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Joe Biden’s Blue-Collar Blues
And the politics of contempt.
In an open-ended question, people were asked: “What one word or phrase would you use to describe politics in the U.S. these days?”
Note: Circle size indicates relative frequency of a word in responses to an open-ended question. Words with the same root are combined (e.g., “divisive,” “division”). Top 56 words shown.
Not surprisingly: “Most Americans are ‘exhausted’ by politics. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say they always or often feel exhausted when thinking about politics, while 55% feel angry. By contrast, just 10% say they always or often feel hopeful about politics, and even fewer (4%) are excited.”
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Our Culture of Contempt
Back in 2019, the estimable Arthur Brooks noted that critics and pundits “often say that our problem in America today is incivility or intolerance.”
Brooks begged to differ.
The real problem is far worse: Contempt, which he described as “a noxious brew of anger and disgust.”
And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people. In the words of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”
To be sure, the temptation of disdain is powerful; and let’s be honest, contempt is often earned in our deplorable political culture. Contemptible people do, indeed, deserve contempt, and I for one, certainly intend to keep serving it up in generous doses.
But Brooks, who is a far better man than I am, also warned about the dangers of a more global contempt for people who might have different perspectives and opinions. “Contempt,” he notes, “makes political compromise and progress impossible.”
And it shuts down any possibility of dialogue. Wrote Brooks:
Contempt makes persuasion impossible — no one has ever been hated into agreement, after all — so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.
I was reminded of Brooks’s piece when I was talking with The Liberal Patriot’s Ruy Teixeira on yesterday’s podcast.
As, usual, the veteran progressive analyst offered up some tough love for Democrats who seem puzzled about why they might be losing working class voters. And, as usual, we were reminded how many Democrats just don’t want to hear it.
But denialism is not really a sound political strategy going into 2024 — and neither is a politics based on contempt.
You know what I mean here: the dismissal of working-class voters as ignorant, irrational bigots, who really don’t understand the economy or even their own self-interest. Okay, that does explain some of them; but, as Ruy points out, the voters-are-too-dumb-to-understand mantra is (1) hardly a ringing endorsement of democracy, and (2) a questionable electoral strategy for the party of FDR.
Simply assuming that working-class reactions to social and economic conditions are irrational seems like a strategy for widening the disconnect between elites and the voters desperately needed to block a second Trump term. It also dismisses a wide swath of humanity as unworthy of respect or attention.
Ruy argues that that it’s important for Democrats to understand just how poorly the Biden economy has played with working-class voters so far: A recent Quinnipiac poll found Biden with a 25 percent approval on the economy among white working-class (non-college) voters vs. 52 percent approval on the economy among white college-grad voters.
And white working-class voters are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the national economy (75 percent), and are pessimistic (82 percent) about the cost of goods and services, a recent CBS News poll found.
Teixeira notes that views on the Biden economy may also reflect the belief among working-class voters that, “Democrats don’t much like them and their uneducated uncouth manner of speaking and thinking.”
The fact that Democrats responded with visceral dislike to a song that expressed the complicated populist views of an actual working-class person shows how unwelcoming the party has become to actual working-class people, as opposed to mythological proletarians who combine hatred of (Republican) corporations with reverence for “Bidenomics” and careful usage of all the approved intersectional language.
In a recent essay, Teixeira cites recent reporting by Ron Brownstein to explain the chasm in the outlook on the economy between working class and college grads:
Frustration over high prices is especially acute among voters with fewer resources and less financial cushion, which generally include those with less education. “Nobody likes spending more, but the degree to which you can absorb inflation, those at the higher end of the economic scale have less difficulty doing so,” said Democratic pollster Jay Campbell. . . .
While Biden and his allies point to an inflation slowdown, prices are not returning to their pre-Covid levels. Higher interest rates are also a problem.
“You are still paying more for eggs and your other necessities than you were a year ago, and you are paying a lot more than you were 2-3 years ago,” Campbell said. “And interest rates being really high compounds the problem in reality and in people’s minds, because now if you have to put something on your credit card you are paying even more—twice.” Higher interest rates are also making it more difficult for people to buy homes or finance cars.
This is the hard reality Bidenomics and the Democrats have run into. The typical working-class voter just sees and has experienced things in a way that does not comport with Democrats’ preferred narrative. These voters’ “lived experience,” as it were, is just too different to generate buy-in to that narrative.
Recent economic news is not helping. Inflation went back up in August, as did gas prices. Meanwhile, the latest income data from the Census Bureau “show continued decline in median household income in the first two years of the Biden administration, leaving it 4.7 percent lower than its pre-pandemic peak.”
“Taking all this into account,” Teixeira writes, “it should not be too surprising that education polarization is stark in recent horse race polling between Biden and Trump. In a new CNN poll, Biden loses the working class by 14 points to Trump, while carrying college-educated voters by 18 points. That compares to Biden’s 2020 loss to Trump of ‘only’ four points among working-class voters.”
As Brownstein pointed out in that piece for CNN, “middle class Joe” may end up relying on upscale voters more than he did in 2020. Notes Teixeira: “Those are voters who are less sour on the economy and more susceptible to appeals around abortion, democracy, and Trump’s boorish personality.”
