When Else Have Poor People Been So Disenfranchised?

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Jerome Braun is an interdisciplinary scholar who has written primarily on culture and personality, and alienation in modern society. He is the author of The Humanized Workplace: A Psychological, Historical, and Practical Perspective (Praeger, 1994).

Now that we are about a half year away from the “official” start of the next presidential campaign, it is as good a time as any to take stock.  The unemployment rate still hangs around 9 percent.  No doubt the real unemployment rate, which includes people who have dropped out of the work force together with involuntary part-timers, is close to double that.  We’re also still stuck in wars declared and undeclared with no real end in sight.  And what can be called working-class interests, and a working-class presence in political discussion, is still maudlin, timid, unassertive, and way off the radar screen for most of the mass media.

Did we face similar eras of lachrymose whining in the past?  Not by the poor themselves, since they’ve never been given much of a voice, nor from our talking heads, for whom the problems of the poor are as real as the problems of some foreign tribe.

The wealthier classes are now, in fact, prepared to spread the word about the benefits of trickle-down economics ad infinitum now that the Supreme Court has decided in the Citizens United case that corporations can add their opinions to political campaigns to their heart’s consent.  The poor can too, if they can figure out how to pay for it.

Let’s see if there were other eras where working-class interests were also ignored, or in some cases weren’t.  The latter situation occurred after World War II in Britain, when in 1945 the war hero, Winston Churchill, was ousted in favor of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, which campaigned on the platform of promising to reward the working class of Britain for their suffering during the Great Depression and their sacrifices during World War II.  Their needs were then put into focus and plans were made to meet them by giving the welfare state some strong moorings, with plans for health care for all, cheap college tuition for those who could benefit from it, and a real social security system to produce pensions that people could live on.  Soon Britain, a country essentially poorer than America, could afford things that we don't even have yet.

In the U.S. the Democrats were also returned to power about that time, but soon the working class of the U.S. found that their needs, brought to the attention of the political class during the Great Depression, were being derailed by anti-communist crusades.  Oddly enough, Britain and France, who were on the front-lines of the threat from the Soviet Union, reacted less hysterically to this than we did.  It seems moralistic crusades are a pet vice of our political class, especially if it helps distract people in general from focusing on our problems at home.  Moralizing also relieves politicians the burden of having to step on the toes of powerful interests who might not be too concerned with working people.  It interferes with profits after all, and why help poor people in the short run when you can make promises about trickle-down economics in the long run?  Also, upper-class interests often like to be distracted by foreign affairs, since it has become their version of football, though football fans probably take their game more seriously.  So why interfere with all their fun?

Meanwhile, the AFL/CIO, instead of providing leadership to America’s working class, decided to go it alone and focus on getting advantages for certain workers in certain industries, like construction workers, and not for others.  The AFL/CIO also thought that relying on strikes, like they did during the 1930s would impress the public.  

It did.  Unfavorably. 

With no true working-class agenda analogous to the alliance between the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party in Britain, working-class influence in the U.S. fell into doldrums during the late 1940s.  In Britain, meanwhile, it took another generation for working-class power to wane, and hubris by some of Britain’s unions which made Margaret Thatcher prime minister helped, but that’s another story.

Let’s take a look at another historical parallel.  In Weimar Germany, intellectuals discussed ideas about a welfare state and workers rights that did not reach fruition until the 1950s.  But in the ‘20s, the wealthy classes of Germany protected their turf with aggressiveness and ruthlessness that the Left could only whine about, without any effective counter-strategy.  Partly this was because the leaders of the Left (with the possible exception of the Communist Party) fell into two extremes:  the not-very-effective academic theorists, and rather the simple-minded leftist politicians who were so dazzled by the power and the influence of social elites that they half-wanted to join them in power or feared them too much to confront them. 

Thus when outright shenanigans occurred on the part of the judiciary and the military, the government acquiesced more often than not.  In 1920, the ruling Social Democrats even crushed a left-wing uprising in the Ruhr that they themselves called for in response to an attempted putsch in Berlin.  Even when economic disasters occurred, such as the massive inflation of the early 1920s, big business advisors, the kind whose peers benefited from inflation by paying back their business loans for capital investments with inflated money, acted as if they were clueless.  The result was that the left-wing government was blamed for failed economic programs; in reality, the programs were anything but leftist.  So workers became demoralized, for they had no one to turn to other than the idiotic Communists, and they were not very motivated at defending their so-called leaders when the Nazis took them on a few years later.

Do you see a parallel with the Obama administration’s fear of taking on entrenched big insurance, big pharmaceuticals, and big banks that are now too big to fail?  Actually, all of them are now considered too big to fail.  We’re also stuck in a number of wars, declared and undeclared, and there has not yet been a serious move to slim down the military-industrial complex.  As for the judiciary, they are going down the merry activist road, Left and Right alike.  Burden-of-proof reasoning and vague clichés about freedom, with very little sense of context, has increasingly become their stock in trade.  Their knowledge of the experiences of common citizens is probably better than their elitist equivalents in the judiciary of Weimar-era Germany, but the similarities of aristocratic obtuseness is still too close for comfort.

Another parallel is one from Reconstruction, when we went from arguably America’s best president, Abraham Lincoln, to arguably America’s worst, Andrew Johnson.  Johnson proved himself to be essentially a social-climbing hack.  He disliked the highest class of Southern plantation society, but his solution to their dead weight on Southern life was merely to get them out of the way so that the class right beneath them could take over and become the new elite.  He thought that would make room for people like him.  He couldn’t even imagine a strategy to help both poor whites and poor blacks.  And so, partly because of his intense antagonism, there wasn’t any.

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, was always his own master, somewhat intellectual and aloof, a moralist at heart as well as a politician.  He didn’t fear the rich and powerful as much as he wanted to help the poor and helpless.  He just thought he should be politically astute in doing so. 

Some have compared Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln.  Would that it be so.    

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