The argument here is that Democrats have gradually developed tone-deafness to legitimate feelings of betrayal and suffering on the part of a sizeable number of their constituents, with the result that they have lost faith in that Party. This assertion rests not only on the evidence of the Presidential election, but on the cumulative loss of 60 Congressional seats during the last eight years, the collapse of unions, and the deterioration of public schools. Furthermore, the degree to which Democrats have subordinated the interests of their base to embrace neoliberalism, has created a perfect storm under cover of which Donald Trump gained the sanctum sanctorum of American political power.
If the reasons were not so apparent, Democratic protestations of confusion and dismay as to what happened in the presidential and down-ticket elections might elicit pity. When that ignorance requires us to swallow the toxic cotton-candy that Democrats and progressives are the good guys and undeserving of this fate, it exposes a willful blindness to contradictions between stated Democratic policy and the actions of candidates striving to gain or maintain political purchase. That growing blindness has created canyons between the Democratic Party and their constituents.
A brief review of near history should highlight this point.
“The Fed began raising interest rates in 1977, and the American economy tipped
into recession in 1980, at which point the central bank took its foot off the brakes.
But inflation rates continued to rise, and so shortly after the economy recovered
(briefly) in July of 1980, Mr. Volker orchestrated a series of interest rate
increases that took the federal funds target from around 10% to near 20%.”
Unintended consequences of this precipitous escalation (under a Democratic president) was the extinction of 22 million family farmers who had faithfully followed the advice of the official institutions mandated to help them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, Congressional subcommittees, local banks and savings institutions, et al, had assured farmers that rising land values and additional income from increased crop yields would insulate them from debt so that it would be prudent to mortgage their land, buy expensive equipment and plant and harvest fencerow to fencerow— and they did.
When Washington later signaled its seriousness about fighting inflation, Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volker (under a Democratic President), raised interest rates by five points in a single day. The farmers could no longer meet their new debt obligations and were scrubbed off their land as efficiently as if a glacier had scoured it down to bedrock.
After the first glacier, came others, perhaps not as large but equally destructive. For every five farms that disappeared under the auctioneer’s hammer, a local business closed. Farming towns lost their hardware and feed stores, their FFA and scout leaders, coaches, school principals, and auto-parts stores. Deep depression and shame metastized in the farming belt growing into a deadly scourge wherein the leading cause of death on the family farm soon became suicide.
Powerful antigovernment resentments began to blossom in that blighted soil. In the Clinton years when clinical depression and farm suicides (often disguised as accidents to secure insurance settlements for survivors) were at an all-time high, Federal mental health service budgets were cut severing the last life to the rural communities. Into these crippled and disoriented towns local militias and strict constitutionalists (often the same folks) began to surface like mushrooms after rain. Men with red-covered copies of the Constitution in their pockets, who would deal only with silver money, began to offer comfort and support to the suffering families. They branded all who had taken oaths to the Federal government—sheriffs, judges, game wardens, etc.—as mortal enemies and offered fund-raising bake sales to the farmers, supporting them on their homesteads. They offered shoulders to cry on, and most importantly, explanations. It’s not your fault, the farmers were reassured (and it wasn’t). It’s the Jews, or (depending on the speaker’s operant prejudices), Nelson Rockefeller, the Rothschilds, the Queen of England, One-World government, or the UN and black helicopters. These theories were often clutched and absorbed by broken hearts and minds tormented by unbearable losses. Before long, a toxic antigovernment, antiestablishment virus dusted the soil like an early snowfall.
On April 19, 1995, a former farmer, a militia member, and friends blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more. Until September 11, 2001, this was the worst terrorist attack on American soil in the nation’s history. Colorado newspaper editor, Joel Dyer, author of Harvest of Rage, a history of the post-Volker farm debacle, was the government’s chief expert witness on militias at the Oklahoma City trial. He held that there were four to six people involved in the bombing. “The government caught two,” his inference being that other conspirators and cells were marking time awaiting their own opportunities for vengeance. Odd news stories surfaced from time to time about farmers being arrested with sarin and ricin nerve toxins and plans to distract the government with some catastrophe so that they might seize a section of territory by armed force, as guerrillas in Latin America had done. Dyer was not optimistic about near-term diminution of their anger.
