Saturday, July 17, 2004

Internalized classism

 On my post where I couldn't get a grip on why people vote against their economic self-interest, Cyndy and Cmdr Sue responded with some interesting points worth highlighting. 
From Cmdr Sue:
Yes, how DO people vote against their economic self-interest?The only thing I can figure is that they think they are better off than they are.I flipped through a great book at the bookstore the other day called Fat, Dumb, and Ugly: The Decline of the Average American, about how the stats in America have changed for the worst. The number of people who think they are in the top 1% of income? 19%. Figure that one out.
From Cyndy:
Everytime I try to figure out the mind-set I recall what Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse 5:
"America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, "It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be." It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" There will also be an American flag no larger than a child's hand--glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register. Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves".
Cmdr Sue is on to something.  Denial is certainly one way of dealing with being poor in an unforgiving and judgmental society.  Cyndy's passage points out why there is such denial: we've got massive self-hatred.  Self-hatred, denial: both are mechanisms to deal with shame.  And the bottom line is that in America, it has come to be that it's shameful to be poor.  
With those beliefs, comes a great deal of heavy baggage: you don't work hard enough, this is what you deserve, if you were a good person, you wouldn't be poor, what's wrong with you.  All part of the Calvinistic authoritarian Lakoffian Strict Father world view.   
Which reminded me of something. A professor I had in grad school had an interesting idea on why minorities in America can be just as racist  towards people from their own culture.  Why eat your own?  His answer: internalized racism.  When you adopt the values of the main culture, you might also end up adopting the racism towards your own people. It's a double-edged sword.  
So I'll propose a term for this phenomena: internalized classism.  I'm still not clear on how this whole thing poverty self-hatred thing took root and flourished in America although I suspect someone's written a book on that.
Speaking of books, this whole thing is a digression of this book  What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, which I'm glad to see is being discussed up and down the blogs. Good.   
Thomas Frank, the author, writes a post for those who haven't yet read the book.
Democrats shed the language of class warfare

Who is to blame for this landscape of distortion, of paranoia, and of good people led astray? Though Kansas voters have chosen self-destructive policies, it is just as clear to me that liberalism deserves a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon. Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that conservatives make it out to be, but its failings are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Wichita and Shawnee, Kansas with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.

This is due partially, I think, to the Democratic Party's more-or-less official response to its waning fortunes. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and -- more important -- the money of these coveted constituencies, "New Democrats" think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as "class warfare" and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness to business interests. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where's the soft money in that?

This is, in drastic miniature, the criminally stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking off and on ever since the "New Politics" days of the early seventies. Over the years it has enjoyed a few successes, but, as political writer E. J. Dionne has pointed out, the larger result was that both parties have become "vehicles for upper-middle-class interests" and the old class-based language of the left quickly disappeared from the universe of the respectable. The Republicans, meanwhile, were industriously fabricating their own class-based language of the right, and while they made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters -- their traditional base -- the big brush-off, ousting their representatives from positions within the party and consigning their issues, with a laugh and a sneer, to the dustbin of history. A more ruinous strategy for Democrats would be difficult to invent. And the ruination just keeps on coming. However desperately they triangulate and accommodate, the losses keep mounting.
Curiously enough, though, Democrats of the DLC variety aren't worried. They seem to look forward to a day when their party really is what David Brooks and Ann Coulter claim it to be now: a coming-together of the rich and the self-righteous. While Republicans trick out their poisonous stereotype of the liberal elite, Democrats seem determined to live up to the libel.
I was shocked to see he pinpoints the DLC. Thank you, Thomas Frank, for reminding us it's not just the Republicans involved in this whole thing. 
I really have to get this book.