For some people, class is not something for polite conversation; it’s a dirty word.
As a Canadian transplant, I’ve always found the theatrics of the U.S. political scene fascinating, where big money campaigns seem interminable and public spectacle usually trumps in-depth discussion of policy. American politics is an exciting blood-sport with all its sound bite and bombastic fury. However, this time around both the bite and fury seem even more vicious. Even in these opening moments of the 2012 presidential campaign, one thing that strikes me is just how angry many white middle-class Americans (especially men) appear to be these days.
Populist parables of uber-masculine, individualist, bootstrap economics have come back with a vengeance this campaign season, at what seems like the most unlikely moment. The stock market’s ups and downs are enough to make anyone reach for a Dramamine (or something stronger). Financialization, corporate megamergers, and globalization have made it even more difficult for independent business owners to make a living. And, all evidence points to the fact that calls for lower taxes, the “right to work,” and smaller government really mean more wealth consolidation for the super-rich.
So, why has this type of populist individualism become all the more seductive for many struggling to make it through the Great Recession?
Underlying popular buzz phrases like constitutional purity, individual rights, lower taxes, and small government is the specter of nefarious collusion between the corrupt and wasteful plutocrats in Washington, DC and the masses of undeserving (read: black and brown) poor. In short, more taxes paid to the federal government somehow translates into more handouts for the supposedly lazy/criminal/promiscuous/spend-thrift/illegal-immigrant poor and therefore less money in the pockets of hard-working/family-oriented/God-fearing, real (read: white) middle-class Americans. Indeed, anger-drenched speeches urge the “real America” to stand up and be heard.
The election of the United States’ first black president, Barack Obama, has only made this convoluted logic more convincing. And, the recent debt downgrade certainly didn’t help matters. After all, a black president presided over the nation’s first slide into “bad credit.”
The resounding calls to “take our country back” are just the latest iteration of this conspiracy theory. Of course, the real question is, “take America back from whom and back to when”? One only needs to look at recent efforts to deify the founding fathers, revise the history of the revolutionary war and constitution, sanitize American slavery, ignore Native American genocide and dispossession, and elide the nation’s imperial past to get an idea of the answer.
Politicians have figured out how to channel the rage of those white middle-class people who feel increasingly wedged between America’s soulless elite and the pathological poor. Two of the main pillars of the “Taking Our Country Back Tour,” the call to lower taxes (read: tax breaks for the super-rich and corporate giants) and shrink government (read: further cutbacks to social programs and entitlements), can only appeal to this target audience if cloaked in a siege mentality.
On the one hand, they decry government bailouts and Wall Street bonuses. Yet lurking beneath the surface of this populist rhetoric appears to be an even more pernicious disdain for the black and brown people who have supposedly plunged this great democracy into moral depravity and economic decline, from “affirmative action” elites, to illegal aliens, to violent gangbangers, to drug addicts, and welfare moms. To make matters worse, the 2010 census confirmed that America’s nonwhite population is booming. Even though white wealth still dwarfs that of nonwhites and the logic of white supremacy still permeates U.S. institutions, some members of the white middle-class feel they’re being pushed aside in favor of the bottom.
In some respects, white middle-class Americans are right to feel their privilege and stability melting away, but not because of any great government gift to the undeserving poor. It has much more to do with the fact that Warren Buffet and other billionaires are now taxed at a lower rate than the average American. In reality, their economic fates are more closely tied to those of the very people that some politicians encourage them to despise. This is truly “class warfare” at its best – except, the “haves” have unleashed the “have-nots” to fight amongst themselves.
The recent “Marriage Vow” is yet another example of how this clever strategy of divide and conquer relies on well-honed stereotypes of race, gender, and sexuality. In July there was a smattering of reactions to Rep. Michele Bachmann’s signing of this “Declaration of Dependence upon MARRIAGE and FAMILY.” In particular, commentators criticized two of the vow’s most egregious points: 1) it suggests black marriages and black children were better off under slavery than they are today; and 2) it endorses the idea that homosexuality is simply a deviant lifestyle choice. While both these points are undoubtedly inaccurate and inflammatory, I want to dig deeper into the underlying logic of this pledge.
In a nutshell, it attributes most of the nation’s problems (whether social, moral, or economic) to the supposed breakdown of the heterosexual, patriarchal family. According to its line of reasoning, single (read: black) mothers are the causal link to “poverty, pathology and prison.” Moreover, the vow blames this and other types of “family fragmentation” and their “costs to the justice system” for the expansion of government services and higher taxes, and for the resulting rise of the federal deficit and public debt burden. All of this has put undue pressure on American (read: white, nuclear) families.
Poor black people are the obvious bogeymen haunting this treatise of societal decay, with its invocation of slavery and the Moynihan Report of 1965 (which blamed the black out-of-wedlock birthrate for black poverty). Gays are also used for rhetorical flourish, as deviant foils to “real American men” (and their real families). These are the racial and sexual demons that foreclose any real discussion of how America’s wars, in tandem with tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations have contributed to the deficit. They turn the public’s attention away from how financial deregulation fostered the mortgage crisis, which led to the economic crash, and then to the government’s bailout of Wall Street and to the passage of the federal stimulus bill to help get Main Street back to work.