Another crop of future Trump supporters was nurtured when Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform legislation imposed an absolute lifetime limit of five years on government assistance to needy families. That legislation ended Federal definitions of eligibility and all guarantees of assistance to anyone. Under the new legislation each State could determine whom to exclude in any manner it chose as long as it did not violate the Constitution. Little imagination is required to guess the reactions this legislation elicited from poor minority and white households nationwide.
For sixty previous years, Aid to Families with Dependent Children had been an entitlement, now a dirty word, but then an official term with two critical parts: a federally defined guarantee of assistance to families with children who met the statutory definition of need, and a federal guarantee to the states of a matching share of the money needed to help those qualified for assistance.
Under the new laws mothers found themselves dropped from welfare rolls and required to accept any available job, with no additional money for travel, day-care, transportation, or baby-sitting. The dignity of labor was expanded to include losing their fingernails plucking chickens in Tyson processing plants or working at Walmart for minimum wage while stressing family, relatives, and friends to care for their children. This legislation bolstered membership in the new growing serf class of people working 40 hours a week, and still not earning enough to rise above Federal poverty standards. These legal minimum wages left households one accident or illness away from penury. (An added benefit to employers [read campaign contributors] of this sudden flood of legislatively conscripted cheap labor was to undermine union efforts to achieve living wages.)
The media contributed to the campaign by reporting on controversy via coded dog-whistle language, insinuating that some believed food stamps and welfare were giveaways to African Americans. (In reality white women were the major beneficiaries.) The blowback from this legislation caused further stress in the poverty belt and dangerous erosion of the working poor’s confidence in government—a crop of sentiments the country harvested on November 8, 2016.
In 1979 the Treaty of Detroit, a longstanding agreement between automakers and labor guaranteeing basic cost-of-living increases, pensions, health insurance, and rising wages as profits rose, was destroyed by the United Auto Workers Union, one of the original participants. After purging leftists and socialists under the guise of keeping American industry competitive, the Union now forced its own members to give up benefits and rights to keep their jobs. The Democratic Party missed the opportunity to champion and protect labor, and the unions have never recovered.
* * *
“The Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s (commonly dubbed the S&L crisis was the failure of 1,043 out of 3,234 savings and loan associations in the
United States from1986 to 1995:…In 1996, the General Accounting Office estimated the total cost to be $160 billion, including $132.1 billion taken from taxpayers. The FSLIC and RTC were created to resolve the S&L crisis.”
When all final costs to the taxpayer were tallied, the actual tab was a staggering $220 billion.
Scarcely more than a decade later in 2000, Congress loosed the reins again, allowing the antsy horses of Wall Street to bolt once again with investors’ cash. The corresponding legal preparation involved the repeal of Glass-Steagall (the Financial Modernization Act of 2000) nullified laws and regulations which had protected and stabilized the economy since the Great Depression by preventing financial institutions from speculating with investors’ money. The skids on which this major restraint was slid offstage, were greased by millions of lobbyists’ dollars piped into Congress to buy “yes” votes. The 25% of the legislature who resisted, were drowned out by a chorus of Reaganomics mantras asserting that transferring money from the working class to the wealthy would incentivize business owners to expand and create new jobs. The yammer drowned out the feeble Congressional resistance, 343-86, and the Act was signed into law by a Democratic president. While they were at it, Congress also removed laws preventing usury by credit card companies.
Fast-forward to 2008, when the weakening of banking and oversight regulation produced the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Month after month, TV provided shocking displays of families evicted from their homes (6,000,000 a month at one point), armed police protecting movers carting furniture, bedding, tools, toys, memorabilia—all their possessions—out on the lawn, so that the same banks which had issued worthless mortgages could reclaim the houses and resell them, while the neighbors looked on in pity and fear.
