The following article by managing editor of the blog Working-Class Perspectives John Russo, former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and coordinator of the Labor Studies Program at Youngstown State University and visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University and Georgetown University Professor Sherry Linkon, faculty affiliate of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, and editor of Working-Class Perspectives, is cross-posted from Moyers & Company:
When Mitt Romney dismissed the 47 percent of voters who, he predicted, would support Barack Obama “no matter what” as “victims” who depend on government assistance, liberal critics called foul. The quote, caught on video by a bartender at a Florida fundraiser in September 2012, reinforced Romney’s image as an elitist whose interests were firmly aligned with the wealthy. Not surprisingly, Democrats repeatedly used the line against Romney, and while we can’t blame his defeat in that year’s election on that one line, it sure didn’t help, especially in Rust Belt states like Ohio.
Last Friday, Hillary Clinton said the following:
You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of these folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket – and I know this because I see friends from all over America here – I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas – as well as, you know, New York and California–but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
You’d think Clinton would have learned something from Romney’s experience, but her description of many of Donald Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” at an elite Wall Street fundraiser is actually far worse than Romney’s comment, because hers wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark. She repeated the description a couple of times, at multiple events and in an Israeli news interview. Her intention, it seems, was to call out the racism, sexism and xenophobia of many of Trump’s supporters, but it apparently wasn’t enough for her to criticize voters’ prejudices. Channeling Sarah Palin, Clinton went on to label some of Trump’s supporters as “not America.” When criticized, Clinton expressed “regret” for suggesting that her remarks characterized “half” of Trump’s supporters, but she stood by her critique of Trump’s campaign.
Clinton isn’t wrong that Trump has fostered division and fear in this country, or that many of those supporting the Republican candidate do seem motivated by fear and blame of people who are not like them. And yes, the venom and violence we’ve seen at Trump rallies is deplorable. Trump has clearly tapped into an underlying current of division and resentment, much of it focused on differences of race, gender, religion or nationality, and his campaign has exploited a deep and hurtful weakness in American culture. He has created a “safe space” for hatred, dismissing political correctness, encouraging paranoia and modeling blame, denigration and hatred. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in The Atlantic, we do need to take seriously both Trump and Americans who take his campaign as permission to go public with attitudes about which they might otherwise express only in private.
But we also need to take seriously the prejudices of the other side. When Clinton dismisses some Trump supporters as “irredeemable” and “deplorable,” she is — like Trump when he describes Mexican immigrants as criminals or Muslims as terrorists — voicing the prejudices of many of her liberal and elite supporters. While white people who fear blacks and immigrants know — and resent — that openly expressing racism or xenophobia is not considered acceptable in the US today, college-educated liberals feel no compunction about dismissing Trump supporters as idiots who are too foolish to understand how often their candidate lies and too poorly educated to recognize how thin or misguided his policy positions really are. If only they were as smart as we were, such comments suggest, they wouldn’t buy Trump’s promises.
This is classism, plain and simple. It reflects the assumption that “they” are fundamentally different from “us.” And while some of these comments suggest that these others are misguided because they don’t have “our” advantages, too often, as in Clinton’s all-too-easy sorting of people into baskets and her suggestion that some are “irredeemable,” the problem is defined as a matter of character.
Clinton’s comments crystalize the contradictions of this year’s campaign and the situation of many working-class and struggling middle-class Americans. We can’t give these voters a pass for their prejudices. Many refused to vote for Obama because he’s black, and some probably won’t vote for Clinton in part because she’s female. People are saying and doing things in this year’s election that make painfully visible the resentment and hatred that undermine civic life in this country. But they are also themselves victims — of corporate greed, of neoliberal policies forwarded by both parties and of class prejudices, often coming from those who steadfastly claim to care about inequality and injustice.
That Clinton made these comments at fundraisers, including one focused on LGBTQ voters in New York, highlights this last contradiction. As Glenn Greenwald argued in The Intercept, in their avid rejection of Trump and his supporters, some in the media and on the left are “jettisoning” their own core beliefs, giving Clinton a pass not only for her dismissive comments this weekend but also for her Wall Street cronyism and her history of neoliberalism.
If Clinton wins in November, as she seems likely to do, many of those who have dismissed Trump’s supporters will feel relieved and vindicated. And if this year’s election is like most, public discussion of the challenges facing the American working class will largely disappear. Worse, despite her campaign’s attention to inequality, Clinton will likely continue to promote policies that will leave many Americans further and further behind. And the “deplorables” will be all the more primed to rally behind the next demagogue.
If we want real change, we need to hold both sides accountable. We can’t give Trump’s supporters a pass for their attitudes. We can’t give Hillary a pass for dismissing a large number of citizens as “not America.” And we can’t give the media, liberals or the Democrats a pass for ignoring and denigrating the working class. Like it or not, they are America. They are us.
This (not what the author claims) is what is wrong with Democrats today: elites telling elites they mustn’t sound like elites, but should at all costs not allow ignorant, stupid, racist, credulous fools to discern that there is anybody in our party more intelligent, or more morally upright, than themselves. When our candidate says something with which we thoroughly agree, we are supposed to kneecap her for it, and prove we aren’t “elitists” by defending the people she so properly denounces. This circular firing squad, the opposite of what Republicans do, is convened every election year by people who think a whiff of intelligence is death at the polls. But the fact is, our candidate IS smarter, and intelligence hasn’t always been something to be ashamed of. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, these ARE things to be ashamed of. But any Democrat who cries “shame” is immediately denounced by an intelligent person who has thought of an intelligent reason and written an intelligent article to persuade us not only to act stupid ourselves but to collectively denounce our own standard-bearer for not being stupid too. And the conflating of bigot and ignoramus with “working class” and the insistence that anybody who criticizes a yahoo is really criticizing every blue collar person, is the most dismaying thing about it. There’s nothing about struggling for a living that requires anybody to be an absolute fool, never read an honest newspaper, or to scapegoat everybody for your problems except the ones responsible. The author’s true sympathies are alluded to when he talks of support for Clinton violating their “core beliefs” or of her “Wall Street cronyism” and “neoliberalism.” Hillary Clinton, I can confidently say, has done more for the working class in her long career (and probably met and talked to more of them) than most labor studies academics, and when she helped reshape public education in Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the union, it wasn’t for the benefit of Wall Street. She needs no lectures on how to talk to or champion ordinary working people. She did it in Arkansas, she did it in Washington, and I watched her do it as my Senator, particularly in Republican-leaning upstate New York. The condescension of somebody with a long list of snooty credentials in academe dismissing her practical accomplishments, to accuse her of some sort of class war against the poor, is dismaying, particularly here.
Thank you for saying what needed to be said so beautifully.
Liberal elitism is also a turn off among working class and poor people who are or should be Democrats. The fact that Democrats win cities because non-Republicans are packed in them just obscures the dismal turnout and the real political disenfranchisement of the poor and minorities.
I was thinking it must take a great deal of intestinal fortitude to conflate white supremacists with the working class, or to dismiss their bigotry because they’re not wealthy. I was quite a bit startled when condemning racist attitudes in strong terms was equated with Trump’s calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But then I noticed that the piece quoted Glenn Greenwald, and I instantly understood how the author might want us to aim our guns at the Democratic nominee, instead of defending her eminently defensible position. I despair of the Democratic cause if Democrats head this mutton-headed advice, but if we lose the election by preening ourselves on our willingness to despise our own candidate for tells the truth impolitely about the other side, we deserve to lose the election. And the innocent among us (those of us who do NOT ‘regard politics as a cancer upon democracy) will suffer along with the guilty.