Emilio Horner is a political science senior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
From the 70’s forward, this country has been waging a war — not on poverty but on poor people. For too long, lower-class Americans have been demonized, shamed and abandoned. Modern history is the story of rich white corporate bosses scouring the globe for cheap labor and resources, while convincing poor white people back home that brown and black people are their enemies. And no matter what some nice old person once told you about hard work, dreams and bootstraps, it turns out the data shows that class mobility in America is getting worse, not better.
The illusion that America is a classless society of equal opportunity is a lie perpetrated by the powerful elite. This lie is compounded by media that reinforces celebrity nonsense and sports rivalries in order to make the average citizen pretend they are tuned into the winning team. But it turns out Warriors fans are losing the class war just as much as Thunder fans.
Additionally, corporate-owned, distraction-based media (the supposedly liberal media is only as liberal as its corporate bosses) is complementary to the terrifying rise of faux right wing populists who now blame unions and minorities for the crimes of Wall Street. We all know the numbers. The upper 1 percent of Americans are currently taking home a quarter of the nation’s income and approximately 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Some apologists for hypercapitalist violence will argue a rising tide lifts all boats, but while the top 1 percent has seen an 18 percent increase in income in the past 10 years, those in the middle have seen income fall. For working class men with only a high school degree, the last 25 years have seen a 12 percent loss in income. People are suffering.
Economic polarization and income inequality are the result of laborsaving technologies reducing middle class jobs, globalization pitting better paid domestic workers against cheap workers oversees, and the decline in unions, which once represented about a third of American works. Tax policy compounded the effects including a reduction on the capital gains tax. Specific economic solutions are tricky, but any quality modern economy requires government investment in infrastructure, education and new technology.
None of the last four paragraphs are particularly new analysis, so why is it that policies have not been put in place to actually deal with massive income inequality? Additionally, why do poor white working class people continue to vote Republican when it appears to be against their own economic interest?
Part of the problem is a lack of class consciousness in America. Approximately 90 percent of people identify as middle class, when in actuality, a majority of those people are working class. A 2005 Gallup poll showed that while only 2 percent of Americans describe themselves as rich, approximately 31 percent thought they would be rich someday. This reasoning is partially responsible for the fact that of the 10 states with the lowest median household income, nine backed John McCain in 2008. Another issue is the fact that social issues continue to divide the country. Opponents of abortion and gay rights and gun control continue to vote Republican despite supporting economic populism.
There’s a clear racial issue at play here. Republicans have long scapegoated black and brown people in the South to reinforce their electoral coalition of greedy businessman and war criminal neocons. The fact that Republican leaders consciously appealed to white southerners’ racial resentments to drum up votes is not well hidden. Former RNC chairman Lee Atwater admitted that yelling the “n word” in 1954 would get one elected, but by 1968 one had to code racism into things like criticizing forced bussing, affirmative action and supporting cutting taxes and states’ rights. The obvious outcomes of these policies are impacting certain demographics more than others. Ronald Reagan famously used the racist and sexist imagery of the welfare queen to tap into dominant racist and sexist stereotypes of women (uncontrolled sexuality) and African Americans (laziness). More recently, the chairman of the Republican Party in Jackson County, Arkansas argued that Obama is destroying America like Nelson Mandela destroyed South Africa, by handing it over to the wrong people.
Of course, the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the working class is hardly any better. Bill Clinton gutted welfare and deregulated the economy, and he also tapped into racial anger by overseeing the execution of a mentally ill black death row inmate to insure that voters the Democrats are tough on crime. Democrats relied on unions for support while at the same time supported supposed free trade deals that were simply corporate giveaways. Clinton, as far as I’m concerned, is the best president the Republicans never had.
Finally, the rhetoric and attitude that many liberals have toward working class people is one of contempt and disrespect. What’s the point of discussing how terrible income inequality is one minute, then dismissing anyone who likes guns or believes in god as idiots the next? Additionally, narratives of the poor as lazy appear on both the right and left. Why is it easier to believe that 150,000,000 Americans are being lazy, rather than 400 Americans being greedy? The Democratic Party’s concentration on the urban yuppie electorate has allowed Republican hucksters like Karl Rove and Donald Trump to swoop in and capitalize on economic anger.
In the modern world it’s important to get off the internet and engage with actual people about political differences. After feeling alienated and disheartened by electoral politics all year, I was incredibly inspired at Bernie Sander’s recent rally in Santa Maria. The genuine camaraderie, sense of hope and sense of unity as opposed to politics of divisiveness reverberated throughout a diverse crowd that featured people across race, class, education and gender lines. It gave me hope.
I am a firm believer in the people. I believe it is more that the political elites in both the Republican and Democratic Party have abandoned working class people, than it is that working class people don’t know what’s good for them. When a candidate comes along who speaks truth to power, he or she can breakthrough knee jerk politics of anger and tap into the actual lived experience of people who are unfairly suffering.