That may work. “But besides being risky, one has to wonder what kind of party the Democrats are becoming. Is this really the party they want to be, where the views, priorities, and values of the educated take precedence?” He writes:
We are getting very far indeed from FDR’s party of the common man and woman. Both political prudence and the core historic commitments of the Democratic Party should lead them away from their current path and back toward the working class. And should they make this course correction, they might want to give Oliver Anthony another listen.
Which brings us to the UAW strike — and its political fallout.
But the UAW isn’t necessarily thrilled about this green transition, despite the group’s traditional alignment with Democrats. Car manufacturers are redirecting billions of dollars toward research and development in an effort to make electric cars a viable option for consumers—money that assembly line workers won’t see. Plus, EVs are less labor-intensive to produce and require fewer workers. As manufacturers ramp up electric car production, the union fears they might close gas car factories, eliminating jobs that may not be replaced by positions on manufacturing floors devoted to electric cars.
In his newsletter yesterday, JVL examined some of the cognitive dissonance surrounding the issue. “The actual threat to these union autoworkers isn’t China,” he writes, “but the Republican governments in Sun Belt states, which have worked hard to weaken unions in order to make themselves attractive to big business.”
And yet, he cites Politico’s reporting, indicating that some actual UAW members seem to be aligned . . . with Trump.
He writes: “Three anecdotes aren’t data. But . . . man. We are deep into What’s the Matter with Kansas? territory.”
You might expect that every union member in America would be on the Democrats’ side. Especially given the Republican party’s overt hostility to the UAW. Yesterday Tim Scott literally said that he’d like to fire the striking autoworkers.1
But that’s not what’s going on.
You’d think this would put Biden and Democrats in an electoral sweet spot, because in a rational world: [Voters in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri would side with the Democrats.]
But we don’t live in a rational world. We live in the Upside Down. So instead we get:
Voters in South Carolina, et al. raging against Biden while gladly accepting the fruits of his economic policies.
Union members in Michigan, et al. turning against Biden because . . . well, I don’t know, exactly. Maybe because they think Biden didn’t work hard enough to protect them from big business. Or maybe because they think their jobs will be going to China, and not Knoxville. Or maybe because of drag queen story hour. Who can say?
JVL’s analysis is fair and thorough, and you should read the whole thing. But I beg to differ, at least somewhat.
Obviously, I agree that we live in irrational times. The GOP has fully embraced the crazy and it seems mind-bending that working-class union members would look at the golden-toilet-owning Orange faux-billionaire as an avatar of populism.
This is admittedly frustrating. But is it a sign that all of their objections and concerns are irrational?
Is it really irrational that “every union member” is not embracing the Democratic EV/clean-energy agenda? Is it really irrational that working-class voters worry about an economy that is squeezing their families’ budgets and threatening their jobs? And are drifting from their partisan loyalties?
Maybe, just maybe, this is a good time take seriously the concerns of voters who used to be part of the Democratic coalition?
Ruy and I talked about that yesterday:
Teixeira: And it does not escape the notice of the UAW’s leadership that a transition to electric vehicles will probably mean fewer auto workers. But it means less of them because it takes less workers to make these EVs. And you know, there’s sort of a bubbling underlying resentment among many working-class voters in general about ‘What if I don’t want an EV?’ You know, you know, I like my car, you know, and the idea that we’re going to have this super rapid transition to electric vehicles, I think flies in the face of the reality of consumer behavior.
Sykes: This is the problem of rapid change — it creates anxiety. And particularly if you are a blue-collar worker in America, you have been feeling under siege. You’ve been feeling vulnerable for a long time. So somebody comes in and says ‘We’re going to upend your entire industry. Trust us.’ People shouldn’t be surprised [that many UAW members are not buying this.]
Teixeira: And I think they’re just the tip of the iceberg, Charlie. I think there’s more coming along this line.
Sykes: Like what?
Teixeira: Oh, I just think, you know, working class resentment toward the spillovers from the energy transition that the Biden administration and Democrats are trying to push forward is just beginning. I mean, look, in New York State, they just had to raise the rates of electricity, because of the increased subsidies that have to go to the people implementing the clean energy stuff….
The Age of Narcissism
IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you’ve gotten a bellyful of AI analysis, speculation, and dire warnings over the past few months. Alongside hopes of cancer cures, obedient home robots, personalized tutors, energy efficiency, and wildlife preservation, we’ve heard from leaders in the field that AI will definitely . . . kill us all. Soooo, that somewhat dims enthusiasm for those tidying-up robots.
But it strikes me that we have a different, more pressing problem. It concerns not artificial but organic intelligence, specifically one of its most destructive traits—narcissism. And while it may not have the capacity to annihilate humanity, it is dragging us closer to calamity than we can afford to ignore. From Donald Trump to Elon Musk to Tucker Carlson, our society is being deformed by egomaniacs. Like Cerberus, these ravening, devouring ego monsters destroy anything in their path. And for what? Not for some imagined utopian future—the delusion that has propelled others to depraved crimes—but merely to burnish their personal brand.
For Bulwark+ Members, we also discussed this on our weekly podcast: “Our Malignant Narcissist Overlords.”
Oddly enough, he’s not wrong.