[see “Two Sides, One Coin”]
Before delving into why it will be more important to play than work as this century progresses, let’s spend a few more moments looking at the internal contradiction of the middle class trump voter.
Mother Jones recently ran an in-depth article culled from the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right on white Louisiana tea partiers and why they voted for trump. The author, Arlie Russell Hochschild, made an honest effort to understand the tea partiers, spending five years getting to know them and allowing them to speak for themselves.
However, as anybody who has ever watched Errol Morris at work, the way you strike gold in an interview is to just let the subject/s talk.
The more they talk, the more they reveal…
“Sharon also faced economic uncertainty. A divorced mother of two, she supported herself and two children on an ample but erratic income, all from commission on her Aflac sales [of health insurance to working class families]. ‘If you’re starting out, you might get 99 “noes” for every one “yes.” After 16 years on the job, I get 50 percent “yeses.”’ This put her at the top among Aflac salespeople; still, she added, ‘If it’s a slow month, we eat peanut butter.’
“Until a few years ago, Sharon had also collected rent from 80 tenants in a trailer court. Her ex-husband earned $40,000 as a sales manager at Pacific Sunwear, she explained, and helped with child support; altogether it allowed her to pay her children’s tuition at a parochial school and stay current on the mortgage of a tastefully furnished, spacious ranch house in suburban Moss Bluff. She lived in the anxious middle.
“And from this vantage point, the lives of renters in her trailer park, called Crestwood Community, had both appalled and unnerved her. Some of her tenants, 80 percent of whom were white, had matter-of-factly admitted to lying to get Medicaid and food stamps. When she’d asked a boy her son’s age about his plans for the future, he answered, ‘I’m just going to get a [disability] check, like my mama.’ Many renters had been, she told me, able-bodied, idle, and on disability…
“…Unable to pay an astronomical water bill, Sharon had been forced to close the trailer park, giving residents a month’s notice and provoking their resentment.
“In truth, Sharon felt relief. Her renters, she said, had been a hard-living lot. A jealous boyfriend had murdered his girlfriend. Some men drank and beat their wives. One man had married his son’s ex-wife. Beyond that, Sharon had felt unfairly envied by them. ‘I’ve been called a rich bitch. They think Miss Sharon lives the life of Riley.’ And while her home was a 25-minute drive away, the life of her renters had felt entirely too close for comfort. ‘You couldn’t talk to anyone at Crestwood whose teeth weren’t falling out, gums black, missing teeth,’ adding that she gave out toothbrushes and toothpaste one Christmas. ‘My kids make fun of me because I brush my teeth so much.’
“To her, the trailer park both did and did not feel worlds away. For one thing, a person’s standard of living, their worldview and basic identity, seemed already set on a floor of Jell-O. Who could know for sure how you would fare in the era of an expanding bottom, spiking top, and receding middle class?”
A pause before we continue:
If you want the summation of the ills of this country, indeed the ills of the Western world, look no further. The slickee boiz and the demagogues both prey on the same fundamental Achilles’ heel, the stark terror the middle class feels at the thought of slipping from their precarious position and sliding even lower.
It is how this country, particularly the southern states, managed to keep a lid on disadvantaged poor whites* by deliberately suppressing and demonizing African-Americans, shoving them down to an even lower level of cultural depravity, then telling the poor whites they were “lucky” (read: “Better behave yourself, boy”) they were white, otherwise their disgrace and degeneration would be absolute.
It is how that lid is maintained to this day, fostering resentment among an anxious middle class that “they” — whoever those unworthies are — are not just stealing from the middle class but actively threatening them by undermining their status.
And conversely, the 1% — like a slick con man shilling the rubes with 3-Card Monte — diverts the lower classes’ attention and thought away from the real owners and instead directs it towards the struggling middle class as the authors of lower class misery.
” As we drove from the trailer park to her home, Sharon reflected on human ambition: “You can just see it in some guys’ eyes; they’re aiming higher. They don’t want a handout.” This was the central point of one of Sharon’s favorite books, Barefoot to Billionaire, by oil magnate Jon Huntsman Sr. (whose son ran in the 2012 Republican presidential primary). Ambition was good. Earning money was good. The more money you earned, the more you could give to others. Giving was good. So ambition was the key to goodness, which was the basis for pride.
“If you could work, even for pennies, receiving government benefits was a source of shame. It was okay if you were one of the few who really needed it, but not otherwise. Indignation at the overuse of welfare spread, in the minds of tea party supporters I got to know, to the federal government itself, and to state and local agencies. A retired assistant fire chief in Lake Charles told me, ‘I got told we don’t need an assistant fire chief. A lot of people around here don’t like any public employees, apart from the police.’ His wife said, ‘We were making such low pay that we could have been on food stamps every month and other welfare stuff. And [an official] told our departments that if we went and got food stamps or welfare it would look bad for Lake Charles so that he would fire us.’ A public school teacher complained, ‘I’ve had people tell me, “It’s the teachers who need to pass the kids’ tests.” They have no idea what I know.’ A social worker who worked with drug addicts said, ‘I’ve been told the church should take care of addicts, not the government.’ Both receivers and givers of public services were tainted — in the eyes of nearly all I came to know — by the very touch of government.
“Sharon especially admired Albert, a middle-aged sheet metal worker who could have used help but was too proud to ask for it. ‘He’s had open-heart surgery. He’s had stomach surgery. He’s had like eight surgeries. He’s still working, though. He wants to work. He’s got a daughter in jail — her third DUI, so he’s raising her son — and this and that. But he doesn’t want anything from the government. He’s such a neat guy.’ There was no mention of the need for a good alcoholism rehab program for his daughter or after-school programs for his grandson. Until a few days before his death Albert continued working, head high, shame-free.”
There in lays the other part of the equation, the secret by which the 1% manipulates the working and middle classes: We have a society that teaches one’s value and status can only be determined by the amount of money you make working for somebody else.
[to be continued]
* Referred to by the aristocracy who imported them for labor as “poor white trash” literally from the moment they stepped off the boat.