If you’re looking for answers or reassurance, I don’t have any. This is one-hundred percent self-therapy, a stream of consciousness attempt to drain a suppurating psyche.
When became clear that Hillary Rodham Clinton would become the presumptive Democratic nominee, my thoughts immediately turned to Martha Coakley. For those of you not up on Bay State politics, Coakley was the competent and policy-minded attorney general who went up against Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy’s former senate seat and lost. She then ran again Charlie Baker for governor of Massachusetts and, again, lost.
Coakley’s credentials were never in question, though I had severe misgivings about her record as a “hard nosed” prosecutor. For all of her qualifications, however, she had an air of entitlement about her. Some of that was the product of sexist cultural bias, where “tough” and “no-nonsense” are lauded when exhibited by a man yet are seen as negative qualities in a woman.
That shouldn’t be a factor in choosing a candidate at the ballot box, but the electorate is fickle and all-too-often operates on a gut level where rationality plays the smallest of roles.
Clinton reminded me a lot of Coakley, exhibiting the same stiffness and barely restrained aura of condescension. Her attacks on Obama during the 2008 primaries and Sanders during this year’s further cemented that perception. For all the talk of trollish “Bernie Bros,” I was sea-lioned dozens of times by random Clinton supporters for expressing misgivings about her history of embracing centrist and hawkish positions.
Furthermore, she was a polarizing figure, one whose political career gave rise to an entire cottage industry of wingnut derangement. In this election, she would be running against a highly partisan headwind which would make connecting with voters outside the Democratic base even more difficult.
Though I did warm up to her candidacy a bit before the election rolled around, her main virtue was not being That Other Guy. It was a stance her campaign doubled and tripled down upon, often at the expense of her actual (and often laudable) policies. “It’s either lukewarm centrism or a Tangerine Fascist. Make your choice, hippie!”
While that was perceived as her greatest asset, that ultimatum as campaign narrative would end up bringing about her downfall. The continuation of an eight-year status quo turned out to have less appeal than the unfocused and contradictory ramblings of a charlatan promising to shake shit up.
Much is — and will keep on — being made about the metrics of Clinton’s defeat, most of it centering around the chimeric “white working class voters” who turned her Rustbelt firewall into so much kindling. Was she outflanked by the appeal of economic populism? Done in by entrenched sexism? Or was it a wave of bald-faced racism?
My guess is it was a combination of all three, exacerbated by her high unfavorability ratings and a heavy accent on the racism. It was an entirely foreseeable yet understandably overlooked insurgency from a segment of the population which has almost entirely defined itself though personal grievances and delusions of persecution.
I put racism as the key factor in the formula, but it is intimately wrapped up alongside the other two — and therein lies the nub of the problem.
Those folks — liberal and conservative — who want to frame it as an exclusively economic issue tend to fall into the usual pitfalls when it comes to discussing class structure in this country. In America, the concept of class isn’t pegged to economic status but to the realm of self-perception. This was further muddied by the post-WW2 rise of unionized labor, which allowed a significant segment of working class whites to obtain standards of living previously associated with the bourgeoisie.
Yet no matter how materially prosperous one might become, there persists the notion that maintaining the appearance of “just regular folks” represents a state of cultural grace — not hoity-toity like the truly rich nor slovenly downmarket like “trailer trash.” In the political sphere, it was employed to great effect with Scott Brown’s dinged pick-up truck and Bush the Younger’s ranch-handing faux folksiness (which makes it extra odd that the current standard bearer for the brand shits into a gold-plated toilet).
As it stands now to the chattering class (who wouldn’t know the correct end of a hammer to hold), “working class whites” can mean anything from a Wal-Mart greeter making minimum wage to a self-employed plumber who owns an exurban McMansion — and, as preliminary polls have indicated, it’s the latter group that broke the election in Trump’s favor.
Though most have suffered less than other segments of the population when it comes to the long, downward slide into post-industrial capitalism, what they have felt has been felt extra-acutely because it does not conform to a narrative of a past either experienced or mythologized. Hell hath no fury like entitlement scorned.
You can’t blame yourself, because admitting failure is a mortal sin in the American civil religion. You can’t blame an inherently inequitable system, because that road leads to existential terrors of cosmic proportions.
So you blame a scapegoated Other. Because it’s easy. Because places the onus outside one’s self. Because such behavior has been ingrained in the white American psyche since its inception.
The fabled Golden Age prosperity from 1953 to 1973 was an anomaly which arose from a specific set of economic and social circumstances. Wartime expansion of industrialization and the devastation of the other great powers put America at the top of the global economic heap. Labor shortages and the New Deal codification of union rights allowed for a massive expansion of the middle class, while pent-up demand for consumer goods kept the machine humming.
This symbiotic relationship between labor, industry, and the government gave rise to a social contract where each leg of the tripod worked for the benefit of the other two. It was an enviable set of circumstances, but it couldn’t last. Automated efficiencies and the Baby Boom undercut labor’s position, while the other economic powers rebuilt their assets and re-entered the global market in force. Wartime inflation, monetary policy issues, and rising energy costs further pushed the model into unsustainable territory.
As the balance of power shifted, corporations realized that they no longer needed to adhere to the social contract, and thus pad their own profit sheets with windfalls made from abrogating the arrangement. Pensions and benefit plans were scaled back (or eliminated outright), while layoffs, open shop laws, and worker anxiety bled away union clout until it was a shadow of its former self.
The initial thrust of this coincided with a set of social upheavals which further unsettled the white working class worldview and provided cover for the corporations. As stated above, it’s easier and almost reflexive to seek scapegoats than it is to question the legitimacy of one’s psychic framework. If things have grown increasingly precarious, it has to be the fault of liberals/Jews/blacks/feminists/queers/Japanese/Mexicans/take your pick of whatever Other fits best as a bogeyman with a specific local community.
The corporations didn’t bother correcting that line of thinking. Meanwhile, the strains of progressive politics that had traditionally be used to mobilize and galvanize these communities had largely morphed into a paternalistic liberalism associated with technocrats and academia. What populist elements did remain devolved into a contradictory and paranoid mix of reactionary evangelism and unapologetic racism.
Despite large volumes of hot air expended on how to reconnect with these folks, liberals have never made a serious effort to woo them back. There’s no percentage in actively engaging them, especially when it might conflict with the flow of corporate donations. After all, you’re not actually opposed to the flawed system, either. The sympathetic remnants can be taken for granted whenever the election season rolls around and ignored otherwise.
So the rot of racism and resentment, the ground game that plays itself, continues to fester and reach even greater heights of paranoia….until someone with a slicker line than yours finds a way to weaponize it and unleash it against you in a howl of electoral outrage.