Working Americans do need to “take our country back”. But from who?
Back in 2011, in “One Word Turns the Tea Party Around“, I suggested a simple change to Tea Party rhetoric: Wherever the word government occurs, replace it with corporations. When I did that, suddenly I could agree wholeheartedly with the people Tea Party web sites loved to quote. Like Ronald Reagan:
Man is not free unless corporations are limited.
or Ayn Rand:
We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where a corporation is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission.
After the switch, Grover Norquist is still a radical, but I can see where he’s coming from:
We want to reduce the size of corporations in half as a percentage of GNP over the next 25 years. We want to reduce the number of people depending on corporations so there is more autonomy and more free citizens.
When I changed Washington to Wall Street, Rand Paul was right on target:
Wall Street is horribly broken. I think we stand on a precipice. We are encountering a day of reckoning and this movement, this Tea Party movement, is a message to Wall Street that we’re unhappy and that we want things done differently.
Running the wrong way. Looking at the Tea Party rank and file — the ordinary people who swelled its ranks rather than the ones who funded it or constructed its message or rode it to Congress — I found a lot to identify with. I agreed with them on a lot of key points, which I listed:
- Honest, hard-working Americans are seeing their opportunities dry up.
- The country is dominated by a small self-serving elite.
- Our democracy is threatened.
- The public is told a lot of lies.
- People need to stand up and make their voices heard.
- If we stand together, we’re not as helpless as we seem.
The problem, as I saw it then, was that somehow these people had gotten turned around — to illustrate, I linked to a video of Jim Marshall’s famous wrong-way touchdown run — so that when they thought they were striking back at an oppressive government, they were in fact carrying the ball for the real sources of oppression: the billionaires and the corporations.
Tallying up. Four and a half years later, we can tally up the results of that wrong-way run. Tea Partiers provided the victory margin that gave Congress and many governorships to the Republican Party. But what has that power been used for?
- To let the minimum wage keep shrinking with inflation, so that it is now only two-thirds of what it was in 1968.
- To keep too-big-to-fail banks too big to fail.
- To make it harder to vote.
- To keep open the tax loopholes that allow billionaires to pay ridiculously low tax rates, and major corporations to pay no taxes at all (while small businesses continue to face much higher rates than their big-business competitors).
- To break unions.
- To block efforts to create jobs by rebuilding our roads and bridges.
- To make it harder for ordinary Americans to get health care.
- To make it easier for the super-rich to buy elections, and harder for the rest of us to know they’re doing it.
- To keep us from knowing what’s in the products corporations sell us, or what chemicals they’re using that might wind up in our water.
- To make it harder for working-class families to send children to college.
- To shift the tax burden from the rich to the middle class. Or, more subtly, to cover the revenue lost by cutting taxes on the rich and on corporations by cutting spending on services used by the middle class, like public schools and highways.
Whose agenda is that? How does any of it address the issues that created the Tea Party in the first place?
“Anti-establishment” Republicans. Recently, a lot of Tea Partiers claim to be catching on, so they’re now in revolt against the Republican establishment. Instead, they’re supporting supposedly anti-establishment Republicans like Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and especially Donald Trump.
But to me, it looks like they’re falling for the same shell game all over again. Because they’re still turned around, still trying to make common cause with billionaires and corporations against the scourge of Big Government, still expecting the wolves to help them keep the sheep dogs in check. Again, the form of the rhetoric is right, if only a few words would change. Then Ben Carson would denounce the billionaire class instead of the political class, and Carly Fiorina would say:
This is not an economy anymore that works for everyone. We have come to a pivotal point in our nation’s history where, truly, the possibilities for too many Americans — entrepreneurship and innovation — is being crushed. It’s being crushed by corporations that have grown so big, so powerful, so costly, so corrupt and so inept.
Ordinary Americans do need to “take our country back”. The question that separates liberals from Tea Partiers is: Who do we need to take our country back from?
Divide and conquer. All through American history, the very rich have used a divide-and-conquer strategy to stay on top of the more numerous classes. Particularly in desperate times, their message to working people has always been the same: There is an even more desperate class of workers coming to take what’s yours. So in order to keep what you have, you must help us keep what we have.
In the Old South, the more desperate workers were the black slaves, if they should ever get their freedom. So poor Southern whites fought and died to maintain the human property of the plantation owners. Even after the war, they were the shock troops of the KKK, whose terrorist violence crushed the Reconstruction state governments and took away the new rights of the freedmen. And was their loyalty rewarded? No, it was not. Throughout the New South, the old aristocracy continued to keep its own taxes low, maintain few public services, and (in particular) not fund the public education that might have allowed poor whites to better their lot.
All the poor whites had done was to disenfranchise their potential black allies, who might have helped them take power from their real enemies, the aristocrats.
Something similar was happening in the North, against other “invasions” of desperate workers: the Irish, the Italians, the Jews. Who benefited? The robber barons: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and all the rest. Railroad tycoon Jay Gould is supposed to have boasted that he could hire half the working class to kill the other half.
The targets then weren’t just the new ethnic groups. They were also union organizers: “communists” and “anarchists”. In the coal mines, workers sang:
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.
Which side are you on?
And the working people who stayed loyal to the bosses, were they rewarded? In the short run, a little. Busting heads for the Pinkertons paid decent money. And scab wages were good, for as long as the strike lasted. But after the moment passed, things always went back to normal fairly soon.