This collapse was another massive recruitment drive of later Trump voters, but Democrats failed to notice the growing groundswell because they were making as much money from the lobbyists as everyone else. In the new economic laissez-faire of post-Glass-Steagall, the 1/10th of 1% of the nation’s wealthiest were raking in astronomical profits and spending them freely in Washington, conscripting members of Congress as personal concierges. They coopted the entire electoral process by underwriting the election campaigns of both parties, reducing the campaign strategies of all candidates to organizing focus groups to test which message might win them a hall pass to Washington. The return on investment to their patrons was extraordinary, as their grateful employees in Congress weakened and rewrote tax laws in their favor and afforded loophole relief from onerous regulations currently protecting the public commons: environment, food, product safety and the health and safety of workers
Most objective observers of the 2008 debacle, particularly Federal regulator William Black, investigator and prosecutor in the earlier Savings and Loan scandal, referred to the bankers’ liars loans and subprime mortgages as criminal fraud. Not a single person from Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s or Fitch, the ratings agencies who defrauded millions of investors by rating nearly worthless tranches of mortgages as AAA safe, went to jail or was or dered to pay back as much as a library fine.Mr. Black insisted publicly that these events could never have transpired without the criminal collusion of the firms’ CEOs and CFOs. He certainly agreed with the Editorial Board of aol.com which stated:
“What both the S&L crisis and the current financial crisis share are their root causes: Clever manipulation of the banking system that allowed financial firms to reap huge profits while shifting the risks, and ultimately the costs, onto taxpayers.”
Predictably, it all came a crapper. Trillions of dollars of savings, pension funds and personal wealth disappeared into the ethers, and once again, not one CEO, Vice President, or CFO, who took irresponsible risks with investors’ money, was held responsible for the .devastating losses. Not one was fined ½ a percent of what they made, and no one but Bernie Madoff went to jail. And the befuddled Democrats are still wondering what happened? Meanwhile, the people to whom it happened know exactly what hit them.
It is a truism that when human societies become frightened and confused, they seek saviors. Their hope is currently personified in the mass of President-elect Donald Trump. It is a measure of their desperation that the people (well, the electoral college) has chosen a man to lead themwhose entire life has been dedicated to self-aggrandizement and the accumulation of personal wealth. It is a measure of the people’s disgust with the Establishment that they chose such a wildly impulsive, thin-skinned, inappropriate, secretive, mean-spirited figure to represent our nation.
The media personalities who secured Mr. Trump’s national prominence by offering him all the free air time he could fill, now appear uneasy over the collateral damage their generosity has created. Had Mr. Trump been less colorful, behaving behaved less like a man afflicted with Tourettes syndrome, the media would have exiled him appropriately to the media free zone where they keep the likes of David Duke, Lyndon LaRouche, and the Ku Klux Klan. But the TV networks were too busy raking in the engorged audience shares and advertising revenues Mr. Trump’s appearances insured, and began too little too late, asking tough questions— not of Trump, who does not deign to speak with them— but of his surrogates. And the Democrats, rather than assessing the mote in their own eyes and doing a serious review of how this situation came to pass are content to criticize the easy target of Mr, Trump, and by so doing miss the opportunity to reform themselves. Crowds are massing now in the streets vainly trying to reverse the election that has enthroned a new leader who embarrasses and frightens a sizeable majority of nation, but to date, there has been little serious public analysis or apology as to how Democrats failed their constituents and lost their votes.
