Tom Strong sent me over to The Book Club at TPM Café (a spinoff of Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo), where a vigorous discussion of populism as a rich vein to mine for renewed Democratic Party relevance centers on Thomas Frank's What's The Matter with Kansas?
Dems here are not concerned with the squabbling between the DLC and the DNC. They consider the DLC too slavishly corporate and the DNC too élite, out of touch, Hollywood-and-ivory-tower. They take their cues from marginalized blue-collar workers -- once the very heart of the American workforce, now treated as obsolete, exploited with impunity, and disposed of without a thought -- like this eloquent, angry truckdriver:
My message is simple: talk about worker's rights. Unionizing, outsourcing (especially outsourcing!), management cheating (we have ALL been cheated out of portions of our wages by innumerable statistical tricks). SPEAK OF THEM and blue-collar men go absolutely NUTS with recognition of the problems! Followed 5 minutes later with the most intense hunger to do something about it all that you have ever witnessed. . . .
Millions of white, male blue-collar workers go around in right-wing talk radio induced ignorance. Each and every one of them thinks that the problems they have with their employer is unique, puzzling and sure to get better after a change of management ...or something.
What I do: I simply point up how these "puzzling anomalies" are actually well-known and ancient un-fair labor practices. With NAMES!
Speed-ups. Wage stagnation policies. two-tiered wage systems. Worker isolation. These are some of the names of the classic Unfair Labor Practices that my friends experience everyday. But they don't even know that there are such things as Unfair Labor Practices!
Watch 'em go off like rockets when you give them a NAME for what they suffer everyday . . . They go ballistic and are ready for anything.
We are not dumb asses down here on the loading docks of America! Everyone can recognize when they are being ripped off. But what is long gone down here - LOOOOONNGGGG gone - is a Democratic Party that helps us know our rights - or even WANTS us. And what IS here is a Republican Party that DOES want us.
Can't you morons in the DLC see that blue-collar America clings to the Repubs. because the Repubs. WANT us. And they PROVE it by consistently addressing just 1 or 2 wedge issues that concern blue collar America. Nevermind that these issues don't even relate to our work life; it still trumps the absolute NOTHING that Democrats offer!
And _traditional_ Democratic values offer the blue-collar worker nothing less than actual salvation from what ails him at work. But these working-man values - even the mere NAMING of these ailments we are plagued with - have been WITHHELD for 20 years! Not a peep. Not a sound. No one comes. No one speaks. No one gives a diagnosis.
So, clearly, we have been thrown away. Disposed of. And there still are MILLIONS of us. Millions who could be voting Democratic by 2006 if the Party would actually come and talk to us, beginning with the NAMES of the Unfair Labor Practices used against us everyday.
Advocates of globalization, avatars of the multinational corporation, will insist that the kinds of unionization and protectionism these workers are talking about are things of the past, that today they would cripple the very economic growth America needs to continue to provide affluence for everybody. The catch is that it so clearly isn't for everybody. As the gap between rich and poor widens, it is engulfing the middle, yet studies have shown that the reason struggling Americans don't resent the rich is that they still believe they have a shot at joining them -- whether by starting a business, getting on "American Idol" or "Jeopardy!", or simply winning the Powerball lottery.
This, of course, is Thomas Frank's turf -- the strange con game ("1. get pissed off at what you see on TV. 2. blame liberals for it. 3. vote Republican") that has succeeded in almost obliterating economic class consciousness from the American political scene. Workers have come to identify with the master class who are screwing them. They think the way out is individual -- by investing in real estate, say, and joining that master class -- rather than proudly affirming their working-class identity and gaining collective clout by banding together.
I need to take a crash course in economics before I will be qualified to participate in this discussion. I wouldn't know how to counter a Tom Friedman-type argument that in the fiercely competitive new "flat" global world there is no turning back the clock to the great days of the unions. Nor would I know what genuinely practical new solutions there might be, if any, to the complaints of the truckdriver and his friends. But I'm starting my education at TPM Café. Thanks, Tom Strong.
UPDATE: Here's a bit of the provocative stuff I'm finding there. From comments by "fjoyce":
“[P]opulists” or whatever, can and should pay attention to personal debt. If there is an economic issue over which people feel anxiety and concern—this is it. As the bible tells us, debt is a form of bondage. The old company store was nothing compared to MasterCard and Visa and Check-to-Go. More people filed for bankruptcy last year than filed for divorce. (That’s when it was still legal.) Many Democrats voted for the draconian and unconscionable bankruptcy bill. That alone is reason to think there may need to be a third party. It’s a bit of a tangent, but one big reason for the decline of unions is that workers used to need a union to get the stuff that defines "middle-class." Now they get the same stuff and more via consumer credit. . . .
If anyone has a “resentment” problem, it’s us. We pretty consistently appear to be against affluence. We demonstrate that, in part, by rarely if ever acknowledging how much there is. (Am I the only person on the “left”--whatever that is—who goes to a shopping mall and says gosh, there sure are a lot of people here and they sure got here in some pretty nice cars and they sure do seem pretty satisfied and glad to be here.)
Many people are content. Are we against contentment? Well, we are, of course, because we're about change and making a better society. But in a lot of ways, I think we also come across as smug, patronizing and judgemental. . . .
Perhaps most important, I think we are all struggling to understand a situation that really may not have much precedent. We keep trying to crunch a new reality into an old template. It won't fit no matter how hard we try.
[A] whole lot of people are dependent on work AND CREDIT. . . .
UPDATE II: Here's another comment I thought was provocative, to say the least, from The Rogue Progressive:
Yes, there is a huge and growing class divide in America. However, it is mostly self-imposed.
The global economy is presenting a choice to everyone in the western world: follow a certain path to success or suffer poor economic opportunities, shorter life expectancy, etc. The successful path involves having an education, accepting the world as it is and adapting quickly to its changing circumstances. Callused hands are not a guarantee of a middle class lifestyle anymore.
No government can alter that choice and still succeed in the world economy. The competition is too tight and the cost of losing out are too high.
By and large, working class people are tuning that message out and dropping out. Most are willing to work hard, and do, but not willing to do the type of work needed to lift their living standard and economic opportunities for their kids. They go to college and drop out, or never go at all even though they know they should. They don't move where the jobs are, but wait for the jobs to return to them. In how many towns has it been said to these workers "the factory is not coming back"?
The NY Times ran an excellent series on social mobility and laid this issue out quite nicely about a month ago. These decisions are wrapped up in tradition, culture, family expectations.
So it's mostly sadness that the college educated feel for their working class brethren (including blood relatives!) who bury their heads in the sand and refuse to do better. If the will existed in the U.S. to follow the route of Ireland [link!], we could change these mindsets. Putting the pieces in place to make this happen has to be the focus of economic policy for progressives.
UPDATE III: Alan Stewart Carl at The Yellow Line envisions a dramatically new role for unions. Are they too sclerotic and invested to adapt, or is there a new generation of activists coming up who can "think different?"