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Nurturing the “Healthy Nucleus”: Thoughts on How to Engage with the White Working Class


Right-wing populism is sweeping the United States. During 2009 gun purchases skyrocketed, Barack Obama at one point was receiving 30 death threats a day, and Tea Party and Town Hall protests erupted in response to threats of creeping “big government” [1]. Many critics in the alternative press have pointed out the astounding levels of factual ignorance evident in these protests—for example, protesters shouting at politicians to “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” apparently unaware that Medicare is a government program [2]. With some exceptions, the common tendency among progressives and the Left—and my own inclination at times—has been to mock the protesters and their ignorance or at least write them off as mindless foot soldiers of grassroots fascism.
 
But the Town Hall and Tea Party crowd should not be merely dismissed or mocked. I can venture no estimate as to just how much of the US public identifies with these right-wing populist movements, but no estimate is necessary to realize that the attitudes behind their protests reflect a very serious and widespread phenomenon. While the protests at these events have often been funded and orchestrated by powerful elite interests, many of the actual protesters have been working-class whites. The protests have exhibited all the traits of right-wing populist movements identified by Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons: the demonization and scapegoating of certain groups, conspiracy theories of history and politics lacking any “systemic, institutional, or structural critique of class oppression,” and a “producerist” mentality and rhetoric according to which honest white workers are victimized by both elites and lower-class Others [3]. In its origins, rhetoric, and methods of appealing to ordinary people—as well as the authoritarian, pro-corporate, chauvinist, and militarist policies it helps facilitate—this right-wing populism bears strong resemblance to key elements of classic Fascism, as many on the Left have suggested (some quite crudely, some with more sophistication). This resemblance alone, and the fact that the majority of the US electorate is composed of working- and middle-class whites, compels us to stop mocking the protesters and the right-wing demagogues and instead start looking at the conditions under which this right-wing populism gains prominence. In a follow-up blog entry I hope to offer some hypotheses to explain the roots and manifestations of this phenomenon.
 
Here, though, I want to address another reason why we on the Left should take this phenomenon seriously: many or most of the angry white people who have mobilized against “big government” and other real or imagined goals of the Left probably share most of the fundamental grievances and values of people on the Left; while the way those values are translated into political ideology and action is obviously very different, the values themselves and the priorities they reflect are not. The Italian activist and intellectual Antonio Gramsci, while imprisoned under Mussolini’s regime, used the term “healthy nucleus” to describe the intrinsic compassion, anti-elitism, and yearning for justice that he saw among his fellow Italians. Likewise there is, at least within most non-elite segments of US society, a “healthy nucleus” of values and priorities that puts most of the public well to the left of both political parties on almost all major issues. Even among the angriest white men and militia members there is a considerable foundation upon which to build a grassroots progressive movement. As legendary organizer Saul Alinsky once wrote, popular anger and resentment can translate in practice toward either “the far right of totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution” [4].
 
 
The Healthy Nucleus
 
The US working class and the public more generally are not inherently reactionary, as many on both the Right and Left tend to assume. On the contrary, their fundamental values are remarkably progressive. The US public overwhelmingly believes that corporations have too much power, that workers and the poor should have more money and more political power, and that government should intervene to promote the downward distribution of wealth and power [5].
 
Public attitudes toward large private corporations are quite clear: corporations should pay higher taxes, have much less political power, and be trusted for very little. Longtime Z writer Paul Street, in a summary of Gallup, Harris, and Pew polls from recent years, points out that around two-thirds of the public thinks corporations and wealthy individuals profit too much and should pay more taxes; 84 percent think corporations should have less political power; and less than 15 percent deem the companies in most major industries to be “generally honest and trustworthy” [6]. Respondents also seem to oppose government subsidies to big business: for example, 61 percent oppose all subsidies to big agro-business [7].
 
Conversely, the public thinks workers should have more money and more political power. In a series of polls by diverse organizations in 2005-06, over 80 percent—including the vast majority of registered Republicans—routinely stated that the minimum wage should be raised and overwhelmingly supported the recent (very modest) increase to $7.25 per hour. In polls over the past decade, between 66 and 76 percent have agreed that unionized workers fare better than their non-unionized counterparts. A strong majority (53 percent) favor passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, despite the press’s misleading vilification of the bill as the potential end of the “secret ballot” in union elections. Around 60 percent typically look favorably upon unions in general, though that number dropped to 48 percent following the bail-out of the automobile industry in 2008-09 and the media’s implication that auto unions were largely to blame for the crisis [8]. The public’s relatively positive view of unions is extraordinary given the longstanding anti-union bias of the corporate media and the well-organized anti-union campaigns of the corporate elite in recent decades (as well as the bureacracy and ineptitude that characterize the leadership of a fair number of major US unions) [9].
 
