Your Union Rep
Recently, I got in one of those Facebook conversations about this NY Times article with some American acquaintances when one of them made the sardonic comment that “the economy we built for black people in the inner-cities is finally reaching working-class whites in the inner-suburbs!” Having been raised in the southern United States by working-class whites who were in roughly the same situation in the 1980s (low-paying jobs, not a lot of options, isolated, etc.), I questioned his use of the word “finally”. Actually, I’m not really sure racism is the most effective way of looking at how and why working-class people have been nickled and dimed for decades in the United States. It seems like Americans talk so often about race, among other reasons, because they never talk about class.
His secondary point was that neither the Republican nor Democratic parties give a damn about the situation of working class people, which is an area where certainly most of my family, would agree. Of course, nearly all my relatives vote Republican- I joked it’s because, at least, the GOP doesn’t pretend to give a damn.
So, when I first moved to Hamilton, Ontario nine years ago, I was startled to see the election results on the news: this deeply blue collar town voted overwhelmingly for the NDP, a democratic socialist party. I told my ex-wife it was quite different among white blue-collar Americans, the “Joe lunch bucket” folks who tend to vote conservative. She explained that it was actually quite simple- our city relies on a very strong social safety net, which the NDP does much to maintain and strengthen, so people here vote for them. It sounded so… intuitive.
I struggled to come up with a good way to explain how people like my parents feel about politics in the states. As soon as I was old enough for them to discuss politics with me, I remember my parents saying that “none of them care about people like us!” And yet, they always vote for the Republicans. Admittedly, some of it has to do with how the Republicans get out their message. Many of my family members listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Fox News regularly and they feel it speaks to them. Some of it also has to do with what gets called “identity politics”. It’s not that my family members are opposed to gay marriage or relaxing the current laws on immigration or marijuana; it’s that those issues simply aren’t relevant to them. So, personally, they tend to be fairly liberal on those topics, but when Democrats run on those issues, it makes no difference to their votes. And when it comes to the issues that affect their lives, they believe that the Democrats talk about “Wall Street and Main Street” and how “you didn’t build that”, while never really delivering in tangible ways for working class people. Frankly, the current liberal obsession with “demographics” as an electoral panacea seems to suggest the Party will remain unconcerned about white working-class people for the foreseeable future.
I finally hit on a way to explain the phenomenon to liberal Canadians: most of the working class people I knew in America saw the Democrats the way many working people see their union rep: he’s a guy who takes money out of your paycheck, promises to stick up for you, and never does so because he’s comfy with management. In theory, his position is a useful one, but in practice, it’s usually meaningless.Yes, the Republican equivalent is in good with management too, but he doesn’t pretend not to be. Instead, he promises to screw that union rep every chance he gets and get you back your union dues.
So, voting for the anti-union guy is pretty cynical in a lot of ways, but it’s at least somewhat understandable. At one of my two jobs we finally kicked out the union entirely, which was unbelievably corrupt and useless, but we replaced them with a new union that has taken the fight to management. Maybe if rising Democrats want to win back the white working-class vote in the US, they need to first take the fight to their own party.