Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Left Behind to Rust
We know coal miners think Barrack Obama, with his participation in the global climate change initiatives, is directly responsible for the spew of coal mine bankruptcies and massive layoffs. Workers across the land blame the inevitable displacement that trade treaties inflict on those mired in increasingly-obsolete industries or work patterns, as well as on undocumented immigrants who take domestic jobs, albeit jobs almost no American-born have taken or will ever take. Stoop labor, domestic workers, hand ditch-digging, slaughter house labor, etc., etc.
These alienated middle-aged and older Americans were born and raised on expectations – mostly that life would be at least as good as that of their parents – and feel betrayed by their elected officials. Most never will get anywhere close to that last-generation quality of life. Time to drain the swamp and take America back to when those expectations would be met as a matter of course. No internationalism. No ultra-violent jihadists attacking their faith. Back when America was, for them anyway, great. Their choice, Donald Trump, has named (or is expected to name) an unprecedented five military officers and some of the richest oligarchs in the land to a cabinet that is charged with taking those lower-rung workers “back when…” and giving them back a life based on their impossible expectations.
West Virginia was once as blue and pro-Democrat as you could ever imagine. But that’s when unions were strong – those same unions that the GOP wants to put the final nail in their coffin – and there were clear lines of demarcation between those who owned and profited from the business and those who worked to generate the products and services that made America the economic envy of the world.
Then the world economy internationalized. Liberal elites embraced the Democratic Party. And those about to be left behind were told to change, alter those expectations, and retrain for the future. Millennials got the message; 59% of them have at least some college. The Z-generation grew up in that last great recession. But their parents and older just wanted their traditional expectations to be met, that change be reversed. West Virginia went red, very, very red. It was a vote borne of sadness, desperation and pain.
While many there voted at the ballot box, others voted to escape into one of the highest addiction rates in the land. For them, the pain of disillusionment was just too much to bear. “The trail of painkillers leads to West Virginia's southern coalfields, to places like Kermit, population 392. There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town.
“Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States… The trail also weaves through Wyoming County [WVa], where shipments ofOxyContin have doubled, and the county's overdose death rate leads the nation. One mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana received 600 times as many oxycodone pills as the Rite Aid drugstore just eight blocks away… In six years, drug wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers, a Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation found…
“For more than a decade, the same distributors disregarded rules to report suspicious orders for controlled substances in West Virginia to the state Board of Pharmacy, the Gazette-Mail found. And the board failed to enforce the same regulations that were on the books since 2001, while giving spotless inspection reviews to small-town pharmacies in the southern counties that ordered more pills than could possibly be taken by people who really needed medicine for pain…
“As the fatalities mounted — hydrocodone and oxycodone overdose deaths increased 67 percent in West Virginia between 2007 and 2012 — the drug shippers' CEOs collected salaries and bonuses in the tens of millions of dollars. Their companies made billions. McKesson has grown into the fifth-largest corporation in America. The drug distributor's CEO was the nation's highest-paid executive in 2012, according to Forbes… In court cases, the companies have repeatedly denied they played any role in the nation's pain-pill epidemic.” Charleston Gazette-Mail, December 17th. Maybe the drugs were just too available, but the underlying hopelessness is the real reason addiction was just another alternative path. But this is where Trump populism was born and nurtured, where anger is moving from simmering to explosion.
Josh Pacewicz, an assistant professor at Brown University and the author of Partisans and Partners: the Politics of the Post-Keynesian Society, was interested in the change in voter attitudes that made Donald Trump the choice for this large and disenfranchised group.
Writing for the December 20th Washington Post, he explains: “Before the 1980s, Rust Belt cities’ economies were anchored by large unionized industries. Two groups defined local politics: factory owners and labor union leaders. Business owners and labor leaders clashed over workplace relations, maintained competing charities and called on voters to support either ‘labor’ or ‘chamber’ politicians for city council. During federal elections, associations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Labor Council were key to, respectively, Republican and Democratic efforts to get out the vote.
“The older Rust Belters I interviewed used this community cleavage to make sense of politics. They overwhelmingly identified as working-class Democrats or (less commonly) business-class Republicans. When talking politics, they saw partisanship in their occupations, ways of spending leisure time and even neighborhoods. Houses in floodplains were Democratic, whereas hilltop areas belonged to Republican ‘old families who tried to run this town.’
“‘I’m a lifelong Democrat. They look out for the working person first,’ one elderly woman told me. ‘The rich got too much … all their own this and that [and] don’t need somebody looking out for them. When I grew up, the whole family would get together any time a holiday come up … go down to the lake, all eat together. The Democrats are more for that idea.’
“Of course, older Rust Belters cared about many issues, but they viewed them though a cognitive filter that focused their attention on class, directing political frustrations at wealthy Republicans. In 2008 and 2012, this frame was reinforced by campaign rhetoric (recall John McCain’s inability to remember how many houses he owned, or Mitt Romney’s comments about the ‘47 percent’). I spoke with voters who initially expressed racism toward Obama but later backed him as a working-class champion…
“But the Rust Belt of feuding Democratic unionists and Republican business owners is gone; those voters who remember it are dying… In the 1980s, the Rust Belt was ravished by the manufacturing crisis and the century’s largest merger movement, the latter a product of financial deregulation. These caused job losses and personal suffering, yes, but they also robbed cities of their locally owned industries and therefore their business and labor leaders.
“This shift also left communities vulnerable to the whims of corporate subsidiaries and state and nonprofit grant-making agencies, often communities’ only way to find discretionary funding after Congress rolled back generous urban policies during the Reagan era.
“By the 2000s, the Rust Belt’s community leaders were entirely focused on economic development partnerships. They saw statecraft as a technical affair and focused on building coalitions to secure grants, woo corporate subsidiaries (frequently with public subsidies) and create cultural amenities — art walks, music festivals and farmers markets — that would attract young professionals and therefore corporate interest in their cities’ workforces.
“This grass-roots shift toward post-partisan place marketing was important. For starters, it paradoxically fueled political extremism in national politics. As community leaders shifted from fighting one another to collaborating on economic development, they left grass-roots parties in the hands of ideological activists. The local GOP, for example, that had once been a Chamber of Commerce surrogate — and therefore a moderately pro-business party — became instead a vehicle for those championing issues such as abortion, guns and anti-immigrant views.
“What’s more, community leaders’ embrace of economic development alienated many voters, sowing the seeds of populism. Many voters resented what they saw as a lack of recognition by local elites, who — unlike traditional labor or business leaders — seemed aloof, focused outward.
“Instead of seeing politics as a contest between working people and the business class, many voters seethed with undirected populist resentment at a technocratic, corporate-friendly elite. Anticipating Trump, many felt culturally and politically invisible and hoped for a shake-up.” Change decimated not only their jobs but their communities as well.
So what’s in store for this country? Clearly the expectations of younger generations – who grew up with pain and changes as a way of life – differ greatly from those of the under-utilized and seemingly abandoned older workers. As those older workers retire and die, the next generation will take their place and insinuate their expectations on the body politic. That is if the United States can stay together long enough to allow those attitudes to adjust to the real world. But there is so much anger in that disenfranchised group that keeping the nation together is perhaps the biggest challenge of them all. Politicians take heed.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is time for older politicians with old ideas to step aside and let the next generations – attitudinally better prepared for the world as it really is – take over.