A White Male Working Class Tantrum

There is no question in anyone’s mind, I am sure, that I am talking about the 2016 election season. Not the outcome of the election particularly. I could have made the same argument I am about to make if Hillary had won. I probably wouldn’t have but I could have. It’s the election, not the outcome.

And it is the response of mainline voters I want to consider here. I want to reject some proposals I have heard and offer others. The response is really what is on my mind today, but, of course, tantrum-4the best response will have to be based on what it is responding to.

Donald Trump was elected by the tantrum vote. People who are thinking of how to respond should begin by understanding that.

Here is a little background. In calling it a “tantrum” [1] I don’t mean to imply that there is nothing to protest. The privilege of “whiteness” is under attack everywhere. People who are looking at how “whiteness” is being defended need to remember that it never needed to be defended before. That is the main thing in the minds of the defenders. Maleness is widely derogated in casual conversation. If you remember the “dumb blonde” jokes of a bygone era, you get the idea. All you have to do is substitute “man” for “dumb blonde” and the joke works just fine. The working class has been losing both political and economic power for many decades now. [2] They have been, in the “deep story” Arlie Russell Hochschild [3] tells about these voters, standing in line for a long time, but people keep cutting into line in front of them. It’s not fair!!

So, to reiterate, it is not as though there is nothing that needs to be opposed. The question is whether throwing a tantrum is the best way to oppose it. This year, it worked better than anyone thought it would.

Let’s start back a little bit. Richard Ball published an intriguing article in a sociology journal in 1968.  It had this title—“A Poverty Case: The analgesic subculture of the Southern Appalachians.” “Analgesic subculture?” Really? This is a subculture oriented to killing the pain of their failed lives. It involves drug abuse, alcoholism, loss of stable social structure, and the active subversion of anything that could improve their lot in life. None of this helps to improve their lot, of course, but it make it hurt less. And when the pain is constant, that matters a great deal.

Imagine now that a leader comes by who says that the reason for all this suffering can be tantrum-7clearly identified and that it is “them.” The power of this leader does not come from any solution to the problem, but only with a way to fix the blame for it. This is very satisfying in several ways. First, if it is “their fault,” it is not my fault. Second, making them “pay” in some way for what they are doing to us is a perfectly satisfactory substitute for actually dealing with the issues. I may still be dying from the diseases my work reliably causes and still desperately poor and alcoholic, the the new problem—the gift of the leader to people like me—is that “they” don’t respect us.

Ha! Well, Mr. Big, we just elected one of our own and defeated one of yours. How do you like them apples?

A tantrum, you will notice, is not oriented toward policy at all. Not toward rejecting the policies of the past (who knows what those are?) nor toward demanding policies for the future. It is not oriented toward solving the problems I know I have, but on making the people who look down on us sorry they were not more respectful.

That recalls to my mind a wonderful scene from the film version of Needful Things, in which the chief schlub, having fallen completely under the control of the Devil, reveals to the other people in the town that he has strapped huge amounts of explosives to his body and is going to blow them and the whole town up. “You’re going to pay,” he keeps saying. “You’re going to pay BIG.” This from a man who is just about to blow himself to bloody pulp and seems not to have noticed. [4]

So what is a liberal to do?

The most thoughtful and sensitive liberals I know propose that we sit down with angry conservatives and get them to confide in us—to tell us just what it is they are throwing the tantrum about. There are quite a few things wrong with that, it seems to me. Unless it is a rope-a-dope strategy and unless you have trained for it (as Mohammed Ali did) you are going to get tired long before they are. Second, they are going to complain about things that are demonstrably false and you are going to want to correct them, gently, by saying that the grievance they just described has no basis in fact. That will not work.  And third, my experience in rewarding tantrum-driven behavior is that it evokes a good deal more tantrum-driven behavior. It is working, after all. Why should they change a strategy that is serving them—“serving them” please remember, has to do with feeling better, not with solving the problems that define their lives—so well?

