were co-opted by corporations to sell us the idea that we could be part of the counter-culture, the resistance, the revolution - if we only purchased the right things. This essentially eliminated progression toward the counter-cultural ideas from the 60's and eventually led to the excesses of the 90's with yuppies (young urban professionals), glorification of wealth in shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and "he who dies with the most toys wins" bumper stickers.

In a capitalist system working people and the earth's natural resources are commodities - things that are valued according to free market principles. Left unchecked a capitalist system will ruthlessly exploit and dehumanize working people and also exploit natural resources (our planet) as long as it's profitable, and possible given the absence of any political restraints.

In this 12 minute video made in 2018 Thomas Frank explains why he thinks Donald Trump won the 2016 election. 

Beginning in the 1990's the Democratic party went from being the party of working people and unions to being the party of professionals. 

Professionals like doctors, lawyers and engineers who would have been Republicans in the 1950's split away from the GOP when that party began to use the culture wars (guns, gays, God and abortion) as political weapons. These professionals are socially liberal who may believe in things such as; equal rights, a woman's right to choose, liberalized drug laws, some form of gun regulation and the separation of church and state. 

The problem is that the majority of them also very much believe in the idea of meritocracy - that some combination of education and work ethic allows anyone to climb the economic ladder. They did it - why shouldn't everyone else? For this reason they are either anti-union or think unions are a relic of the past. These members of the professional class sometimes called creative class elected Democrats who represent their point of view - which equates to a whole slew of Democratic legislators who would have been considered radical right wing members of the GOP in Eisenhower's era.

This left working class people (non-yuppie type working class people), the 90%, with no political representation and the desperation that allowed for a con man, sold as the blue-collar billionaire who would represent the interests of those forgotten people, to be elected President.


Who's the villain?

Bill Clinton is as good a choice as any member of the GOP for that role. He "triangulated" with the GOP to end welfare as we knew it, changed the criminal justice system in ways that caused mass incarceration in our many for-profit prisons, and the very worst thing he did for the traditional constituents of the Democratic party, working class families, was to pass NAFTA. 

An important aspect of NAFTA is that it provided a legal framework to protect American business interests who wanted to move manufacturing to Mexico. Beginning in 1989 when NAFTA went into effect many manufacturing jobs and factories began to move south of the border to take advantage of low wages and limited regulation.

This either killed unions outright or mortally wounded them because from that time on the bosses could always threaten workers that if they didn't accept whatever pay and benefits the bosses deemed acceptable - they would move the jobs to Mexico. It also gave these corporations a powerful card to play when negotiating with local/state governments to get corporate welfare (tax incentives) in order to locate, or keep, their industries in a particular city.

Besides moving work to Mexico, or some other low-wage country, a corporation like Boeing can use threats to move to right to work states like South Carolina to extract huge amounts of corporate welfare, specifically a 8.7 billion dollar handout, from the state of Washington...and then go ahead and offshore jobs or move them to a right to work state. 

If you aren't familiar with that term "right to work" it means you don't have to join a union to work at a particular place; even if a union is in existence. Supporters of right to work will tell you it gives workers freedom. Unions (and the historical record) say it gives workers freedom to work for low pay, bad benefits, no pension and be fired at will.

There are as one would expect many plutocrats who are more than willing to spend lots of money to propagandize workers into believing unions are inherently bad and it's your American right to be free of them.

Please do your homework before coming to a decision regarding unions, including who funds the sources for the information you use in coming to your conclusions. If you base your decision on an article from the Heritage Foundation or Americans for Prosperity attacking unions, or some right wing radio show funded by Chevron, you definitely need to expand your reading and listening list.


NAFTA was bad but things got worse with the WTO agreements because Chinese workers making pennies on the dollar and industries with no regulation were allowed to compete with American workers and industries. We ended up exporting pulp and waste paper to China that came back as cardboard boxes filled with stuff that Walmart could sell at everyday low prices.

Walmart was on the leading edge of introducing US consumers and workers to globalization and is considered a resounding success by some, who consider any downsides to only demonstrate the disruptive forces of capitalism - euphemistically called "creative destruction". Sure we lost all kinds of small businesses and good paying jobs in the bargain but it was all made up for in those everyday low prices (or so we were told). 

Walmart certainly was a resounding success in one important way - the heirs of Sam Walton's fortune have as much wealth as the bottom 40% of Americans. Walmart destroyed many small businesses and union jobs. They are fiercely anti-union and got the government to help pay for their workers health care and food. Corporate welfare is where the waste is - not the scraps government throws to the working class to keep them from starving to death in the street.

Amazon is Walmart on steroids. In a socialized country (like the United States pre-1980) the government of the people would help shape the economy so the unchecked engine of capitalism didn't drive some segment of the society, or the whole society in the case of climate change, off a cliff. That is not the country we currently live in.

If you find Thomas Frank interesting he goes into much more detail in this hour plus talk at ASU.


Donald Trump didn't create this moment, he arose out of a GOP taken over by the hard right wing that works great for the .1%, works just fine for the 1% and allows the rest of upper 10% to sort of make it as long as mom and dad are willing to work until they die since defined pensions died with unions.

Working class people, let's call them the 90%, haven't had political representation and haven't shared any of the prosperity generated by the USA since the 80's (if you don't believe that, as Smartie the Smart Phone says on Sesame Street - "look it up".

