Nailing Down just why the United States is so Polarized by Thomas Martin Saturday


Americans agree that this nation is so polarized that some are talking of a violent civil war to end it.  This recent fact should have all of us very worried.  We’ll begin by stipulating that looking at political parties is itself so tribal, that it obscures what is actually going on.

While it is true that policy differences make for a divisive body politic, what is crucial here is really something else. The economic dislocations of the past 40 years have unmoored large segments of the population.  Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency we have been using the proposition that shrinking the size and influence of government truly powers real economic development.

But what really happened was a direct attack on the legal framework and efficacy of labor unions in the United States. It worked. From the Air Traffic Controllers strike onward early in Reagan’s first term, unionization fell from something like 17% of American workforce to what is barely 5% now.  Just after World War II unionization was 35%.

You’d be right to say such low percentages could not possibly influence our economy at all. Yet, unions were located in key industries core to that economy, and so their demise had an oversize impact on the economic security of workers across the board.

Unions fight for and get higher wages that our own Labor Department says on average raises unionized workers pay by ten percent.  Non-unionized employers wanting the best workers then have to raise wages for their workers.  We know that wages have fallen or gone flat since the early 1980’s.  The correlation on any graph or chart you want to make between unionization and wages is startling. And, it is not good.

We measure how well someone is doing and where they fit in along economic class lines by how much they earn each year. And the nation saw and felt as unions folded or were no longer able to do their traditional job of maintaining wages and job security, millions of Americans fall deeper to the lower reaches of the middle class, and even falling into that class just above poverty wages. That is an abrupt and deep shock that continues to reverberate decades after it hit.

What’s worse, employers seeking higher profits more easily gained sent an incredible number of good factory jobs that were unionized and paid middle class wages overseas. We could not compete with sweat shop wages.  It’s not that we cannot have factory jobs with decent wages here in the United States. It was an affirmative decision on the part of so many employers seeking starvation wages for workers, that provided the second gut punch that has left workers in blue collar jobs reeling ever since.

Germany has unionization rates of over forty percent, and employers must place at least one union representative on each corporation’s board of directors.  Wages are higher and more stable there as a result. So it is possible to keep your population economically secure despite prevailing wages for factory and manufacturing jobs worldwide that are far lower.

How do they do it? It is by an attention to quality and finding more niche markets to move goods.  The fact that Germany is the largest member of the EU does not hurt either. 

At the very time all of this was continuing, Ronald Reagan did two things of enormous impact on middle class Americans.  First, he decreased the top marginal tax rate for our wealthiest citizens from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez territory of 70% to 28%.  Turning on a dime, that administration started to tax social security benefits for the first time.

Since then the Federal Government has been cash starved and so programs to aid those slammed by the tsunami-like economic changes of that period and beyond had no resort but to fall even further through the cracks and have their standard of living reduced significantly. That next job is going to pay far less.

Are we all feeling insecure, vulnerable, and pissed off beyond measure? Are we looking for a scapegoat yet? 

Tax policy has been to eliminate tax increases and to continue to cut taxes. We’ve all got to admit that sounds nice. But for forty years the most affluent Americans are getting the lion’s share of all these tax cuts. They are strangling government in that bathtub and are looting wealth from the middle class at the very same time.  A bloated and wasteful defense budget gobbles up what little cash might be available to help everyday Americans.

Now we look for people to blame for these disasters. We ought to blame the choking amount of money in our elections that has led to our representatives paying almost their full attention to the wealthy who donate money to them.  We should see by the insane levels of income inequality in this country that the rich are the predators and we are the prey.

More troubling still, investing tax money in improving infrastructure for the 21st Century, a key to economic competitiveness, has not been done at all. We have a 1980’s infrastructure that is crumbling, and that is about all.