So what’s better than volunteering to be a liberal piñata until the angry conservatives get tired of beating you with a stick? I suggest civil conversation with people who have different values, different policy preferences, and different blind spots than you do.

tantrum-3Let me describe how that would work and then you can tell me that it doesn’t solve the problem as I framed it and then I will tell you why it will work anyway. [5] I propose that we sit down with conservatives who are willing to have a civil conversation based on the different values each of us seems to have. Our job, the job he and I are working on, is having this conversation in a way that is honest and sustainable. If we succeed, it will be because of our teamwork. If we fail, “we,” not one of us, will have failed.

We are, in short, “colleagues” so far as this discussion is concerned. “Honesty” and “sustainability” define the boundaries of the conversation. [6] Each of us knows how to say “acceptable things” to the other. If these acceptable remarks do not reflect our own understanding of the society and the polity, then we will have gone “out of bounds.” Each of us has a sense—not quite so acute as the sense of what we ourselves believe—of what risks we might run that will destroy the future of this conversation. We need to try to withhold those things. Not withholding them would be going out of bounds.  Sustainability is more important than any one of them. The relationship may very well grow robust enough that it will tolerate remarks that would have destroyed it earlier. We can hope that, but we can’t presuppose it.

Honest and sustainable conversations about the welfare of the country we both live in and both love. That’s the solution.

tantrum-6But, you say, that doesn’t end the tantrum. No. It doesn’t. You are quite right. But it may well do two things that are worth doing. The first is that it may change the relationship between the policy-oriented leaders of the “Less Government” school of thought and their angry and self-destructive supporters. The second is that it may change the relationship between the “More Government” people (myself included) and the “Less Government” people.

Neither of these is a forlorn hope. Do you remember how many people supported President Clinton’s hopes for abortion that was “safe, legal, and rare?” That is a formulation that recognizes the different hopes of different groups and doesn’t demonize anyone.

Do you remember how much Republicans favored George W. Bush’s proposals for systematizing our immigration policies? It was a wonderful idea until it was proposed by Barack Obama. [7] Then it was a terrible idea. My proposal would not change the nature of the tantrum vote, but it would give conservative leaders resources to oppose it and that is something they want to do.  The tantrum will constrain them as well once they take office.

Do you remember when feminism touted the right of every American woman to make her own choices and have the kind of life she wanted? That standard requires the professional women to honor and value the choices made by women who want to be wives and mothers. It would, plausibly, require the homemakers to honor and value the careers and the childlessness often chosen by professional women. But when homemaking women are “anti-feminist” by the choices they have made, then “feminism” includes only “these” women; it excludes “those.”  What kind of feminism is that?

Those are, to pick just three, sets of conflicting values we could reconsider in the kinds of conversations I am proposing. And, although you might not think it, foreign policy decisions are even more open to value consensus that these few domestic policies.

Besides, for people like me, what else is there? I’ve always been a fan of the adage that if there is only one horse running in the race, you know who is going to win.

[1] The dictionary to which I have easiest access defines it as “a violent willful outburst of annoyance, rage, etc.”
[2] In a small experiment I used to use in my public policy courses, I would set up a system that was structurally unfair to four fifths of the population. This system separated the conservatives in the class very neatly from the liberals. The liberals wanted to change the system so that it was fair to all; the conservatives wanted to secure the favored statuses for themselves.
[3] Hochschild’s book is called Strangers in Their Own Land.  It is superb.

[4]  This guy is the poster boy for the tantrum voters. His name is Danforth Keaton III and is often called, for obvious reasons, “Buster.” The bomb is intended to punish the people who dissed him by using that name.
[5] I am not proposing, by the way, that this is all that should be done. I favor massive bureaucratic intransigence, down and dirty political infighting, litigation wherever current legal practices allow it, and huge efforts to reconnect traditional Democratic voters to the party, not just to the candidates. I am focusing in this essay on what people like me and my friends should do.
[6] While I am not talking about standards of decorum like that used in the U. S. Senate (My friend, the honorable Senator from Kentucky, seems to have missed the argument I was trying to make.) On the other hand, such formalities used to make it possible to discuss policies that would not have been possible otherwise and that is the testimony of generations of Senators.
[7] Except, of course, with conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who is given credit by some for scuttling it singlehandedly. I don’t think he did that, but he undeniably ignited hope in the hearts of the most bitter opponents who were beginning to think they had lost.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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