Wednesday, November 16, 2016
“The Rust Belt Is the Dust Bowl of Our Times”
Todd Gitlin, Professor of Sociology and Journalism at Columbia University
Britons are puzzled at the reality that Donald Trump’s constituency – 40% of registered voters – while clearly not representing the majority, is America’s largest single-voice political movement. They are loyal, were fiercely committed to their candidate and seemingly immutable in their anti-immigration, anti-trade agreement feeling, addicted to open and free gun laws and deeply conservative in fundamental Protestant values, determined never to give up. They place blame freely and want desperately to return to an American long since passed, one that will never return.
So Michael Goldfarb, writing for the October 30th BBC.com, attempted to explain, to his fellow Brits, this Trump constituency that, prior to November 8th vote, “has lost four of the last six presidential elections but has mostly remained in control of one or both houses of Congress, and many state legislatures, making it almost impossible for Democratic administrations to govern the country.” As this conservative but vocal minority has increasingly dug in its heels against its demons, Congressional deadlock has often brought this country to a grinding halt.
Where did these voters come from? According to Goldfarb, this movement is the result of layer-upon-layer of disenchantment over many decades, not a single seismic shift over a short period of time. “The Bloc wasn't created by the Great Recession of 2008 or by the attacks of 9/11 or the bursting of the Dotcom Bubble in 2000. It wasn't even created by the economic bogeyman of this election, Nafta - the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Instead The Bloc was created by a series of events that, in an almost geological process, added sedimentary layer after layer of voters to the Republican Party… A new layer is laid down whenever there is ‘another round of economic displacement,’ says Todd Gitlin… the new voters being overwhelmingly whites who had previously been Democrats…
“Gitlin traces its origins to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when many farmers and their families were driven from Oklahoma and Kansas by drought. Most ended up in southern California and their children were among the early supporters of the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society and the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater.
“In the late 1960s many southern whites also joined The Bloc following the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which finally delivered - 100 years after the end of slavery - on the promise of equality for African Americans.
“Then in the late 70s and early 80s, as factories in the North-east and along the Great Lakes shut down, communities like Johnstown in western Pennsylvania were devastated. Steelworkers in the town, even with their strong trade unions, were thrown out of work. People were forced to leave the region in vast numbers to find jobs elsewhere. Those jobs are nowhere near as secure as the factory jobs that sustained generations and allowed stable communities to grow. It was a displacement every bit as wrenching as that of the 1930s… Others, for whom the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v Wade (which gave women abortion rights) became the single issue on which they vote, joined The Bloc as well.”
For those who see a potential for reversal of the Democratic Party’s fortunes with this massive abandoned constituency, the old adage, “It’s the economy, stupid!” screams loudly. Displacement, living at a standard of living at less than that of your parents with less hope than expectations, is infinitely worse when the polarization of wealth has never been as skewed as it is today. Until those displaced feel secure in their economic status, we can most certainly expect a very uneasy future.
The BBC.com thought one reaction to be particularly cogent and relevant: “Bonnie Cordova, a retired schoolteacher, and [BBC writer Goldfarb] were both watching the second presidential debate at the Bohemian Beer Garden in the New York borough of Queens. [Goldfarb] asked her afterwards if she understood why people might vote for Trump.
“She did. ‘I taught in inner city schools for 30 years,’ Cordova explained. ‘I was passed over a few times for promotion for a really good job because I wasn't a minority and I was working at a school where the kids got free dental and optical treatment because they were immigrant children and I was having trouble affording it for my kids.’ She acknowledged that made her resentful. ‘That's a flame that can be fanned into hatred. You have to rise above it.’… Not everyone can rise above it.
“And so American society and government is split. Dangerously… But The Bloc isn't permanently moored to the Republican Party… The Democrats would find governing easier if they brought some of its voters back. The best way to do that is directly related to employment. Economic displacement created The Bloc. Stable employment might whittle it away.
“But [Professor] Todd Gitlin, who has been a leader of left-liberal political movements in the US since the 1960s, doesn't hold out hope of this happening soon… ‘What's the social democratic vision? There are fragmented visions, there are sectoral visions, little visions. There are no passionate centres. There is no luminous idea of what the world would look like if it were better,’ he says.
“‘People don't have a conception of the work of being a citizen and actually governing yourselves as a people. It's not just a problem on the right. It's that we don't have on the left a sustainable idea about political work.’… The Bloc has been formed over a period of at least half a century. It will take more than one presidential election - dominated by the most unpresidential candidate in American history - to chip away at it.
“It's not clear who on the Democratic side has the patience to give up the years that will be necessary to persuade these voters if not back to the Democratic fold at least to a position where compromise - and functioning government - is possible.”
We want what we want and we want it now. And if we do not get it, it has to be somebody’s fault! Virtually none of the promises made to restore old jobs can be kept. Coal miners are in a dying industry that cannot compete with natural gas, and the only major manufacturing that has and will find its way back to these American shores will involve machines and not people.
Still, Brits – who themselves voted for Brexit under false promises – shaking their head that someone like Donald Trump has such a fierce, large and committed following. That populism isn’t going away any time soon. They can shake their heads at it… we have to live with it.
I’m Peter Dekom, and unless millennials and younger throw out their parents and grandparents from whining and blaming… and seek compromise and accommodation… they will live in a very different political structure (read: a new nation or set of nations) than did their parents.