Instead, America’s original sin, race and a discriminatory and a suspicious fearful and angry stance to those who are non-white has been the answer. Any look at traditional American patterns of racism and ethnic hatreds will show that at times of economic dislocation a lot of us become highly xenophobic and pursue an exclusionary policy to people of color and those with minority religious preferences and cultures.  I always recommend John Higham’s Strangers in the Land to demonstrate how long-term these patterns have been.  America’s growing diversity has people really fearful and deeply uncomfortable. We have to stipulate also that we are talking about white Americans here.

Racism and a distinct preference for white people are systemically and deeply embedded into the default settings regulating our behavior, our laws, and economy.  It is a real thing.  Yes slavery, and Jim Crow segregation have gone now but this stuff remains.

What are our media doing and what are our leaders doing at the present time to help us though all this?

Here we see the tribalism and bifurcation of information technology and leadership most starkly portrayed.

Liberal media consistently tell us what is actually happening and factually have stories that are true. Some of the best journalism is being done here by newspaper, on-line website news outlets, and the networks.  Of course they are, ah, liberal. Don’t shoot the messenger.

It is in the conservative media bubble where most of the trouble is. We’re not casting aspersions here or trying to say that liberals are any better human beings, but we are presented with the blunt fact outlets like Fox News, the conservative blogosphere of Breitbart, and the large radio media on the right, are trying very hard to make us afraid; very afraid of the growing diversity in the United States. They’ve been very successful in this endeavor.

What about our political leaders?   Well, liberals and Democrats are not doing this at all. They display the wonderful diversity this nation now has. They do however, go into the trenches and bitterly fight their conservative opponents.  Conservatives do the same thing, only in reverse.  

Now just what leader could we turn to for direction, guidance, and an exemplar of the American dream and our love of democracy and freedom?  If you answered the President of the United States, still among the most powerful people and influential leaders in our world, you’d be right.

Yet, here too, there has been absolute failure.  President Trump, unlike even the heavily divisive Barack Obama and all his predecessors, has made no effort to reach out beyond his base of support.  Obama made a supreme effort to work with Republicans and conservatives but was met with total opposition; even to things those conservatives favored right up to the point Obama came in. What was really happening there, was that white conservative America was horrified a black man was President.

The only competition for Trump was Andrew Johnson.  At the end of the Civil War his appeal narrowed and he really did not care to do much about it. He missed removal from office by a single vote. Radical Republicans, (they were the liberal party in 1865), did not like Johnson’s failure to protect the freedmen. Johnson developed a Reconstruction policy that was excessively easy on the South. But Trump is something of an entirely different magnitude of divisive failure. Instead of trying to widen his base of support, and promoting our nation acting together, he has directly attacked the opposition as everything from the enemy of the people, to drug dealers, murderers, rapists, and now socialists. He has done a magnificent job of alienating something like 56% of the American people. It’s what recent polling shows.

This president does not want to appeal to the majority of us. He wants to silence us. At his inaugural you did not get sweeping notes of the strength of the United States and its democratic form of government, and how we can perfect the American Dream. He spoke of carnage. He said the American Dream was dead. His prescription for ending the carnage was with more law and order. It was and remains a distinctly authoritarian speech. And as to those whose skin is not white, or women who want to control their own bodies and their destinies, it had them running for the exits.

Trump half joked at a rally for the fearful, angry, and racist that the Chinese Premier had now gotten a life term in office  for himself. Trump suggested that he might try that here in the United States. 

In Trump’s America nonwhite persons and the LGBTQ community are the scapegoats and punching bags. Progressives who speak out against him in the media find themselves on lists circulated to those same media outlets calling on them not to let them speak again or perhaps if they are media figures, ever work again. He has called for government agencies to investigate programs that are critical or even deign to poke fun at him.

The very worst failure of leadership, and the most disturbing, are the members of the Trumpist Party, the Republican one having died some time ago.

They refuse to stand against Trump’s abuses of power and destruction of the norms of both civil and democratic government.  Historians will find nothing but infamy to attach to them. They will note that when the Constitution and democratic government demanded they come to its defense, it was they who plunged in the knife in this dark apocalyptic America, which oddly enough falls, with the burying of the Mueller report, too near the Ides of March for comfort.

