June 2016
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There is No 99%

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I adored Occupy Wall Street, which reminded me of my own radical inception in 1970 antiwar demonstrations; I felt like I was warming my cold bones at a cheery fire. I was thrilled Occupy changed the public discourse and restored a focus on inequality. The "We Are the 99%" meme was powerful and persuasive and, I now think, misleading.

The problem with the meme illustrates the general slipperiness of words and categories. Running "We are the 99%" through the Neurolinguistic Translator, what emerges is NOT "We are a unified bloc of non-wealthy people opposing privilege". What emerges instead is a much weaker statement, that "99% of the American or world population is much poorer than the other 1%, and we, the shouters, are included in that 99%". In fact, the bulk of American and European nonwealthy seem to be almost evenly split today between the parties of hope and fear.

This has been evident in reviewing a number of sources and date points for the last few years. Although Hillary Clinton had a bump recently after some particularly ridiculous behaviors by Donald Trump, much of the polling has shown them almost even, within the statistical margin of error. The closeness of each recent Presidential election, the margins by which the Republicans have held the Senate, and Mitt Romney's disparaging statement during the 2012 election about the 47% of the population "who will vote for the president no matter what, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it..."

I am thinking about this because of the stunning "Brexit" vote this week in which the polling also showed a British nation almost evenly divided between remaining in the European Union and leaving--resulting in a vote to leave by about four percentage points. This too was a division between hope and fear, and the issues were almost identical to those in the American election: fear of elites and foreigners, rejection of expertise, a rebellion of older, less-educated white people who feel they are sinking down. The most poignant stories emerging from Brexit involved young students who feel that their grandparents threw them under the bus, people expressing remorse for their "Leave" votes immediately as the markets began to crash (many were registering a protest vote and didn't actually expect to win or change anything), and people Googling "European Union" to study exactly what they had just voted to leave.

For me, the most important insight from Brexit, confirming what I have been observing in this country since the 1990's, is the ease with which half the 99% can be induced, not just to sacrifice their grandchildren, but to vote against their own jobs, houses, and health, through fear and rage. What is in play now, and has been for a long time, is Lincoln's (apocryphal) assertion that "You cannot fool all the people all of the time". Yes, half isn't all, but if you can fool fifty-one percent permanently, that is good enough.

Exploiting panic and hatred is an old, perennial and always successful tactic. Richard Hofstadter described, and named, it in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", and you can study successive waves of Donald Trump-style populism and xenophobia in the nineteenth century, such as the advent of the Know Nothing Party. During World War One, there were actual lynchings of a few German Americans and Wobblies, and a much wider epidemic of disgusting manifestations like "flag-kissing mobs" and people being compelled, through threats of force, seizure of property, firing or prosecution, to buy Liberty Bonds (which were themselves a tactic to get the 99% to finance the war so the rich didn't have to). World War II pressure, to which Roosevelt caved, to intern Japanese Americans is another example, and of course the unending holocaust of racial hatred in the South is well known to all of us. Then, in the late 1940's, the use of rage and hatred settled down around anti-Communism. A Democratic administration which had just won the war, re-established international stability and was presiding over a booming economy underwent a truly phony Republican attack for softness on Communism. A threshold moment was when Eisenhower, campaigning in 1952, on a platform with Senator McCarthy, allowed the latter to attack the loyalty of Eisenhower's old mentor, General Marshall, without taking a stand. You can see the same in Germany in 1932 (my original plan was to write about the parallels to Weimar this month): there are hateful demagogues and other more considered right wingers who remain silent because they think that these are our demagogues; we can control them. And want to win at any price.

We are seeing the potential advent of a new McCarthyism (I use the term for convenience, but McCarthy was just a single, late player in a game that actually started with Richard Nixon's HUAC and was far broader than the inebriated Wisconsin senator). Today's version, instead of "There are Communists living among us plotting the destruction of our nation" is "There are Muslims living among us plotting mass terror events" and an overlapping version, "There are Latinos living among us who will take our jobs, take over our nation by registering to vote in larger numbers, change the national language to Spanish", and probably marry our white women while they are at it. Inevitably, any push-back against those people is then channeled into a persecution and, if possible, prosecution of anybody defending immigration, or diversity, or even just bare due process for the hated. I am a proud member of National Lawyers' Guild and I have a copy of an early 1950's Congressional report recommending that all NLG members be disbarred. It was fascinating, though not necessary to this analysis, that Newt Gingrich a few days ago called for the re-institution of the House Unamerican Activities Committee.