A vast majority also agrees that government should intervene in order to help provide for people’s basic needs, suggesting that the public opposes “big government” only when it favors powerful private interests, channels wealth upward, or invades people’s privacy. At least three-quarters of the population considers education and food to be basic human rights to which the entire country is entitled. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the US public for decades has overwhelmingly supported the basic concept of a single-payer system, an idea that is staunchly opposed by all Congressional Republicans and most Democrats. A strong majority of those polled, and sometimes as many as 77 percent, consistently state that the government should ensure that everyone has access to health care; in the August 2008 poll in which 77 percent expressed this opinion, even 57 percent of those who planned to vote for McCain in the presidential election agreed. Sixty-five percent think that “a government-administered health insurance plan” akin to Medicare should be available to everyone, and roughly the same percentage would even be willing to pay more taxes if necessary to achieve universal health care [10]. Of course, there is no good reason why higher taxes would be necessary: the amount saved by converting to a Medicare-for-All system would alone be enough to insure the 46 million who are currently uninsured, and hundreds of billions could be stripped from the Pentagon budget and reallocated to health care and other human needs. In fact, ordinary people of both party affiliations strongly support the latter course of action, too: a detailed 2006 poll found that registered Republicans would reduce the military budget by 20 percent, while registered Democrats would cut it by 48 percent. Meanwhile, the Bush and Obama administrations have nearly doubled military spending above the already-astronomical 2001 figures (Obama’s forthcoming request for 2011 is rumored to be $708 billion, with the baseline Pentagon budget 7 percent higher than his predecessor’s last Pentagon budget; Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently promised to forge “a closer partnership” among the Pentagon, White House, and military contractors “to secure steady growth in the Pentagon’s budgets over time”) [11].
 
When asked about climate change, the public overwhelmingly supports a binding treaty along the lines of the Kyoto agreement that the US has rejected. The idea of increased emphasis on green energy sources enjoys almost unanimous support, and 66 percent—including 60 percent of those who planned to vote for McCain in 2008—“favor the government requiring utilities to use more alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, even if this increases costs in the short-run” [12]. These results are even more impressive considering the low level of public awareness about the causes and extent of the climate crisis: a December 2009 poll, for example, found that only 43 percent of the public thinks “that the world’s temperature has been rising slowly over the past 100 years as a result of human activity,” while 28 percent deny that global warming is happening at all [13]. A more informed public would surely be even more opposed to current policies.
 
The public’s progressive inclinations are also apparent on most foreign policy issues. The US public overwhelmingly favors adherence to international law, diplomacy over military intervention, and significant levels of foreign aid, as the following recent polls by the Program on International Policy Attitudes indicate:
 
  • 60 percent are unequivocally opposed to all forms of physical torture, saying that torture should “never” be used (June 2009)
 
  • Three-quarters, including 65 percent of registered Republicans, oppose Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (April 2009)
 
  • 59 percent are opposed to the US embargo against Cuba (April 2009)
 
  • 75 percent oppose US military threats against Iran (November 2006)
 
  • 73 percent say that all nuclear weapons should be permanently eliminated (November 2007)
 
  • 64 percent want the US government to fund public health efforts in underdeveloped countries (March-April 2009) [14]
 
Of course, given the current scarcity of organized and militant grassroots social movements, the public’s values are almost entirely irrelevant to the making of government policy. The reason, as political economist Thomas Ferguson has demonstrated through his “investment theory of party competition,” is that the US political system is “money-driven,” meaning that the fate of the two major political parties depends on their ability to attract funding and other support from powerful private interests. The “major investors” in the two parties tend to be the large corporations that possess the capital and concentrated power necessary to exert leverage over politicians. As a result, an unspoken “principle of noncompetition” on most major issues characterizes the relationship between Democrats and Republicans, who design policy to ensure “rocklike stability toward the vital interests of these investors” while they “confine almost all competition to noneconomic issues less threatening to elite investors” (e.g., abortion, gun control, gay marriage) [15]. The exclusionary nature of the political system is quite intentional and has never been a secret to most US elites. As Woodrow Wilson once candidly admitted, “the men really consulted [by policymakers] are the men who have the big stake—the big bankers, the big manufacturers, and the big masters of commerce….The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States” [16]. (As evidence in my follow-up piece will demonstrate, the public is also well aware of this reality, and the sheer unresponsiveness of government is probably a major factor behind the rise of right-wing populist movements.)
 
