I live in a suburb of Youngstown, in what is arguably a sterling example of the “white-flight” communities that have weakened our cities. My reasons for doing so would take too much time to discuss here, but the short version is that my partner grew up on a farm and here we have more than an acre of land—it’s a compromise, and I like the town. It reminds me of the New England community in which I grew up.
Everyday, I walk my dogs through the village, and on most days, I talk with my neighbors, who according to voting statistics are primarily conservative, and who according to me, are generally very good neighbors. Because I grew up in a place like this, I know to avoid talking about religion and politics, but this past Saturday, I let down my guard and got an earful of insight into our current political climate, one too often sustained by broad generalizations that divide the working middle class and the poor.
A local business owner, a man I like for his big dreams and for his openness, treated me to the familiar “Tea Party” mantra in passionate and patriotic oratory—more freedom, less government, no unions, no healthcare/socialism, no entitlements, and then of course, a return to Reagan conservativism.
As a former journalist and a teacher of aspiring journalists, I avoid disclosing personal details and discourage my students from first-person interjections, even in my Opinion Writing class. The argument goes that by taking oneself out of the equation, one focuses more on facts and policy issues thereby allowing for a greater connection to broader audiences who might not otherwise identify with the persona of the writer. This weekend I broke my rule and put the theory to the test.
I told my neighbor that my parents lived in a public housing project until the birth of the sixth and seventh children of their ten children(twins — we were the result of strict adherence to the church’s stance on birth control), and during these years, they also received food assistance. My father, who didn’t graduate high school, worked as a short order cook, as a dishwasher, and at a host of other jobs. My neighbor exclaimed that this was exactly the point—my father was one of the “good ones,” who used the system as “way up and not a hand out.” But the truth is, and I told him this, that my father might not have found a “way out” save one life-altering opportunity: after numerous fits and starts he landed a job as a truck driver and therefore membership in the Teamsters union. The union afforded my father job security, a decent wage for his manual labor, and perhaps most importantly, health care for his children which, in turn, allowed him to keep the house he had recently bought with a government backed loan for WWII vets, the house in which I grew up in a small, safe community with a solid public school system.
Had my father not had the good fortune of his union job, it’s quite probable that the expense of my sister’s minor spina bifida or of the more routine episodes of broken bones, childhood illnesses, decades of dental care, or that one terrible car accident might have plunged us back into poverty, with no bootstraps with which we might lift ourselves back up.
Of course, my neighbor insisted that my father represents a different generation, one with a presumably superior set of values that enabled them to get ahead—and he is partially right in his nostalgia. My father’s generation was different in that much of his adulthood and, and a part of my childhood were spent in an America in which the gap between the poor, the rich, and the middle class was not as pronounced as it is now. As Paul Krugman notes, “The Greatest Generation,” to which my father belonged, was much more equal, largely because of “more or less deliberate compression of wage differentials during World War II.” And that equality lasted more about 30 years thanks to “a powerful union movement, which is at least in large part a change in the political climate, but then remained in place for several decades more.”
Krugman explains that over the last 30 years, the movement to the far right of the Republican Party created tacit support for union busting policies of the 80s – remember PATCO? That caused a decline in union power and membership, which in turncontributed to the enormous gap between rich and poor and between rich and middle class.
Frank Rich argues that while this anti-healthcare ire finds its locus in the Tea Party doctrine of “more freedom, less government,” the resistance is really linked to the dwindling power of the white majority. While I agree with his analysis, I think one can’t discount the power of nostalgia, a point hinted at by Rich. In public discourse, Jane Hill notes, nostalgia makes it possible for “people who benefit from the practices that they believe are legitimated by tradition” to at the same time “put forward their political interests.”
The current movement against government involvement in health care and the power of unions illustrates this. As Krugman’s analysis suggests, many of those who are calling for a return to “the real America” forget what led to current problems. The great days for which they yearn were built in part by strong unions that advocated fair wages and decent affordable health care, as well as government programs and policies that limited the gap between rich and poor.
Nostalgia explains the contradiction between the often fierce support some offer for Social Security and Medicare and dire warnings that government involvement equals “socialism.” As a recent New York Times poll shows, a majority of those claiming allegiance to the Tea Party, who are on average at least 45 years-old, oppose government healthcare, but they favor the continuance of Social Security and Medicaid, programs staunchly criticized by conservative poster-boy Ronald Reagan, who campaigned against Medicare on behalf of the American Medical Association (AMA), according to Larry DeWitt.
Reagan also mastered the art of pitting the working class against the poor. Lost in the shiny mythology that has become the Reagan legacy, a mythos largely unchallenged by mainstream media, is the Great Communicator’s invention of the “welfare queen,” as DeWitt recalls:
When a welfare recipient in Chicago was publicly exposed in 1977 for having defrauded state welfare programs out of $8,000 by using two identities, Reagan transformed the news report into a story regarding a “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac and who collected an annual tax-free income of $150,000 by using “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and . . . collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands.” Reagan repeated this story of the Chicago welfare queen multiple times over the years, growing it like some kind of political fish-story with each re-telling. In the end, it seems clear that he could not distinguish his own mythical version from the historical one.
Reagan mainstreamed his disdain for the unions and for the poor, and he birthed the ethos that permeates today’s recession weary middle class: that one is lucky to have a job and the poor are poor because they lack the character of my father’s generation.
Rooted deeply in evocations of the golden ages of the Reagan years, or back further to the bootstraps ethic of the greatest generation, or further still to the founding fathers, the current anti-everything movement dissolves historical contingencies and uncomfortable facts into a nostalgia that ignores the role of unions in post-war prosperity, or the founders belief that only male land-owners should vote, or Reagan’s loathing for what his budget director David Stockton once labeled, “closet socialism,” Social Security and Medicare, or the fact that once he realized the popularity of these programs,Reagan abandoned his fantasy of dismantling them but stayed stringently on his union-busting course.
My neighbor is fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and non-white. I respect his opinions, even when we disagree. As we spoke, he remembered instances that run counter to the Reagan mythology. He was surprised to hear that, I, a Democrat am not “anti-capitalism,” and that I recognize the advantages this system brought my family. I understand his deep-rooted love for this country and his worry that things are changing too quickly. As I walked back past the rows of carefully restored historic homes to my own, I was reminded of how much we can learn from one another when we move our conversations beyond rhetorical flourishes wrapped in a kind of nostalgia for a past that likely never was and instead engage one another in civil discourse, discourse that acknowledges the faces, friends, and families behind public policy.
Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies