May 8, 2017 § 2 Comments
I teach a lot of US History. And every semester, when we get to the Depression, my students are gobsmacked. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, New England or Alabama, or California or Virginia. It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans or disinterested in politics. It doesn’t matter if they’re Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists. To a person they are appalled and disgusted by the response of Herbert Hoover’s government to the Depression.
They don’t understand how the government of the United States, their country, could be so callous towards its citizens. How, they repeatedly ask, could Hoover sleep at night as people were starving and shivering in the streets? How could Hoover and a Republican majority in the House and Senate do nothing as people lost their jobs, their homes, their families?
And then, they read about FDR and the New Deal. And, to a person, they are excited to learn about the New Deal, about how it re-set the government and its relationship to Americans. They are happy to learn that their government responded humanely to the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen in a time of peace.
FDR’s administration did create a new deal between Americans and their government. Out of the Depression was created a government that provided a modicum of care and services to its citizens. Certainly, the so-called welfare state of the United States did not reach the levels it did in the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other Western democracies. But, it did give Americans a change to begin to get back on their feet, though they were certainly helped in this regard by the outbreak of the Second World War.
That Americans as a whole appreciated the New Deal is borne out in the fact that the President came from the Democratic Party from 1933-53 and 1960-69. In addition, the House remained Democratic from 1931 until 1995, with the exceptions of the 80th (1947-49) and 83rd (1953-55) Congresses. The Senate, meanwhile remained blue from 1933-1979, except for those same 80th and 83rd Congresses.
Even Republicans in office retained a respect of the New Deal, reflecting their constituents. A lot has been made of the Reagan Revolution and how it began the dismantling of the New Deal state, but that, in many ways, is overblown. The New Deal understanding of the relationship between state and society, for the most part, survived Reagan.
But it is under attack now. One of my students, during the first attempt to dismantle Obamacare in March, commented on the inhumanity of throwing 24 million people off health care rolls. Another one noted that this appeared to be a break down of the New Deal. This is when I felt like a proud professor, of course.
But they are right. Obamacare was a continuum of the New Deal’s promise to Americans. And while I, a Canadian, think Obamacare is stupid (I much prefer the single-payer system), it was a massive improvement over what came before it. And the American Health Care Act, which was passed by the House last week, is a return to pre-New Deal America. It is a return to Hoover-era politics, where Americans suffered as their government turned its back.
August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments
I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income. That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086. Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.
On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society. The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US. But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party. But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances. But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted. The people here are the forgotten people of the country.
Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history. And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England. Americans like to think they live in a classless society. They don’t. At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests. For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless. And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.
By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance. This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity. In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.” And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this). In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.
Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live. There are people in this county who are well-off. There is even a very tiny middle class. But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor. Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair. The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.
But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all. This is a politically mobilized group in my county. During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent. Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting. Angrily, but they’re voting. They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.
A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.
But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.