But the public’s values are not irrelevant for those of us who actually care about democracy, or who want to build the sort of mass movement that can influence policy as past movements have done. The poll results are very strong evidence of the US public’s underlying progressive values and potential receptivity to most of the Left’s main messages. The whites who have turned out to the Tea Parties may or may not be among the majorities cited in each of these polls, and clearly there is some variation within the Tea Party crowd. But having attended a number of these events, and after growing up in rural Pennsylvania and spending much of my life listening to white workers who usually vote Republican, I firmly believe that most of the basic “libertarian” values of the white working-class protesters who have wittingly or unwittingly helped advance a pro-corporate, militarist, and xenophobic policy agenda in recent years are actually very similar to those of most working people in this country: the desire to have control over one’s life and work; to be free from illegitimate, arbitrary, or unnecessary authority; the desire for adequate food, shelter, medical care, and perhaps small luxuries now and then, within the framework of fiscal responsibility; the desire for physical security and peace of mind for oneself, one’s family, and the broader community. There is little about these values that would make their adherents natural allies of the Right—and indeed, the elites who run the Republican Party have implemented some of the most authoritarian, economically regressive, fiscally irresponsible, and militarily provocative policies in the history of Western civilization. Some of the poll results above also demonstrate that even registered Republicans lie well to the left of the candidates for whom they vote—and even well to the left of the Democrats—on central issues like climate change, health care, and foreign policy.
 
If, instead of their current policies, Obama and the Democrats adopted firm, explicit stances in favor of bringing US foreign policy into line with international law, reducing the military budget to help fund social programs, and bringing the US into the civilized world with single-payer universal health care, there is every reason to expect that the party’s support among the white working class would increase. During the past century the repeated electoral successes of progressive-leaning members of the US Congress like Jeanette Rankin, William Fulbright, Paul Wellstone, and Bernie Sanders—who have come from Montana, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Vermont—further refute the absurd notion that progressive stances on war or domestic economic policy are “politically impossible,” even when one’s constituency is the rural white working class [17]. The left-leaning Sanders, for example, has demonstrated how a straight-talking, honest, and conscious-driven politician with strong progressive values can successfully appeal to rural whites (see Steve Early’s account of how Sanders handled a Town Hall meeting last August) [18].
 
Even given current levels of popular ignorance and depoliticization, no amount of corporate propaganda and right-wing demagogy can defeat policies that are clearly designed to advance the material interests of the working and middle classes in opposition to those of elites. As William Greider points out in a recent discussion of the health care debate, “If you told people ‘public option’ was a Medicare equivalent, the polls would demonstrate the popularity.” Howard Zinn likewise once commented that “some things simply don’t have to be explained to people. They explain themselves” [19]. A system of free, universal health coverage would fall under that category. Of course, most Democrats are firmly opposed to a single-payer system and have never supported anything remotely close to a “Medicare equivalent,” once again constrained by their loyalties to corporate interests. But if Obama did propose a “Medicare equivalent,” and explicitly frame it as such, the health care industry’s propaganda would have little effect on most of the public.
 
If the Democratic leadership chose to pursue the progressive agenda favored by most of the public—including most of the white public, and on many issues by most of the Republican-voting public—they could counter the power of corporate donors and lobbyists by mobilizing millions of ordinary people, as the Obama campaign did prior to November 2008. Taking decisive steps like genuine campaign finance reform, a ban on corporate lobbyists, and increased taxation on corporations would also reduce the political power of the corporate elite, at least partially neutralizing the corporate backlash against popular policies.
 
But in our current money-driven, two-party system such a scenario is almost inconceivable for the reasons that Ferguson’s investment theory of politics suggests. Mainstream political “debate” focuses almost entirely on non-economic issues like gay marriage and abortion—issues which are important but nonetheless relatively marginal to elite interests—precisely because of Ferguson’s “principle of noncompetition” on the core issues involving wealth and power: when the putatively-populist Democratic Party offers no alternative to pro-corporate domestic policy and imperialist foreign policy—or even at times seems to outdo the Republicans in these areas—many rural whites are attracted to the Republicans for the non-economic issues.
 
 
Building upon the Healthy Nucleus, Constructing Genuine Alternatives
 
The Democratic Party as we know it will never be the base upon which a strong grassroots progressive movement develops. As Lance Selfa points out in a recent study, the Democratic Party has consistently proven to be just the opposite, what he calls “the graveyard of social movements” [20]. If recent polls and political developments are any indication, the Democrats are also fueling the surge of right-wing populism (to be addressed in my next blog entry).
 