Fears about Trump, while understandable, can become self-defeating and counter-productive. Fear delivered our nation into this state of affairs —fear for the economy (both national and personal), fear of immigrants, especially Muslims (some of whom could possibly be terrorists like the American’s who blew up the Murrah building), fear of blacks and Latinos (most of them are criminals!), fear of women (who could be too powerful and autonomous if allowed to slip the traces harnessing them to kitchen and children), fear of the poor (who Republicans and Conservatives consider a drain on the economy who contribute nothing), and fear of Globalism (which puts us into competition for jobs with the world’s poorest citizens). Fear and anger elected Mr. Trump President.We should consider carefully the consequences of blind responses.
The root cause of the fear that divides out nation is deeper than anything solvable by law, economics, ideology, or a single leader. All such quick fixes seek a cause outside the central actor in every case—the individual human being. Under stress we search for a glamorized, even messianic leader to save the virtuous selves we imagine in our mirrors, and simultaneously we disown the shadow of each preferred quality we expect of ourselves and our leaders. Those qualities we prefer not to examine, our personal selfishness, , greediness, anger, deluded ideas, and unethical behaviors, we project onto others, creating perfect enemies. They are perfect enemies because they are undefeatable—only phantoms existing in imagination. We are all human and not one of us is purely good or evil. Missing this point leaves us vulnerable to very destructive ignorance and relieves us of the responsibility for self-examination.
Out in the heartland of America, on the farms, in the rust belt and the small towns crippled by the economic blitzkriegs of the last 45 years—the farmers who still own anything or who now work their previous property as employees of mega-agribusiness; the working poor who own less, the masses of the never-considered and overlooked, too consumed by struggle to remain abreast of public policy— all witnessed the gradual or sudden disappearance of their towns, factories and incomes; watched their children moving elsewhere to seek their livelihoods.
Pictures of the Presidents changed in the post office as the years rolled on, but the constant iteration of Establishment values from the TV screens and their transmission of deliriously happy consumers, and the perfectly coiffed men and women of news and talk shows laughing and gossiping, apparently immune to disaster, became omnipresent and resembled glittering gift-wrapping around an insubstantial present.
The heartland people were always watching--for decades—trying to decipher the signals and learn what was required to survive. And they did. First, they learned that nothing ever changed for their benefit —not money, laws, employment, the ceaseless pressure of debt, or the lessening of regulations. Secondly, the new guy, the tough billionaire running for president was unapologetically raising his middle finger to Washington and media elites, confirming their belief that the system was rigged, and exposing all the other contenders as criminals and losers. Midwesterners might have disapproved of some of his racist utterances, or found his bluster and self-promotion difficult to square with Christian modesty and farm-country charity. Others might have been uncomfortable with his misogynistic views, but Trump offered them (apparently) straight talk, the promise of brute force and simplistic solutions, said what he felt, and voiced their deepest suspicions at high volume. Can they be blamed for hoping that he might, at last, be a champion for them?
The sixty-three (and still counting) millions of people who did not vote for Trump are afraid of his proclamations which indicate no capacity to handle the delicate give-and-take of diplomacy. Diplomats fear the unraveling of alliances. Others fear his arrogance and lack of the intellectual curiosity required for serious world problems which resist us or them solutions. Civil libertarians, pro-choice advocates, and minorities fear his Supreme Court and cabinet appointments. Many expect that his proposed tax-cuts for the wealthy will raise taxes on the poor and middle class, reducing support of unemployment, Social Security, Medicare, and subsidized housing. His appointment of climate-science denier fuels fears that he will cancel all sound environmental programs and continue to ignore global warming Secularists anticipate prayers returning to public schools, among these is the most vexing concerns that Mr Trump now controls the most lethal weapon ever devised by man. His finger is metaphorically poised over the nuclear launch button ; the finger belonging to the man who has publicly demanded to know why we developed nuclear weapons if we are not going to use them.
None of these fears will help us or obviate the real threats.The first abiding constant of the Universe is that everything changes. There is unshakeable evidence of that truth and Mr. Trump will be changed and constrained by the presidency or he will be evicted from it. He will chafe against the resistance of Congress like all past presidents, but he will learn to deal with them as he wins some and loses some. I am not suggesting that everything will be alright and that concerned citizens can relax their vigilance. I am more concerned that Democrats appear to be insulated from useful truths by their bullet-proof faith in their own righteousness. If I am correct, it means that they will not take fearless inventories of the callous disregard they have inflicted on the very constituencies which denied them the office and Congressional majority they so dearly sought.
