The Power of the Powerless

November 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

A Reason to be Afraid

Anything is possible so the pollsters and analysts could be wrong and Donald J. Trump may become the next president of the United States.  If that happens my despair will last a long time and our constitutional republic will be at risk of disappearing, either metaphorically or literally.  A compulsive Tweeter will be in charge of nuclear codes and the most formidable military force in history.  Current events in Turkey illustrate how suddenly that kind of change can happen.  Fortunately, Turkey does not pose the existential threat that we do because they don’t have our capacity for military destruction.

A Reason to be Concerned

If we dodge the disaster of a Trump presidency we, nevertheless, have good reason to take notice of a sizable number of our neighbors who enthusiastically embraced a man who used fear, hate and prejudice to establish himself as a leader of millions of Americans.  I believe he was able to do this because a large portion of our white middle class  neighbors are enraged because they feel disempowered.  The fact they are mostly white does not mean that their rage is racist.  They are white because they and their fathers and mothers were powerful in America when our economy was dominated by industries that built and manufactured things.  In that economy, the white working class was empowered by a strong labor movement.

The strength of labor unions was not limited to the membership of unions.  The threat of unions forced employers to moderate their mistreatment of employees to weaken the appeal of union organizing.

People who have never had power are not as enraged as those who have been empowered and find themselves disempowered.  It is easy to focus these disempowered Americans on their neighbors who, because of their race or ethnicity, have become the beneficiaries of government efforts to remedy prior discrimination and abuse.  Some of the whites who vent their rage as racist attacks are simply expressing the racism that has never been erased from our culture.  But other whites, who join them, are reacting to the perceived unfairness of government’s concern for minority groups of their neighbors while ignoring their own disempowerment.

I believe Donald Trump has built a political force around this phenomenon.  Rage requires an object.  The technological and world demographical changes that have affected the disempowerment of the American white working class are too amorphous to serve as a satisfying object for rage.  So, racism and bigotry can be diverted toward newly empowered American groups by an amoral demagogue with a TV megaphone.

What is a Rational and Effective Solution?

Empowerment cannot be bestowed.  It can be enabled.  Government cannot grant benefits and expect the beneficiaries to feel empowered.  Hull House solutions are admirable but they do not create power.  They are bandaids for powerless victims.

The only solution for this problem is legal encouragement and protection for the exercise of power by working class Americans.  This kind of power results from collective bargaining, the right to grant or withhold labor as a source of economic power.  The massive imbalance between the power of corporate employers and the power of  the workers who furnish economic value to those employers is a creation of a complex of laws which have imposed that imbalance.  That imbalance must be corrected.

We have models for this solution.  The Wagner Act before it was gutted by the Taft Hartley Act is a start.  The present markets are different from those that worked in the 1930’s.  The work force in need of collective bargaining is dominated by franchise chains of retail enterprises:  department stores like Walmart; food service establishments like McDonalds,  Subway and KFC.  These low skill enterprises require protection against discharge and replacement by strike breakers that are not necessary in organizing other kinds of businesses.  Changes in boycott laws are necessary.

Political Changes

The first step in what will require a long, sustained effort, is recognition by political leaders of this issue.  We have just endured a long political conflict with no recognition of it.  The present electorate will not even understand this essay because they don’t know  what the “Wagner Act” or the “Taft Hartley Act” are.  We have technology that lends itself to adding new issues to the public debate.  We need to find web sites and TV sources to use this technology to restore this issue to public awareness.

Finally, lest my readers conclude I have lost a vital number of marbles, I well understand  this post is like the apocryphal story of King Canute’s effort to stop the tide.  I offer it because I expect that, regardless of outcome of this election, there will be many discussions of what happened and why.  I hope some of them include, in those discussions, what seems to me to be a key factor.

By the way, a beautifully written alternative explanation is J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”.  In a previous post I have discussed this wonderful book.

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