Not Waving But Drowning
Donald Trump isn’t even president yet and the liberal establishment is already in a frenzy, convinced that the apocalypse has arrived and that if we don’t hang Mitch McConnell for treason right this second, it will mean the end of the American Dream. Some are even lapsing into an all-too-familiar paranoid style, recalling the bleak days of the late 2000s when it was the Republicans, faced with their nightmare of an incoming president and a House and Senate controlled by their enemies, hatched scenarios of foreign interference, electoral malfeasance, and the will of the people subverted. If there is anyone who can be blamed for the current state of the Democratic party apart from Democratic partisans and officials, they are in the process of being blamed.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that liberals can’t spare a little time to shit on poor people. If there was any respite from the weekend’s nonstop fear-mongering over Russian strongman/Bond villain Vladimir Putin, they filled it by scoffing at leftists who questioned the party line, who wondered why they hadn’t done more to support the campaign of Foster Campbell in Louisiana, or who dared to suggest that America’s working classes might still need some assistance. All over the internet, liberals were punching downward; one popular Twitter account smiled at the naïvety of a time when the fight for a $15 minimum wage was considered important. Another called Fight For $15 actively malignant, distracting from the real issues like sawing down the horns on Donald Trump’s forehead. One journalist suggested that the movement didn’t do enough to help Hillary Clinton win the election, and another scornfully insisted the time for such nonsense was long past, as with Trump in the White House, we’d all be eating the corpses of our executed Muslim neighbors, leaving no time for such fripperies as a living wage.
This is not the time to revisit how liberals have consistently pitted civil rights against economic issues, as if the two could ever be separated, or to rehash the way they have used the former as a broom to sweep the latter, and those who advocate for them, out of the room. It has been obvious for at least 20 years now that the ‘someday’ when it would finally be safe enough to discuss income inequality and working-class issues would never actually come; like that far-off day when we can finally grant full rights of citizenship to African-Americans because every one of them has stopped committing crimes, it will take place about a week after doomsday. But for those who have to live in it, or for those who spend time with people who do; and for those who know the damage wrought by a political system that, in one party, actively encourages the harm wrought by the excesses of capitalism, and in another, fails to engage with it, things are becoming bleak beyond the point of hope. Here are some numbers:
- Despite sunny employment figures, nearly a hundred million people are not in the labor market. Workforce participation is at nearly 63%, lower than it’s been since the recession of the late 1970s, thanks largely to people who have been out of work for so long that they’ve stopped looking. The low unemployment figures count anyone who’s employed, including a record number who have only part-time work that doesn’t pay them enough to live on. People with full-time, permanent employment with benefits are a shrinking minority.
- Real wages have been stagnant for a stunning 45 years. The average working person has not seen an increase in the adjusted rate of their income since the 1960s, even as worker productivity grows higher and higher every year. It is now expected for people at lower income levels to have two jobs, or even three; and, with contract employment replacing payroll work, these same workers, whose purchasing power has been gradually reduced for decades, are now paying taxes at an even higher rate and facing a precarious future as Social Security and pensions disappear.
- This past week, two staggering facts were unveiled. A Stanford University study revealed that economic mobility — the measure of whether children will grow up to have a better income and living standard than their parents — has fallen from over 90% in the 1940s to only 50% (a dismal 41% for men) today. And the National Center for Health Statistics released a report showing that the mortality rate for Americans has increased for the first time in 25 years, with life expectancy dropping an average of 1.2 years.
- Economic inequality in the United States is now significantly worse than it is in Mexico. The income accrued to the top 1% of earners has steadily increased since the 1960s and is currently near a record high of 20%, while that accrued by the bottom 50% has steadily declined during that same time, and is plummeting to a record low of less than 10%.
- Workers’ shares of gross domestic income — that is, the amount of the GNP that goes to the people who who produced it — is at an all-time low, hovering at just over 45%. That is the lowest rate since 1929, and most economists believe that it will stay there, essentially, forever. It has been in precipitous decline for decades, but, notably, it did not stop or even significantly retard that decline during any period since 1980 when a Democrat was in the White House. What’s even worse, while the economic growth of the country has risen, the bottom 90% of American earners — basically everyone who is not rich or a member of the highest echelons of the professional class — have taken home zero percent of that growth. It has all been consumed by the people at the top.
It is the basest kind of prejudice at worst to the most naïve kind of ignorance at best to imagine that working people are not aware of these developments. They are not stupid. While Democrats and Republicans feud over whether or not the lowest wage earners voted the way they did because of the economy or racism, the stark fact, reflected across the board in voter turnouts in every state, is that the poorest people in America simply did not vote. It’s hard to blame them; they know from decades of miserable experience that for them, it doesn’t matter very much which party sits in the Oval Office or has the temporary numerical advantage in the House or Senate. Both parties have gladly exported trade overseas, failed to protect pensions, watched unions degrade, shrugged their shoulders as the costs of education and health care float ever upwards beyond their reach. If the Republicans win, they will have no insurance; if the Democrats win, they will have bad insurance they can’t afford.
These results are spread across every marker of race, gender, and sexual preference. The vast majority of black and Latino citizens are working class, and their children are facing the same outcomes as people in the white working class: illness, decay, a loss of hope, an eradication of their way of life. If they were lucky enough to have 401ks, they most likely saw them wiped out (repeatedly, if they are older), and there is no one, Republican or Democrat, to whom they can report to get them back. More likely, they didn’t have one at all, and they react to jubilant news of stock market triumphs the same way they would to reports of how nice the weather is on Jupiter. At a time when we are still engaging in culture-war arguments over whether the recumbent-bike-riding latte-sipper or the Silverado-driving snuff-dipper represent the “real America”, and pretending that the decoration of the halls of wealth with a few lucky women and minorities represents real progress, the people who represent a true “real America” by virtue of sheer numbers are neck deep in water, desperate to be rescued. We trot out celebrities to wave at them and make jokes about how foolish the other party is, but they are not waving back; they are drowning.
Leftists, too, are not fools. We have preached the plight of these people since we were formed, and at one time, liberals listened. They aren’t listening any more, even as the condition of the working class in America sinks to levels it has not reached in over a century. We saw the damage Trump could do, and we will help you fight it, even as you mock us and deride us and cut us out of the conversation, as you have done since you figured in the ’90s that you didn’t need us anymore. We will ally with anyone to fight fascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism; we have always been the first on the front lines of those battles, even if you have forgotten. But if you make a joke of economic anxiety; if your first instinct is to attack the people whose despair makes them not vote, instead of to empathize with them; if you brush off the struggle for a bare minimum of dignity and self-determination for the lowest of the low as a fight we can’t afford; if you claim that the real material misery of people living today must take a back seat to the the theoretical misery of people in the future; if you insist on performative displays of sympathy for your hobby horse of the moment, while doing nothing to ensure your party does something to address the questions we have been pushing for a hundred and fifty years: then all you have in us is a temporary ally. You will never have a friend.