This post was prompted by two shows that I recently streamed. One was “Mare of Easttown and the other “American Rust.” Each depicted towns and people left behind in the whirlwind of financialization, globalization, and technological change. (SW)
Over the past four decades the party of plutocracy, racial resentment, anti-democratic animus, and, in a new wrinkle, dictatorial disposition reconstructed the political consciousness of a significant section of white workers without a college education. While the higher ups in the Republican Party, the likes of the Koch brothers, and the far flung right wing authoritarian network understood that a project of this kind is effected as much in the non-economic realms of everyday life as the economic, they were, nevertheless, keenly aware that the geographical bifurcation of the capitalist economy, beginning in the 1970s, was of great consequence to their project.
As some cities and regions were turned into centers of economic dynamism, other cities, small towns, and regions were hollowed out and many white workers without a college education living there were left adrift, confused, and angry. Indeed, feeling economically disposable as well as out of sync with changing cultural trends that celebrate difference, diversity, and egalitarianism and susceptible to racist as well as misogynist, xenophobic, homo and trans phobic, and “America First” messaging, they became at once prime candidates for political re-education and a vital contingent for the realization of the hegemonic aspirations of right wing extremism, which, by the early 1980s, commanded the Republican Party. (Only later during the Trump years did it evolve into a white nationalist, anti-democratic, plutocratic authoritarian political bloc.)
Like a vulture stalking its prey, the right wing extremist juggernaut in and outside of the GOP descended on this marooned and flailing section of workers and skillfully employed the politics of resentment to reframe their thinking and feelings in a full blooded reactionary and racist direction. In doing so, it won the battle of ideas over its adversaries, which in turn, set into motion a process of political dealignment of millions of white workers from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Anything more ambitious, that is, to win other sections of an increasingly diverse working class to change its allegiance to the GOP, was neither realistic nor necessary.
After all, to recapture the commanding heights of U.S. politics only required the migration of a section of white workers to its side. Which is exactly what happened over the course of four decades, culminating in their vote for Trump and Trumpism, first in 2016 and then again in 2020 and continuing this year in Virginia. While some of these same workers – not all by any means – voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, in Trump they found their true avatar. He has their back, disdains “political correctness,” shares their skin color, and speaks his mind. He also stands up to elites in politics, the media, and Hollywood who, Fox News and right wing media say, view white workers and their culture of “country music, guns, football, and the flag” with disdain.
Needless to say, this shift was made easier by the partial embrace of neoliberalism by the Democratic Party in the 1980s and then full bore by the Clinton administration in the next decade.
How to politically win back this section of the working class looms large, strategically and tactically. Even a partial shift of these workers in the midterm elections next year and the presidential elections two years later could make the difference between victory and defeat. Suffice it to say, the success of any such effort will require an immediate resumption of political engagement on a mass level by the diverse coalition – the labor movement first of all – that elected Biden and Congressional Democrats in 2020.