America is currently one of the world’s largest dysfunctional families. A typical response to living in such a family is a concentration of anger, blame and victimization. There is often little unjustified about this as history but it can be extraordinarily damaging if history is allowed to define the future.
The best alternative is to learn from the past but consider it replaceable. This is part of the story of all progress in human history, but it’s having a tough time these days.
It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen such open anger by members of the American family. And it’s not just the Trump faction. Liberals have returned the favor with attacks not only on those at the top but those they have been badly misled. They are, among other things, “deplorables” and lavished with “white privilege.”
To anyone practiced in social and political activism, this can, to put it mildly, seem counterproductive. I became an activist in the Saul Alinsky era and learned not to judge people by the purported norms of their culture but by their potential help to the cause currently underway. Little things taught me not to make predictions based on common assumptions but by the way specific issues to help redefine these assumptions. For example, the first battle in the great anti-freeway fight in my hometown of DC was launched by black and white middle class homeowners. How often does something like that happen?
I tell people that if they find a gun-toting, abortion-hating nun who will help you save the forest, put her on the committee. There are simply not enough people who agree with you on everything to get everything done. As one of six kids I learned this early: build your alliances issue by issue. And the wonderful thing is, as you work together on a particular cause, you learn to appreciate your allies in new ways and common assumptions quietly drift away.
A good current example is America’s white community. It is considered okay in many liberal quarters to trash this group. Yet only about 25% of Americans call themselves liberal. So what if you want to get something actually done rather than just chastising those you disagree with? How do you do it without white support?
The fact is that there are any number of things that black, latinos and whites share in common ranging from money issues to the environment. Yet we quietly act as though this isn’t so and thus ignore things like these:
- ·About 57% of white households earn less than the white household median income. That is almost 50 million white households who could use some economic help.
- There are about 11 million blacks who live in poverty, but almost 20 million whites are in a similar condition.
- Barack Obama got 43% and 39% of the white vote – tied with the results in 1992 and 1996, and under the total in 1976. But his black presidency got a higher percentage of white votes than any candidate in all the other elections going back to 1972.
- One study found that Trump did better in states with high income inequality.
Now, by any normal standard, one would expect at least some of these figures to help the Democrats. But, in fact Democrats had long given up on many of the issues that brought less successful Americans into their fold. As I wrote in my book on Clinton back in 1994:
During the [first] 100-day session of Congress, Franklin Roosevelt pushed through legislation that rescued the banking industry, slashed government pay, established the Civilian Conservation Corps, passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, provided relief for millions of citizens, regulated Wall Street, created bank deposit insurance and set up the TVA.
Clinton, in comparison, reversed a number of anti-abortion regulations, signed a motor voting bill and a family leave act, and agreed to the global biodiversity treaty… Clinton also proposed a timid “jobs package” (grandiosely calling it a “Vision of Change for America”) that even before it was eviscerated by Congress would have disappeared with barely a trace into the gross national product. Meanwhile Clinton waffled on whether gays could join the military, and reversed campaign positions on a middle-class tax cut, the return of Haitian refugees and Bosnia. Despite this modest and mixed record, Clinton asserted that his was “the most action oriented administration in our memory.”
And it got worse. In 1997 I wrote:
From the start of the New Deal to the end of Jimmy Carter’s tenure, the main course of American domestic politics was directed towards the improvement of life for the average citizen. The pace might vary markedly and the methods change, but not until the arrival of Ronald Reagan did power turn massively inward — determined to serve itself firstly and mostly.
Even that otherwise egregious warlock of Whittier, Richard Nixon, practiced domestic affairs in the tradition of social democracy. He was, in fact, our last liberal president, an amazing claim until one considers that he favored a negative income tax, revenue sharing, a guaranteed income for children, supplementary programs for the aged, blind, and disabled; uniform application of the food stamp program; better health insurance programs for low income families, aid to community colleges, aid to low-income college students, the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and increased funding for elementary and secondary schools. Today someone of Nixon’s domestic political tendencies would probably be considered too radical for C-SPAN.
The dirty truth of the matter is that since Reagan, Democrats have increasingly turned their backs on a former huge core constituency – ordinary citizens both black and white, who need help – and turned instead to non economic social issues while their leaders became increasingly close to Wall Street.
Meanwhile, the media, like the Democratic Party, came increasingly embedded in the economic standards of places like the Harvard business School; they got ride of their labor reporters, and they made it increasingly hard for ordinary citizens to figure out what was going on.
That’s the history. Now what do we do about it? Blame and excoriation not only is wrong; it doesn’t work. Now is the time for the strong and the wise to redefine the game. We’ve done it before, which is why we’ve had abolition, labor unions and the rise of women.
A conscious coalition of black, latino, labor, women and environmental groups needs to be formed and start advocating rights and other good things we can bring to America by working together. It needs to steer the media more towards truth and away from nice sounding lies. And it needs to emphasize those issues – like economics – in which Americans of all identities can find common ground.
Finally, we need to work with, educate and then include in this coalition whites who – thanks to false politics and media – were tricked into voting for Trump. Show them how to move from directionless anger to true and good goals