Third parties offer some possibilities for expanding the national discourse, and engagement with the electoral system is always necessary. But a focus on electoral politics, especially at the national level, often distracts movements and organizations from the far more important work of grassroots education, community-building, and direct action. The key to meaningful social change has never lain in electoral politics, but in building an independent series of mass movements that can exert leverage through education, direct action, and obstruction of the everyday operations of politics, capitalism, and war. As Howard Zinn reminds us,
 
Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens. [21]
 
Mass movements must be built so that people become “major investors” in the political system. This is far from impossible, and has been done in countries far less democratic than the current-day United States.
 
Organizers and activists on the Left have the tremendous advantage of a solid “healthy nucleus” of progressive values that has persisted among the US public despite constant elite efforts to erase or negate it. For Gramsci a primary task of the political organizer was to expand upon this healthy nucleus within popular consciousness, so that it might “be made more unitary and coherent” [22]. A core objective of our activism and organizing should be to promote its development through a process of discussion-based popular education on issues that affect workers, the middle class, and the poor. At the same time, that discussion must be complemented with concrete action that can actually produce results (i.e., not simply making phone calls to politicians). Although Gramsci was at times guilty of a vanguardist or Leninist view of the masses, a more horizontal form of popular education and organizing that places greater faith in ordinary people is possible and has been done in practice [23].
 
One potential objection to the healthy-nucleus notion is that the relative privileges of Western workers—particularly straight white males—militate against progressive politics when it comes to certain forms of exploitation. For example, all workers in the US reap certain benefits from the exploitation of poorer countries, especially in the form of cheap consumer goods. Favored groups within the US working class reap additional benefits based on their race, nationality, gender, and sexuality. The opposition of white males to affirmative action programs or immigration could thus appear quite “rational,” and no amount of independent media or education would counteract it. These negative values, a more pessimistic observer might argue, derive from self interest and drown out whatever healthy, humanist values are present.
 
The material interests and “natural” political inclinations of the First-World working class have preoccupied theorists and activists for well over a century, and I cannot pretend to offer any definitive answer here. On one hand, certainly workers and the middle class in the West have often played a counter-hegemonic role within the US, and at times have even demonstrated a political radicalism that has seemed to sacrifice their own immediate interests for the good of even more oppressed peoples elsewhere: the Abraham Lincoln brigades during the Spanish Civil War, the 1980s Central American solidarity movement, and the rise of US Labor Against the War starting in 2004 all come to mind. Rebecca Solnit’s excellent recent book A Paradise Built in Hell demonstrates the extraordinary generosity and selflessness of which ordinary human beings are capable in times of crisis. Other historians have shown just how unnatural the modern capitalist system and its attendant values are, and how capitalist structures and values instead had to be imposed on workers from the start [24]. Moreover, if mass movements to redistribute wealth and power occur in both developed and underdeveloped countries simultaneously, the US working class would lose relatively little by the triumph of movements in underdeveloped countries. On the other hand, the appeal of consumer interest, patriarchy, chauvinism, and xenophobia can be very strong. And even if progressives succeed in reaching out to angry white workers, there are many everyday organizing obstacles to be overcome which I haven't touched upon here. For these reasons, ultimately it is the most oppressed, at the global level and within every society, in which the most power has to be vested as we work for change.
 
But the precise extent of the possible is in some ways a moot question. What we do know is that even among most white heterosexual males in the US there are considerable possibilities for building a progressive movement. Any serious progressive must recognize the validity of white working-class anger and loudly advocate policies that would address the rising economic inequality and exploitation at its root, in a language that can appeal to decent but depoliticized and uninformed people. When it comes to the Tea Party crowd and other right-wing groups composed largely of the working class, the first step is not dismissing them as lunatics.
 
 
Notes:
 
[1] Kevin Bohn, “Gun Sales Surge after Obama Election,” CNN.com, 11 November 2008; “Book: Obama Faces 30 Death Threats a Day” (headline), Democracy Now! 4 August 2009.
 
 
[3] See Chip Berlet, “Tea Bags, Taxes, and Productive Citizens,” Z Magazine (February 2010); Berlet and Lyons’s book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford, 2000); and the recent Democracy Now! segment featuring Berlet, “White Power USA: The Rise of Right-Wing Militias in America,” 11 January 2010.
 
[4] Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1971),190.
 
