They feel deplorable. They feel like losers and want to hitch on to someone they think is a winner. They do not understand where the world is going. They do not understand the new economy, the new technology, the new morality. But do any of us, really? And this guy comes along with the answers and the promise that he will make them great again.
They see very wealthy people with high university degrees having lots of opportunities while they have none. They see women, people of color, and foreigners pass them by in education and position. (Whether statistical facts or not, they are felt facts especially when you see a black man with a muslim name become master of the White House.) They see little hope for their children and grandchildren certainly not the hope of those bygone days when there were secure jobs in mines, farms, and factories--union jobs with decent pay and benefits. They feel themselves shoved around by forces they do not understand. But along comes a guy who knows why and how. He will fix it. Only he can. He says. And she says that she has a plan.
I have met many of these red-state folks. And now much is being written to explain them. Books trace the "white underclass" from the beginning of American history and before. Some by journalists or intellectuals who got out when they could. They demonstrate how they have been caught in an economic system that favors wealthy real estate and wall street moguls and their heirs, but leaves poor whites out.
John L Lewis and his UMW, Roosevelt in his New Deal, Kennedy on his focus on Appalachia, Johnson in many of his War on Poverty programs recognized the issues of the white poor in rural, mining, and mountainous areas. But the shift since the 70s has been to the urban poor, mainly black and brown. And our neighbors in these outer areas feel hurt. And the new economy, the new technology, and the new morality of urban dwellers rub it in.
White nationalist politicos use these hurts to exploit them, as victims of blacks and browns, of university elite, and urban media. Populist demagogues say poor whites need a savior who can fix their problems. And liberals hold them as victims of conservatives. Liberals blame their backwardness and lack of education which prevent them from adapting to the new economy and technology. Most of the books about their plight, even when sympathetic, describe them as angry, pessimistic, and victims. And TV sitcoms and late night comedians ridicule their religious faith, their traditional morality, their cultural ways.
Pollsters describe their out-of-sync values and attitudes. Intellectuals prescribe policies and programs to help--tax cuts, job programs, free education. But few work in a sustained way with them to design their own programs and form their own communities.
If I were younger today I hope I would go live in the Appalachian, Plains, and rural white communities, the way we did in black and farmworker communities, and urge and teach the ways to organize themselves. I, with a team of trained organizers selected from leaders from their own communities, would spend time listening to them--their woes, their prejudices, their hopes. We would not tell them what they must do or who should lead them. We would give them no answers to their questions. But we would provoke them to keep asking those questions and discover the answers. We would ask them what they want for their kids and themselves. And we would ask them what is keeping them from getting it.
I would not try to write their stories or solve their problems. I would urge them to tell their own stories and analyze their problems. I would challenge them to take responsibility and action for getting in rather than blaming those who are keeping them out. Because when you blame others, foreigners, strangers, enemy agents, you give away power instead to taking it for yourself from within yourself.
We would not write another book about them, but assist them in writing their own book, using their own research and analyses, using their own photography and poetry, in their strive towards dignity. We would not judge their culture, their values, or their religious beliefs unless these restrained them from action, made them wait passively for some outside power, whether supernatural, governmental, or charitable, to save them.
We would not try to get public or private resources for their communities until they created the independent power base to harness their own resources and demand the ones they deserved. In fact we would urge private foundations and government agencies to invest in education, jobs, and other social and economic development projects only when the people organized themselves and determined the projects they want and take responsibility for. We would urge them to choose allies of whatever religion or color, and thus to grow their power to get what they wanted to strengthen their communities, their families, and themselves.
We would urge them to tell all political parties to go to hell until the parties supported their agenda. Nevertheless we would urge them to develop a strong voting block so that all political parties give them what they want, not just what the parties think they should want. No quick fix like electing a master or overseer to take care of them. We should help them see that they are being used by self appointed leaders in political parties or in ideological hate groups who have their own agendas.
We would help them see that the white underclass in rural areas, in the mountains and the plains, and in cities are powerless until they are organized on their own terms. And acting on their agendas which transcend liberal and conservative labels and, most of all, which are based on a positive vision, not fear of novelty and hate of others.
And once this goddamned election is out of the way.
(PS I write this after reading White Trash and many Atlantic, WP, and WSJ articles most of which identify cultural differences without treating the political-economic dimension, and offer solutions that provide benefits without building power in the people being benefited.)