The Democrats used to be the party of the working class. That began to change during the Reagan revolution, was accelerated during Bill Clinton's time in office and today is complete. Today for the most part the democratic party is the party for the 10% - often professionals with higher wages and more formal education (not necessarily better educated).

The GOP used to be the pro-business party, the party of the upper class, the party for the owners of capital, proponents of free trade, and some petit-bourgeoisie (small business owners). I know this characterization is over-simplified, but I'm making a rhetorical argument - not a complete analysis or history of the GOP and it's members.

Looking back at their statements and policies the Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon would be considered far left liberals in today's definition of left/right/center politics. The top marginal tax rates in Eisenhower's day were 90%.  The United States economy was doing fine, we built the interstate highway system, had good public schools, public college education was inexpensive or free and medical care was affordable.

Nixon initiated OSHA, a clean air act, supported federalization of Medicaid for poor families with dependent children, and created the EPA in 1970. Reagan did all he could to dismantle the EPA. Trump has or is in the process of rolling back 83 Environmental Rules.

This lurch to the far radical right by the GOP and drift to a more moderate right by the Democratic party of today, makes the "center", that all the political pundits in corporate-owned media say the democrats need to head to in order to be "electable", rather hard to define.

As unbelievable as it seems to democrats of my generation, the GOP is now the party of the working class. Never mind that the Republicans have done nothing to benefit the working class (see wage stagnation, exponential growth of corporate CEO compensation, ahistorical economic inequality, decimation of unions, tax giveaways to corporations used to buy back stock to further increase CEO compensation...etc. etc. etc.)

Through an intricate and well funded propaganda machine and a long term strategy that spanned decades, the people who control the GOP of today, pushed the Democratic party into the wilderness and the Republican party to the radical right. They also caused many traditional Republicans to leave the party and guaranteed a generation of young people will never vote for a GOP candidate. There is always a silver lining.


My overall perspective about these things haven't evolved all that much over the years. My maternal grandmother was a big influence on me. She was a New Deal Democrat who loved FDR. She grew up dirt poor but ended up graduating from college and becoming a teacher. She spent most of her life living in a trailer. She'd rail against the school administrator or anyone else in power she thought was wrong which helped teach me to question authority. She took me to Butte when I was young to visit relatives who worked in those mines before they closed. She also loved my Republican wife B and encouraged us to get married.

I've been interested in political struggles for awhile. I was at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. I went mainly because I was sympathetic to the cause and wanted to hear the speakers and participate in the parade/march. There were lots of families, environmental groups, unions (from various countries), cool floats and people wearing costumes there. It was fun and peaceful. I left in the afternoon. I missed the idiots wearing masks breaking out Starbucks windows, police in riot gear and tear gas...that they show in all the pictures of that event. The pictures on this Teamsters Union page show the event more like I remember it.

I was also a participant in the 40 day strike against the Boeing Company in 2000 where workers won concessions from management. While I was working, the union-negotiated collective bargaining agreements meant I never had to worry about paying for health care (including vision and dental) and my salary allowed me to buy a house, help pay for my two daughters to go to college and live a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Collective bargaining allowed me to have a defined pension and good health insurance after I retired, until I switch over to Medicare in a month or so...dang how'd I get so old ;-)


If the Democratic party can return to it's roots and present policies that benefit the working class they would control every branch of government. This will require something like the tea party/freedom caucus movement that helped drag the GOP so far right. The tea party/freedom caucus movement was funded by the .1% and promoted by corporate media. The swing left movement for the Democratic party will have to be a genuine grass roots movement.

Politicians in the mold of AOC, Bernie or Elizabeth Warren would be popular all over the country because they support policies the 90% supports and speak a language that working class people understand. The mouthpieces for the GOP are afraid of these type of genuine progressive populist politicians, particularly a young working class woman like AOC, which is why they are so obsessed with attacking her.

Elizabeth Warren has a very strong record of supporting unions, she's fiery, determined and smart. She has a story of humble beginnings, struggling to get an education and work as a teacher while raising her children. She understands the struggle of the working people. She was primarily responsible for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which has been mostly dismantled or neutered by the plutocrats in office now. Republicans beholden to big money hate and fear her, corporate Democrats beholden to big money just fear her - so what more could you ask for?

Finally - democrats need to get out of their own way. They need to find solidarity on economic and class issues like they did from the 40's through the 60's. They need to organize as an economic class and work out all the cultural issues after they take power.

They need to leave the divisive discussions about intersectionality, racism, sexism, cultural appropriation, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression, speech they don't like or whatever cultural issues they feel are important to be debated and resolved - after they have taken political power. Not to say these aren't topics worth discussing and resolving, but they don't win elections - and unless you have power you'll just be the never-ending and ever fading resistance. 

The Democratic party needs to return to it's roots as the party for the working class - the party for poor people, the party for unions - a party not afraid to fight and be politically incorrect if necessary. The party that respects the working class and shows it by enacting policies that help them.

If some wealthy elites who like the cachet of being a liberal Democrat can't get on board they need to leave the party and form some sort of socially liberal fiscally conservative party of their own.

Democratic party politicians who favor corporate interests over working people's interests need to find another political party or be defeated in primaries by progressive candidates who will respect and defend working people. 

Some democrats also need to find a way to accept, or at least not belittle, people of faith and those who oppose abortion rights - not allow them to dictate government policy but make them feel welcome.

Either that or we need at least four parties -  the Trump GOP, and the Democratic party of the professional class that we have today and two new parties that go back to the roots of the traditional GOP and Democratic party.