Curiously missing from the vow is any mention of the very real obstacles facing poor, especially black and brown families, over the past few decades. Deindustrialization has changed the face of the U.S. job market, leaving those without access to high-quality education with few opportunities to thrive in the mainstream economy. Yet, under No Child Left Behind, little other than high-stakes testing has been implemented to improve public schools and to help outfit inner-city youth for the rapidly shifting information economy.
Not coincidentally, this has taken place right alongside the breathtaking expansion of the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately incarcerates black and brown people (many of them fathers and mothers) for non-violent, drug-related offenses. Since the 1970s, the prison population has mushroomed by 705 percent to roughly 2.4 million people, and the United States now has more people in prison than any other nation in the world. Despite these staggering numbers, the prison system happens to be one area of the government that both conservative and liberal leaders are not so eager to downsize, particularly because of the huge profits to be made from servicing this captive market.
What Michelle Alexander has called The New Jim Crow, and in the case of California what Ruth Wilson Gilmore has dubbed The Golden Gulag, has done nothing to alleviate the interconnected problems of poverty, instability, hopelessness, and addiction in the United States. Instead, this fiscally irresponsible and morally reprehensible system cages and dehumanizes disadvantaged black and brown people who have been essentially left behind by the new economy. (And, it doesn’t help that once you’re a felon, you face employment and housing discrimination, disfranchisement, and the denial of public benefits and services.)
It is a wonder that anyone can sustain a happy, healthy, and successful family under such conditions. Things have only worsened with the recession, which has slammed black and brown people with disproportionate ferocity. Regardless of these realities, a political story of white middle-class victimhood is gaining currency in some circles. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad speculate, “When you’re going down, as the white middle class has been doing for several years now, it’s all too easy to imagine that it’s because someone else is climbing up over your back.”
At the very same time, gender and sexual stereotypes are being deployed to quell public dissent. Workers’ grievances, intellectual analysis, and anything smacking of “wealth redistribution” or “social justice” are marked as effeminate, effete, even queer. After all, real American men suck it up at all cost. Real men (and their faithful women) don’t protest about working conditions, or the poor state of public education, or the lack of affordable healthcare. Unfortunately, these appeals for (white) men to stand up and be men, and for (white) women to stand by their men, come at the expense of building progressive coalitions for change across racial, gender, class, and other differences.
Even less strident and more liberal members of the middle-class are by no means blameless for the current state of affairs. We have largely sat back and watched all of this happen, throwing up our hands in dismay while living smugly in our supposedly “post-racial” bourgeois enclaves. Some even naively hoped that voting Barack Obama (“the Magic Negro”) into the White House would suddenly change the political and economic trajectory of the United States. (But that’s just not how change happens.)
Many liberals have also played into the general erasure of class from political discussions. The democrats’ (especially President Obama’s) hesitancy to call the debt-ceiling crisis for what it was – a means to preserve the privilege of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of America – is just another example of the reticence of many U.S. liberals to acknowledge, discuss, and act on the persistence of gaping wealth disparities – especially their impact on nonwhite Americans.
In a recent episode of the Real Housewives of New York, Alex McCord declared that she would rather say “see you next Tuesday” (read: c-u-n-t) than ever utter the other c-word, “class.” The implication being that class is not something for polite conversation; it’s a dirty word. Before the recession, many middle-class liberals assumed that “class” didn’t apply to them, turning a blind eye to the nation’s increasingly unequal distribution of wealth. Now that the same issues that first hit those at the bottom of the economic ladder are making their way upward, they suddenly want action. Many are looking for someone to blame.
Anger at injustice is perfectly legitimate, but we just need to be sure that we are pointing the finger in the right direction, while also imagining constructive ways to make change. The solution is not to become more ruggedly Alpha-male, or to show disdain for others’ misfortune. This is no time to revert to a social Darwinist, “everyone for himself” mentality. We need to be more forceful in calling out politicians on their clever, yet perverse manipulation of racial, gender, and sexual stereotypes that steer us away from joining together. We need to call them out on their fake populism.
We also need to develop strong and inclusive coalitions, in ways that don’t involve the proverbial chest-thumping and demonization of those who aren’t like us, or those who don’t fit prevailing definitions of “normal.” We need to foster movements for change that go beyond a narrow focus on individual rights and “family” in the most narrowly constructed ways. We need to have a real conversation about the messy realities of race and class inequality in this country.
The “real America” is already standing up, but not always in ways that are palatable to our bourgeois sensibilities. We need to take seriously the voices of prisoners on hunger strikes, of student and community activists working in the inner cities, and even of flash mobs expressing their frustration at the unequal state of the affairs. They have something to teach us, if we will just listen. And perhaps, we need to stand up and join them.