[5] In addition to the polls cited in the following paragraphs, see the polls—most conducted by mainstream news and polling agencies—compiled in the report by Media Matters for America, "The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America Is a Myth," June 2007.
 
[6] Paul Street, “To Save the Capitalist System: Reflections on Orin Kramer’s Understanding of Barack Obama’s Duty to America,” Z Magazine (December 2009); cf. the poll results discussed in Robert Weismann, “Big Business Is Even More Unpopular Than You Thought,” Counterpunch, 15 January 2008.
 
[7] Program on International Policy Attitudes (hereafter PIPA), “Americans Oppose Most Farm Subsidies,” 22 April 2009.
 
[8] On the minimum wage, see the polls from 2005 and 2006 compiled at http://www.pollingreport.com/work.htm (accessed January 4, 2010), particularly the July 2006 CBS News/New York Times poll in which 75 percent of Republican voters agreed; on unions, see the Gallup polls from 2003-09 featured on the same webpage; on EFCA, see the Gallup poll from March 14-15, 2009, on the same page.
 
[9] A good source on the immediate postwar decades is Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994). For more recent decades see Jack Rasmus, The War at Home: The Corporate Offensive from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush: Economic Class War in America (San Ramon, CA: Kyklos, 2006).
 
[10] PIPA, “Obama, McCain Supporters Agree Government Responsible For Ensuring Basic Healthcare, Food, and Education Needs,” 13 October 2008; New York Times/CBS News poll, 19-23 September 2009, p. 15; CNN Opinion Research poll cited on the website of the Western PA Coalition for Single-Payer Health Care (latter two polls also cited in Street, “To Save the Capitalist System”).
 
[11] Program on International Policy Attitudes, "Opportunities for Bipartisan Consensus—2007: What Both Republicans and Democrats Want in US Foreign Policy," January 2007; Physicians for a National Health Program, PNHP Research: The Case for a National Health Program; Anne Gearan and Anne Flaherty, “Obama Wants Record $708B for Military Next Year” (corrected version), AP, 13 January 2009 ($708 billion does not include Obama’s recent $33-billion request for additional war spending, and nor does it include various other hidden military spending [on nuclear weapons, service on the national debt, benefits to veterans, etc.]. My calculation of 7 percent is based on a projected $549 baseline DoD budget [$708 billion minus the $159 billion in additional war spending cited by the AP report], compared to Bush’s 2009 DoD budget of $515 billion); Jen Dimascio, “Robert Gates Meets Defense Industry Heads,” Politico, 13 January 2010.
 
 
 
[14] As with polls on domestic issues, this list is just a short sample of the relevant polls. PIPA, "Americans Strongly Support UN in Principle, Despite Reservations about Performance," 9 May 2007, and "U.S. Public Rejects Using Military Force to Promote Democracy," 29 September 2005. For additional analysis of the disjunction between the public’s progressive values on international affairs and public knowledge of US actions overseas, see my essay “The Achievements of War Propaganda: Selling Intervention to a Reluctant Public,” ZNet, 9 June 2008.
 
[15] Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 28, 36-37.
 
[16] Quoted in Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), 197.
 
[17] I include Fulbright in this list with some reservation because of his support for segregation in the 1950s and 1960s; he did, however, become a vocal and principled critic of US foreign policy later in his career. For more evidence of the public’s general distaste for war and domestic inequality see my The Achievements of War Propaganda.”
 
[18] Steve Early, “A Postcard from Vermont: Sanders Shows Congress How to Avoid,” Z commentary, 18 August 2009.
 
[19] Greider, “Squandered Opportunity,” The Nation (online), 17 August 2009; Zinn, The Politics of History, second edition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990 [1970]), 303.
 
[20] Selfa, The Democrats, 116.
 
[21] Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008).
 
[22] Gramsci, “The Study of Philosophy,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 328.
 
[23] I use “popular education” in the sense that Paulo Freire and subsequent pedagogical theorists have used it, meaning the dual practice of “action and reflection” to address the problems at the root of human oppression. The pedagogical process itself eliminates illegitimate hierarchy from the classroom in a way that prefigures the desired society (akin to the notion of “prefigurative politics” with which many activists are familiar). See Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1973).
 
[24] Among these works see the sources in Note 3 of my review of the Solnit book, plus E.P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past & Present 38, no. 1 (1967): 56-97; Herbert G. Gutman, Work, Culture & Society in Industrializing America (New York: Vintage, 1977); Ellen Meiksins-Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: An Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States (London: Verso, 1991).

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