Democrats’ appear to think they need to change their message to voters and in so doing obscure the obvious fact that sizeable numbers of their voters have seen through their message, directly into the Party’s true core values which have morphed since the 1940s into the pursuit, generation, facilitation and protection of wealth. Everything else is lip-service and gift wrapping. The Democrat’s social liberalism may allow one to do it with anybody and put it anywhere, but their secret heart beats to a corporatist, neoliberal, drum and is not red, but cash-green. The voters they required for a victory have discovered this as surely as the Iraquis discovered our true intentions in their country and two months after they danced their welcomes in the streets began setting IEDs to kill us. In 2016 voters decided they apparently are more comfortable with candidates who declare their greed forthrightly.
To pursue the same habitual attempts to discredit or obliterate one’s enemies (foreign or domestic) as if the world will be left pure and perfect by their absence, is to court repeated failure because it derives first and foremost from a fundamental misunderstanding of who we actually are and how we actually treat others behind the bunting. Another path is available,and it needs to be considered if our nation’s wounds are to heal. A short digression may clarify the issue.
From 1975 to 1983, I served as a member and then Chair of a California state agency—The California Arts Council— during Governor Jerry Brown’s two initial terms in office. The first 18 months were a disaster due to my outspokenness and one-sided belief in the exalted truth of my own positions. I (speaking for the Council) had declared that the Council’s future emphasis would be on grass-roots Community Arts and not on the already over-endowed institutions (opera, ballet, symphony, and theater) which I referred to as dinosaurs. Within 18 months, a combination of intemperate speech and exclusionary bias had deadlocked the State.
In the midst of these struggles, I was called into the Governor’s office. He was cordial and said only one thing by way of political instruction. I have never forgotten it. “In a democracy,” he said, “all boats rise or all boats sink. You can’t play favorites.”I left his office incontrovertibly aware that every taxpayer in California had a right to expect their culture to be fairly acknowledged.
An abrupt about-face with the major Arts organizations and Legislators we had previously offended was in order. As spokesman, I offered them sincere apologies, shared our plan for a $20 million future budget in which each and all the constituencies had a place, and asked them to join us in trying to make it so. I was surprised to discover how willing they were to forgive and how willing to consider Council’s needs and concerns. In short order the Arts Council, newly harmonized with a larger, undivided community, won a $4 million dollar increase the next year and raises every year until, within eight years, we were operating with an $18 million budget.
The relevant part of this digression concerns the relationships formed with “my enemies”—the Conservative legislators who had been unceasing in trying to abolish the Council. By admitting errors and mistakes to them and refusing to lie or sugar-coat our faults, tensions between us dissolved, and we were able to find common ground and common interests. These men later saved the Council’s bacon, insuring that our budgets passed through their committees and the State Legislative analyst, even if they personally voted against us on the record to protect themselves from their voters at home.
Listening to older politicians today, reminisce on the news about the days when Washington worked, when men and women fought on the floor of the House and Senate by day and retired afterwards for cordial drinks and visits together, I was reminded of those fence-mending sessions during my tenure in State government. The technique of listening is a time-tested process that offers a critical hope for healing our politics.
During and after the Arts Council, I’ve tempered my judgemental rudeness with over 40 years of spiritual practice as a Zen Buddhist. I am currently an ordained priest and transmitted teacher.(Granted independence by my teacher.) The simplest way to frame the common lessons about success that I garnered from both spiritual and secular realms is that I am my opponent. I am the one I think of as the other. I have to admit that I possess the same capacity for self-righteousness, hasty judgments, greed, ambition, envy, and delusion as those I consider my opponents. Likewise, they possess the same qualities of intelligence, ethics, probity, selflessness and empathy that I would prefer to reserve exclusively as my own. Our behaviors may differ extremely, but that is a result of world-view, beliefs, and past experience not some innate quality of goodness or evil.