In 2012, I wrote an essay I am proud of, Dear Greta: You Are Being Lied To, a letter to an imaginary 39-year-old Republican single mom in Fort Myers, Florida, trying to offer food for thought on the lies her party was telling her about health care, unions and abortion. My experience a year or so later trying to reason with people about Obamacare on a right wing blog indicated the depth of the problem: I was met immediately by rage and threats, and then blocked by the blogger. Decades ago, Jurgen Habermas spoke of a "falsified public sphere" and he is more right than he knew: it is the ironically named Twittersphere. Much birdsong communicates nothing more than "Bird here", and similarly tweets are nothing more than slogan-bandying without the opportunity for thought or discourse. The problems are much broader than that, of course: the falling off of public education, the subsiding of much of the public into safe echo chambers such as Fox News (or MSNBC), but principally the decades long effort by the Republican party to win the debate by capturing (and degrading) the vocabulary. As for education, look at Marco Rubio's carefully encoded statements about four year degrees: ""We should be graduating more people from high school ready to work as plumbers, electricians, welders, machinists, BMW technicians, you name it. We have too many people graduating with a four-year degree that doesn't lead to jobs." The Brexit voters and Trump voters alike are the less educated, who apparently, sad to say, fall for the hype more easily. (BMW technicians is a particularly good touch; I didn't notice that before.) As for the degradation of language, it has been going on for generations, but it accelerated in 1990 when Newt Gingrich published his advice for Republican candidates, "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control", which proposed the following vocabulary for campaign discourse: "decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic", and the beat goes on.

This year, the Republican loss of control and the surprise surge of Donald Trump indicate that the Republican working class base has finally figured out that, decade after decade, their party has done nothing for them; I had long wondered when that would happen. Jane Mayer, in her book on the Koch Brothers, Dark Money, describes a 2013 meeting at which representatives of the Kochs, Cato, Heritage, and the other Republican elitist players, unaware they were being recorded, talked frankly about how to keep fooling the group they described as the "middle third": "“The battle for the future of the country is who can win the hearts and minds of the middle third.... We want to decrease regulations [so] we can make more profit, OK?” But the middle third doesn't like greed, so “We've got to convince these people we mean well and that we're good people”. The proposed solution: “launch a movement for well-being”. Another speaker called the vague, empty phrase a “game changer....Who can be against well-being?” The only good thing I can say about Donald Trump--the only one--is that he made the Kochs waste their money and time.

I had a personal experience last year which bears on this. I have represented hundreds of activists of a variety of backgrounds in criminal cases since Occupy Wall Street. One of them introduced me to people in an African American community which was rapidly gentrifying, and I defended a number of them in housing court. Landlords eager to drive out rent stabilized tenants were resorting to tactics like throwing away the rent checks and then suing for nonpayment. Having an unexamined belief, bolstered by my success communicating with a diverse group of activist clients, that I can talk to anyone, establish a rapport with anyone, I was astonished to discover there were tenants who couldn't tell the difference between me and the landlord's attorney, who were suspicious of anyone offering them free services, who thought that my intention was to accept a bribe from the landlord at the critical moment. I understood for the first time that activists form an elite-- they learn how to talk to people like me, lawyers, politicians, people in authority. I had finally, and for the first time in my life, met the real "masses".

An important sidelight on this lesson was that the people who didn't trust me had much more in common with the Republican base than they had differences. The 2008 mortgage meltdown involved Wall Street preying on black and white people alike--if you had or wanted a home and Wall Street could sell you an adjustable rate mortgage you couldn't afford and didn't understand, the predators didn't care what race you were. Yet the entire history of the United States involves working class populations not identifying with each other--unions which fought hard to exclude black people, rural and urban populations not seeing they were in the same boat, a never-ending series of racial, ethnic and demographic divisions that had the net effect of making sure that the 99% could never cohere. "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half", said Jay Gould.

I would like to state a proposition, that requires much more thought, research and writing to substantiate: Voting your hopes participates in the very Enlightenment essence of democracy, while voting your fears contributes to democracy's end. Democracy is an inherently hopeful system, which needs as fuel a certain degree of self confidence, respect for others, and calm, all of which are emotional states associated with hope. People feeling fears verging on panic will eventually sacrifice all democratic structures, and historically have (as in 1932) easily turned to a "man on horseback" to protect them. Donald Trump (who is really a rank amateur compared to Hitler in 1932) is trying to be that man.

The Republicans have spent so many years encouraging selfishness, ignorance, exceptionalism, bigotry, and rage in their base that (and here I radiate elitism like Mitt Romney, but I will forge ahead anyway:) I fear for their voters' ability to function as players in a democracy. Democratic processes are Enlightenment concepts in which we tolerate differences and search for middle ground. With our near fifty fifty split and mutual hatred, we haven't had that in the U.S. in a long time. In an 1890 introduction to Milton's Areopagitica by James Russell Lowell, I found the following remarkable words: "“[E]ven democracies are a great while in finding out that everything may be left to the instincts of a free people except those instincts themselves, and that these, docile if guided gently, grow mutinous under unskillful driving.” That's where we are today, in the midst of what appears to be a worldwide, panicked flight from the Enlightenment.