American Divisions and Eastern Challenges

January 3, 2018 § Leave a comment

This essay concerns Edward Luce’s new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  Edward Luce is a British columnist and writer for the Financial Times, former writer for The Guardian.  He is based in Washington D.C..   He lived for several years in India and the Philippines. He graduated from Oxford with majors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.  He acquired a graduate degree in Journalism from City College in London.

Luce’s book is loaded with facts and statistics.  I will mention a few of them but I urge my  readers to read his book because I cannot do justice to his carefully researched conclusions.  I found his book to be a revelation.

Luce’s Main Conclusions

Luce declares China to be America’s replacement as a leader in the world’s economy.  He is convinced that, within a decade, India will join China in this leadership role.  They will compete with each other:  China’s autocracy versus India’s democracy.

He acknowledges America’s dominance as a military power but cites impressive evidence that, so far as concerns economic power and ability to provide its population with a middle class life style, America lags significantly behind Western European nations.   He cites multiple statistical bases for these conclusions.  For example, since 1990, median income in America has remained stagnant while European nations have experienced modest gains.  Both China and India have had double digit gains.  Poverty levels in both countries remain high because they started from lower levels but both are rapidly gaining.

Luce describes the dramatic departure of white working class Americans from the Democratic Party .  These men and women regard themselves as ignored and left behind by an elite class of college educated Americans who focus on concern and energy to correct discrimination against women, gays, blacks and Chicanos,while expressing disdain and disapproval toward the white working class whose jobs have vanished with the loss of industrial jobs in factories and coal mines.  Luce mentions Candidate Clinton’s unfortunate remark about “deplorables” in this part of his argument.

These displaced working class white Americans formed the base of Trump’s narrow victory.  Bernie Sanders appealed to them with simple but honest political slogans but he lost the nomination of the Democratic Party to Hilary Clinton.  Luce cites excerpts from Clinton’s “position papers” in his critical description of her appeal to these voters.  He contends Clinton’s proposed remedies for white working class problems were both too abstract and too complicated to compete with Trump’s simplified promises.

Bricks Without Straw

The Old Testament describes how the Egyptians required the enslaved Israelites to make bricks without straw.  This is how Luce analyzes the expectation that white working class Americans, a vital component of the Democratic Party’s coalition, would continue their loyalty as Democrats in the absence of real concern for their job losses and their sinking from middle class to impoverished underclass.

In the past, white workers could see and appreciate the Democratic Party’s support of collective bargaining  rights and opposition to “right-to-work” efforts as reasons for voting for that party’s candidates.  When the Democratic Party no longer treated those issues as significant while the economic welfare of white workers deteriorated, their loyalty to the Democratic Party waned.   The industrial unions, whose support of collective bargaining rights was perceived and appreciated by white workers, lost membership and political strength as factories and plants moved overseas.  As that happened, the effort of unions to encourage white workers’ concern for racial justice and civil rights weakened.  White workers became vulnerable to the promises of jobs by right wing demagogues like Trump.

Luce cites statistics to show that Clinton carried the inner cities, where housing prices soared beyond the reach of middle class white people, while Trump carried the “slumburgs” where the displaced white working class lived.  These were also the places where the plague of opioid addiction flourished.  Luce cites a survey reflecting that almost one half of the white working class Americans self-identify as “poor”. or “underclass”.

My Reaction

I am impressed with Luce’s compilation of facts to support his argument. In the last section of his book, he identifies himself as committed to all of the principles of liberalism I share.  He does not want to discard those principles but he is convinced that, if we don’t do something to reclaim the allegiance of our white working class Americans, we risk enduring a future of endless division and, possibly, a succession of Trump-like political leaders whose loyalty will be to corporate greed rather than Constitutional Democracy.  He warns, if that happens, the only remedy left will be violent revolution and the outcome will be some kind of military junta.

Luce’s nightmare is a Trump-like president with brains and talent.  Such a successor to Trump would deprive us of our only source of optimism:  Trump’s stupidity.

Here is a link to an interview of Luce on C-Span. [For some reason I cannot produce a clickable web site here.  I hope it will work if you copy the citation and paste it into your browser.]

This includes questions from viewers and Luce’s answers.  Not one of the viewers had read his book and their questions and comments reflect how ill informed our fellow citizens are about the issues his book involves.  Some of the discussion, however, suggests the kind of appeals and reframed issues that may be necessary to rebuild the Democratic Party coalition.

Luce has written a warning entitled to serious concern.  He does not offer a solution to the problem he presents but he has convinced me that relying on blacks, Chicanos and white educated liberals while ceding white working class whites to the GOP is an unacceptable strategy.

Neither Luce nor I suggest we compromise our commitment to racial, ethnic and social justice.  Our history suggests a solution:  Economic justice can overcome disagreement over social and racial issues but social and racial justice without economic justice will not work. Disdain and shaming are not winning techniques for organizing white working class Americans.  We must design our politics to support social justice in the workplace and in our communities while insisting, with equal vigor and energy, on restoration of dignity and economic justice for the American working class, white male as well as black, brown and female.  Those who seek to slice and dice that coalition, not any component of the coalition, are the enemy.

The labor movement has a sad history of failures based on racial and ethnic prejudice.  It will be an ironic twist of history if, after we ameliorate racial and racial prejudice, we allow inattention to economic justice for all to cause us, once again, to fail.



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