Somewhere between three and four in ten Americans blindly accept Trump’s leadership even though they know he lies, and that he has always stiffed those doing business with him. The rest sit between these two blocks knowing they will not support Trump in 2020, but not really wanting to enter this whirlwind of hate and accusations of incivility in an emerging civil war.

It is mind numbing and exhausting standing against this every single day and seemingly not able to plug the many cracks in our system of government and American life Trump and Co. create each day.

Here are two small but daunting pieces of homework for those who still remember the nation and its norms before the Trump Era. 

First, progressives and democrats (I make this small d deliberately to make it less tribally partisan) should seek out conservative friends, relatives, and work associates when you have them alone for any length of time. Tell them you want to know what has been wrong with the economy for them personally and for their work experiences.

Listen with respect and deep compassion.  Agree with a statement by nodding if you can.  Tell them there is one rule they must abide by, and that is to keep political party and racial or ethnic concerns out of it.

Later, you can then tell them of similar experiences you’ve had with the same economy. The same rule applies to you. They’ll appreciate that.  I know I would were I a conservative.

Second, make an argument for reconciliation based upon that which you have in common. It is going to be, it must be, a tale of the growing irrelevance of the middle class.  It is a tale of the growing dominance of corporations in our lives, and the insecurities of a job market and wages and salaries for even the higher paid white collar professions.  We now face robotics as a deep threat to our economic security, on top of it all.

Remind them that robots are machines and not people who come over our borders who are not white, or that are drug dealers, rapists and murderers; at least not yet. We have all got to change the narrative of our divisive party politics. 

Racism and Xenophobia are real and you should not be forced to let them run over you. Especially, if they cannot see what you are driving at. Agree with them that everybody wants more effective border security whatever the hell it is. Locking kids in cages and abusing them obviously has nothing to do with democracy, humanity, or the kind of people we are. I for one am really keen for a much more effective and timely enforcement of the multitudes of Visas issued which expire, and whose bearers disappear into the murk of those around us. What about employers who still seek undocumented workers?  If they insist on battling here raise that issue and turn them back to our narrative again.

Do they love big corporations? Do they think their Congressmen or Congresswomen really listen to them? Some really do, but most don’t have their interests at heart at all.

This is about a capitalist system run amok again like it did after the Civil War and through the Gilded Age.  Only this time they are much stronger and already have a strong network of laws and court decisions, which favor them over you.

Stop and leave things at that, and see if you can agree to talk with them again along these lines.  They have to begin to see that racial resentments and hatreds are the wedge driven between all of us that serve those with the power to harm or disregard our economic security, and with that a whole lot of what makes us so deeply uncomfortable.  If they are a white supremacist, then don’t waste your time with them. Call the FBI.

Make no mistake, I am not Bernie Sanders.  That is, I am fully woke, and will stand with oppressed and marginalized minorities no matter what. I refuse to sanitize our race relations into something where there has been no conflict. I just don’t want to engage conservatives on that ground just yet. I am trying to gain their trust and find a means where we can both see ourselves as Americans of all colors who have been tossed into the same boat

Changing somebody’s origins or skin color will not fix the real problem they are having. Arguing out the partisan fight over Donald Trump won’t help us either. Though at some point they must face the reality that he is what they support, but that he is not respecting the Constitution they profess to love.

Somehow, we have to change the narrative of our polarized United States, as it presently is, rammed down our throats every day.  It is a poison that is killing us.

People cannot feel generous and kind hearted to those who are different than they are when they are scared to death and very insecure about their means of supporting themselves and their families. If they have enough, and dignity on the job and in their communities, they might find the usual partisan wrangling was not as important as they originally thought.

The folk singer and activist Bruce Utah Phillips often spoke of the problem being with the prevailing blame pattern in the United States, or as he termed it “the waning days of Babylon.”  He argued that instead of blaming the people below you, that we should look upward at the real chiseler’s who lie, cheat and steal. I rather think the man had an enormously good idea.  Don’t you?

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