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
In the 1920s, President Coolidge proclaimed, “The business of America is business.” His administration, followed by President Hoover’s, saw no problem in the speculative excesses of the financiers. And when it all collapsed, leaving millions of working Americans without jobs, did either the plutocrats or their politicians say, “These workers built America, we have to take care of them.”? Of course not.
Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Taking the country back. But you know something? Those people actually did take their country back. How? They elected a liberal: Franklin Roosevelt. That’s how we got Social Security and union rights and a minimum wage.
For once, working people didn’t let themselves be split against each other, white against black, Protestant against Catholic, native-born against immigrant. They stayed united against the people FDR called “the malefactors of great wealth”. And as a result, when World War II was over and there was new money to be made, it flowed to all classes, not just to a few people at the top. For three decades, we had rising wages, shrinking gaps between rich and poor, and increasing opportunity across the board.
Even Republicans turned liberal in those days. Dwight Eisenhower built the ultimate Big Government monument: the interstate highway system. Richard Nixon signed the Clear Air Act, put forward a national health care plan, and pursued a fiscal policy that led Milton Friedman to quip “We are all Keynesians now.” Those were good times for working people.
Today. Recent decades haven’t been so good. There’s room to argue about what caused it or which choices made it better or worse, but one thing is clear: More and more people feel desperate. And so the rich are making their old pitch: Even more desperate workers are coming to take what’s yours. If you want to keep what you have, you have to help us keep what we have.
If you’re wondering what has happened to your piece of the pie, they want you to look down the ladder at immigrants and the poor, not up at them. Look at the undocumented Hispanics, who aren’t in a position to demand the minimum wage or a 40-hour week or even safe working conditions, for fear their bosses will turn them in to the immigration police. Look at the blacks who work two minimum-wage jobs and still don’t make enough to get by without food stamps. Look at the Muslims who came here looking for a better life, just like Catholics did 150 years ago. (In those days, Catholics were the ones whose religion was supposed to be incompatible with American values.) Those are the folks you’re supposed to be afraid of and guard yourself against, not the wealthy few who are monopolizing all the benefits of the expanding economy.
Trump. The chief pitch-man for this message is a billionaire, one whose wealth comes from inherited capital and connections, who has probably never done a day’s physical labor in his life, and who I suspect has gone decades at a time hearing nothing from working people other than “Yes, Mr. Trump” and “No, Mr. Trump.” and “I’ll get that for you right away, Mr. Trump.”
He’s the guy who’s supposed to be speaking for Joe Sixpack and all the other Americans who just want a chance to work hard for a fair wage. Does that make any sense?
But, you might object, FDR was rich too. So let’s look at what Trump wants to do. He’s mostly kept things vague, but he does have a few specific proposals and positions: His tax plan gives a huge cut to the very rich; the top tax rate comes down from 39.6% to 25%, and the corporate rate shrinks even further to 15%. He opposes raising the minimum wage, calling American wages “too high”. If he has come out clearly against any of the plutocratic policies I listed above, I haven’t heard it. As the Who sang:
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss.
The only thing that’s different about Trump is that he’s not “politically correct”. In other words, he harkens back to a day when white men didn’t have to worry about insulting blacks or Hispanics or women or gays or the disabled. Back then, if you had white skin and a penis, you just let your words fly and never looked back. (Or so I’m told.)
I suppose if you’re a white man who has been tut-tutted once too often, it can be satisfying to watch somebody flout all those new rules of courtesy. But face it: None of that is going to do anything to take the country back for working people or make America great again.
Bernie. You know who is offering a program to take our country back? Bernie Sanders. Like FDR, he wants to create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, investing money in things that produce economic growth, like roads and rail lines and airports and the electrical grid — not a wall across the middle of the desert. He has offered the only realistic plan to replace ObamaCare without cutting off millions of people’s health insurance. He’s behind a higher minimum wage. He wants everybody to be able to afford a college education. He advocates breaking up the big banks, so that they never again have the economy over a barrel like they did in 2008. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that gives Congress back the power the Supreme Court took away with the Citizens United decision: the power to keep billionaires from buying our political system.
Those plans would make a real difference in the lives of working people. But there is a downside, if you want to call it that: Rich people and corporations would have to pay more tax, and Wall Street would have to pay a tax that would discourage financial manipulations by introducing some friction into their transactions.
Sanders’ proposals are also politically impossible, we are told. He can’t be elected, and if he were he wouldn’t be able to get any of his ideas through Congress. Well, they wouldn’t be impossible if all the hard-working Americans who want to take the country back would get behind him. If working-class people — and, let’s face it, specifically white working-class people — would ignore all the fear-mongering and race-baiting and instead ask themselves what’s really going to change their lives for the better, then 2016 could see a liberal sweep that could reverse all those wrong-way touchdowns of 2010 and 2014.
In order to do that, though, a lot white working-class Americans would have to turn around. They’d have to stop looking at the imaginary threats below them and focus instead on the very real ways that those at the top of the pyramid — the billionaires and the corporations — are cutting off their hopes. They’d have to stop worrying so much about Big Government — which we can get control of if we all stand together — and worry more about Big Money, which we’re never going to control without using the power of government.
Will it happen? Probably not. It’s hard to turn around once you get up a head of steam. But it has happened before, and each election is a new chance, maybe to take the country back, or at the very least, “to get down on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again.”