Ordinary people hate other ordinary people who are doing better than them. The politics of envy isn’t about the rich, whom ordinary people almost never see, but about their neighbours. And Americans want a mean economy, one where everyone has to suffer like they do. As long as the union movement is about a few people keeping higher wages, it will continue to fail. A union movement which is centered around public service unions cannot stand.I think this is the real story of the Wisconsin elections. Corporate money was a factor, no doubt, as was conservative propaganda, but all the money and spin in the world won’t help you win if most people just flat out don’t agree with you. The fact is, demagogic appeals to people’s fear and envy always trump good will and common sense. Nowhere is this more true than in America, where the only thing we love more than money is kicking someone in the guts when they’re down.
But, say lefties like Michael Moore, poll after poll shows that Americans usually come down on the progressive side of the issues. Well, maybe, but election after election keeps putting reactionary Republicans and conservative Democrats back in office. Why is that?
I don’t care what any poll says. This country is firmly, staunchly, stupidly center-right. It doesn’t matter if a poll says most Americans favor single-payer health care, because those same people will turn right around and vote for some right-wing demagogue who cries that it’s “socialism!” Most Americans would benefit from bigger stimulus spending, extended unemployment benefits, and a strong labor movement, but all of that’s irrelevant. Rational considerations like that get thrown out the window as soon as a politician or a talk show host tells people that the dirty fuckin’ Mexicans are stealing their jobs, or that lazy government workers are prospering on their dime, or that class warfare against multimillionaires in the form of the capital gains tax is wrecking our economy.
If Americans are so damn progressive, why do we live in the least progressive nation of all the advanced industrial democracies? Why does public policy always, always, drift in favor of the rich and powerful? The divide and conquer tactics employed by the likes of Scott Walker succeed because so many American fundamentally agree with them. When they’re told about wicked teacher’s unions, they remember the high school civics teacher who always gave them detention and think, “Yeah, fuck teachers!” When they hear about public service workers getting higher pensions than themselves, they remember some petty government department that levied a fine on them for some minor infraction, and they think, “Yeah, fuck government workers!”
As for the Mexicans, they haven’t got a chance in this environment. Anti-Mexican bigotry is de rigueur among the white working class. It is openly and proudly expressed. It’s just taken for granted that Mexicans, who may work as dishwashers and sleep six to a room, somehow constitute a privileged aristocracy that the government mysteriously favors over good hard working white Americans. This view as common as the day is long, and it’s impossible to dislodge it from a brain where it’s taken root. I’ve given up trying. I’ve been inches away from fist fights over this issue. The fact is, they want to blame Mexicans for their problems for one simple reason: they want to blame Mexicans for their problems. Period. Keep your logic to yourself.
Appealing to the the lowest common denominator works because the lowest common denominator is our most potent driving force. We are the lowest common denominator. We are overlapping, interwoven bundles of lowest common denominators that, working together in perfect synergy, has produced a nation whose most salient traits are militarism, economic inequality, and authoritarian police agencies. Read de Tocqueville. Read Hofstadter. There’s a deeply ingrained core of hysterical, greedy, self-defeating stupidity that makes up a large part of our national character. It goes all the way back to pre-colonial times. It’s just who we are.
Alexander Hamilton was right. “Your people,” he said,“ is a great beast.”
(A side note: As we speak, the big brains in the Democratic party are betting that going against public employee unions is smart politics. Rather than standing up for organized labor on principle, they’re going to kneecap it for short term political gain. Public employees unions are going to be the next bargaining chip, the next sacrificial lamb, in some Obamian grand bargain with the far right. Watch the Democrats sell them out. You just watch them do it.)