It may be difficult for me to discover that Donald Trump has a permanent residence in my psyche, but he is there, alongside Saddam Hussein, the Dalai Lama, addicts of various stripes, mothers, Nelson Mandela, street sweepers, pro and anti-choice activists, environmentalists, loggers, farmers, nurses, teachers, CEOs and bikers. All humans are like radios tuned to receive the entire spectrum of humanity. We can be silly, loving, or kind one instant and in the next, giving the finger to a driver who has cut us off— an impulse perilously close to pulling a trigger.
Not knowing our full capacity as humans makes us dangerous because our reflexive assumption of our own goodness allows us to ignore our shadows—the facets and qualities in humanity of which we prefer to remain ignorant. If we don’t double-check our motives, and simply assume ourselves good, our unclaimed impulses rampage through the world, loosing havoc that we never understand we have caused. As a patriotic American, it’s not easy for me to admit that my country, the good guys, practiced ethnic cleansing on our Native population; enslaved Africans as property for two and a half centuries; blacklisted and im prisoned American citizens for their political beliefs, or in the case of the Japanese, their race. I don’t like admitting that we are the only nation that ever employed nuclear weapons—and we did it twice. Our invasion of Vietnam over a theory, killed 3.8 million people there. 28 years later, during the invasion and wars of Iraq, 500,000 children died of dysentery and disease (a number the Pentagon accurately predicted) when we bombed the water treatment plants in Baghdad. Studies estimate another 500,000 adults died violently as well. Had the situations been reversed, could we Americans have considered the people causing us such suffering the good guys? How would we have felt if Mexico had bombed Brooklyn because they felt that the Colombo Mafia was a threat to them?
If we believe ourselves to be reflexively good, we will never explore the full range of our motives or the full range of consequences stemming from our actions. We will measure ourselves only by our motives (those we can accept). Because of a lack of deep reflections we will always give ourselves a pass, based on those intentions and thus keep perpetuating actions which will incur future reactions from those we’ve harmed, and so it goes ad infinitum. If, in a dispute, I assume that all goodness, kindness, and wisdom, rest on my side of the tablet, my opponent will read those assumptions and judgments as clearly as if I had tattooed them on my forehead. They will judge me in the same way and defend their platitudes and the holes in their arguments as vigorously as I do mine. This is how our political system has devolved into its current toxic blame game, with both sides impugning the motives of the other and insisting that only they hold the high ground.
The most useful qualities we can contribute to public life are kindness, empathy, and the willingness to listen without judgment. One party’s victory never insures victory for the nation unless we integrate the losers back into the population. This does not necessarily mean that either side is always correct or always wrong, but that in order to communicate we must first deeply understand what our opponents mean, beneath the slogans, statistics, and rhetorical ploys we all enlist to win our points. This is what it means to say I am them. This is what allows us to see ourselves in those with whom we disagree, and dedicating the time to do this can calm the wild swings of history’s pendulum.
When we observe that self and other are simply different states of the same human entity— like water and steam--we discover that our opposing views may not be as irreconcilable as we had thought. No one in the world is pure, and there is no place to stand outside the messy everyday world to judge others reliably. Knowing that should afford us all some common ground, a place to talk and listen. We are all joined by pulse and breath. We rely on the same oxygen, sunlight, water, pollinating insects, and microbes in the soil— the identical web of life. We all inhabit the same tiny blue pearl glowing in the vastness of space and, if we’re not careful, our shadow may ruin it for human habitation. We have evolved technically to a level capable of destroying the planet and the world we have created. Surely our evolution should include the ability to deepen our understanding of what it means to be human.
 Harvest of Rage,Joel Dyer. Basic Books