Sunday, December 27, 2015

Contempt for the Working Class: Republican and Democratic Editions

This article by David Frum on Donald Trump's appeal to the white working class has inspired me to write a piece on the general contempt for the white working class by the elite of both parties.

The contempt shown to the white working class by Democratic elites has been much discussed.  It is a cultural contempt, joined with accusations of bigotry, and frustrated anger at the white working class for voting Republican against Democratic elites' perception of its interests.  White working class concerns about cultural cohesion are dismissed as nativism.  White working class concerns about black crime are dismissed as racism.  But at least on these issues Democrats have at least half a point. Black and Hispanic citizens have legitimate interests too, and it would be an injustice to dismiss them in order to pursue the white working class vote.  What is more egregious is the attitude of cultural superiority and contempt that liberal elites exude.  All things white working class -- even something trivial like hunting, country music, line dancing, or non-boutique shopping -- are treated as vulgar and worse than vulgar, badges of a certain moral inferiority.  People who claim to be multiculturalists and to value all cultures equally turn out to have one culture they cannot stand -- Middle American white working class culture.

Still, there is one way in which liberal elites do respect the working class.  They respect the work that it does.  No one on the Democratic side of the divide questions that punching a clock is an honest way to make a living, that physically demanding work deserves all of our respect, and that people who work for wages are productive members of society who contribute.

The opposite attitude prevails on the other side of the aisle.  The white working class are constantly praised for their authenticity.  Red state American is the "real" America.  White working class cultural cues are celebrated as marks of virtue.  But seething below the surface among many Republican  donors is a deep economic contempt for the working class, regardless of race.  Mitt Romney's 47% remark is emblematic of that contempt, although it is actually addressed more to retirees living off Social Security -- ironically, a major part of the Republican base.  The bartender who recorded the comment was actually more incensed by another comment Romney made, his enthusiasm for the very low wages that prevailed in China.  He was also bothered by Romney's lack of respect for the wait staff. 

This contempt was expressed in its most extreme form during the first Obama term.  Most notably, with the auto industry bailout.  The National Review and Wallstreet Journal were incensed that banks and hedge funds who had lent to Chrysler and GM took a hit, while the union workers kept their jobs and some of their benefits.  The banks and hedge funds had poured their life blood into those companies, while the auto workers were simply parasites who never invested anything in the company and were bleeding it dry.  Their articles seemed to suggest that cars would assemble themselves just as well without a workforce as with one!  Certainly they did not believe that giving up to thirty years of one's life to a job, suffering repetitive stress injuries and the like counted as an "investment."  Neither publication exactly said that the loss of our auto industry would be a small price to pay for ending the vile scourge of good-paying blue collar jobs with benefits, but the implication was not far below the surface.

The attitude manifested itself plenty of other times as well.  Honor for business owners who devote 16 hours a week to their business is only a small distance from contempt for a workforce that prefers more leisure than that.  One executive poured scorn on Obama, saying that he "never worked a day in his life."  His definition of work is revealing.  "He never made payroll. He’s never built anything." Of course, by that definition, most of population, working class included, has "never worked."  Or, as another columnist put it:
In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?
Another blogger at the time (too lazy to find it) commented that Republicans talk as if everyone runs a business.  Don't they know better?  The answer, I believe, is that they were well aware that most people don't actually run businesses, but they assumed that everyone with any sort of ambition or drive aspires to run a business, and that anyone who is content to go through life with someone else signing his or her paycheck is simply worthless, one of Ayn Rand's "moochers and looters."

This attitude proved a political loser in 2012, so Republican elites have backed off from such statements, at least in public.  What they have not backed off from is their determination, not just to repeal Obamacare, a goal shared by the base, but to use that as a mere stepping stone to start phasing out Medicare and Medicaid and ultimately, if possible, to cut Social Security.  To do so will free up immense resources for a cut in taxes, particularly income taxes, which rebound to the benefit of the top.

In 2012, Democrats' focus group research found that arguing that that was the Republican goal was politically unavailing.  Focus groups simply refused to believe that any party would commit political suicide by embracing such an obviously unpopular course of action.  Trump shows that maybe the base were paying more attention than it seemed.

And he ought, once and for all, to destroy the illusion that the Republican donor class are the "moderates" while the base are the hardliners.  Yes, granted, the donors are more polished than the base.  Their cultural cues are more congenial to a liberal elite.  They reject scapegoating immigrants. If they pander on race, they do so subtly, with plausible deniability.  They favor same sex marriage. But dig down a little deeper to look at economic and international issues, and the picture is a different one altogether.  The donors are programmatically opposed to all government spending (except on the military).  The base are only opposed to some government programs.  Both oppose Obamacare, but the donors oppose it out of a general opposition to all government role in healthcare; the base oppose it as a transfer from the "deserving" (us) to the "undeserving" (them).  The donors see the repeal of Obamacare as a first step toward phasing out Medicaid and Medicare and perhaps even the employer healthcare deduction.  The base sees ending Obamacare as a way of shoring these things up.  The donors want to cut Social Security; the base are dead set against it.  The donors' top priority is cutting tax rates at the top; the base don't particularly care.  The donors want more war; the base don't.  Who, then, is the hard liner and who is moderate?

Frum comments, "Against all evidence, both groups [Republican donors and politicians] interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page." Although I cannot find the link, I once commented that the Tea Party was a test to see if it was possible to build an populist movement entirely on economic conservatism.  The unsurprising answer would appear to be no.

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