Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Why Did Liberals Lose the Working Class?

Of all of the narratives perpetuated by the conservative media machine, the most damaging (and mystifying) has got to be that liberals and Democrats don't care about the "little guy," the working class.  When it comes to policy record, it couldn't be clearer that massive corporate interests are in the driver's seat in conservative circles, yet somehow the working class narrative sticks.  How did we get here?  How do we set the record straight?  I have a few ideas.

1. The "Spectator-ization" of the American Electorate
There are a lot of different ways to be involved in policy-making.  Running for office is just one (and the most specialized) way.  During the 20th century, being a union member was the best way for individual Americans to be directly involved in influencing policy that affected them.  It was real, it was concrete to observe conditions in the workplace, hiring and firing practices, and, of course, wages, and to say "this isn't right."  Unions provided a direct conduit to corporate leaders and, importantly, the political structure, to address grievances and improve conditions.  More often than not, unions found friends in the Democrat party.

But things have changed.  Union memberships are down significantly (about 33%) across the country.  And, in their decline, corporate interests have been able to pass right-to-work laws across 28 states.  Not surprisingly, these are "Red states" where the pro-business Republicans were only too happy to ingratiate themselves to their benefactors.

The result of this trend has been to make politics and policy less relevant to individual Americans.  They have become spectators to a process they used to help shape. And, with that, has come the hollowing out of the core participating base of the Democrat party.

Enter: Citizens United.  Corporate interests didn't stop by disenfranchising tens of millions of voters from direct participation in the democratic process (not elections - the democratic process of governing).  They wanted even more influence.  And that means buying it.  Election after election, the spending totals spiral more and more out of reach of ordinary Americans.

We now consume politics through cable news, rather than our daily life.  We are spectators, watching so-called "elites" take all the power and money and making all the decisions.  And, with each iteration of the cycle, the Republican/Corporate machine sinks its claws in deeper.  And, likewise, wage inequality gets worse and worse.

2. The False Conservative Narrative
If conditions have materially worsened during the progress of the Corporate-Republican march, how is it that the average American hasn't turned away?  Well, once direct participation through union membership waned, they were able to re-shape the narrative and, in so doing, invent new narratives to keep people focused on other villains.  And their villains of choice?  Globalization and Immigration.  It's worked beautifully.  Ask almost any conservative voter and they will tell you the reason their pay and benefits stink are because of one or both of those two factors.  Heck, ask many liberal voters and you'll probably hear something similar.  "Those people" are taking our jobs and doing it for cheap.  And who is going to tell you any different?  Who has direct, first-hand knowledge of what goes on behind closed doors?  Too few.

3. Very Real Change 
As powerful as the decline of unions and a strong narrative have been, the Corporate/Republican machine didn't orchestrate the whole thing.  The last twenty years have powerfully and irreversibly transformed the drivers of our economy at a scale that hasn't been seen since the Industrial Revolution.  And we haven't kept up.  20th century institutions that built this nation (like coal and internal combustion vehicles) are waning.  And, like a drowning man, they are determined to grab onto anything or anyone, no matter the consequences, to stay afloat.  The real victims in all of that climate of denial have been the men and women employed by those industries.  With no advocates to ensure a transition, people are left to fend for themselves.  I don't care how you vote, that kind of existential threat to your ability to feed your family is scary as hell.  And that kind of desperation has led to extreme factions on the left and right.

A New Promise
The DNC has unveiled their new message.  They call it "A Better Deal."  Nobody asked me or I would have told them that "Promise 21" would have been better branding, but I digress.  The point is, it's time to acknowledge the set of factors that got us here, what we are facing, and remind people who actually is trying to put policy and protection in place that serves and protects the American Worker.

I don't know if labor unions will bounce back.  I don't know if they should in this new landscape.  But whether they do or not, people need to come back to politics.  They need to show up at party meetings and shape the conversation.  They need to see that they have a voice in the process and an advocate in the Democrat Party.  Because getting improved conditions, wages, and support for every American worker is not a spectator sport.  It doesn't filter down from the "elites" at the top.  It starts at the bottom.  And, as we look to the next wave of prosperity leading us into a new and transformed American economy, we need to make sure that working people have a voice and a seat at the table.

Because, at the end of the day, do you want someone representing you who took tens of thousands of dollars from companies with an axe to grind, or do you want that person to be accountable to you?

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