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Frances Fox Piven & James Early talk with Paul Jay about Trump’s appeal to sections of the white working class

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. Karl Marx wrote Heigel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. Marx writes, he forgot to add the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Well, Ronald Reagan was the tragedy, sections of the white working class breaking from the New Deal coalition and progressive politics, embracing small government and the undermining of the social safety net. On the face of it much of it aimed at black Americans, but in fact all of it a cover for the ushering in of a new stage of globalization, where U.S. production was moved offshore, and workers of the world instead of uniting were used to erode the living standards of exactly these white American workers. Now into the farce: Donald Trump giving voice to sections of the white working class who yearn for an enemy and a voice for their hatred of the other, be it Mexicans or Muslims, bamboozled by a con artist who will attack unions and further undermine the living standards of exactly these white workers. It should be noted, however, on Super Tuesday, there are also sections of the white working class who are voting for Bernie Sanders, with a message that actually takes on Trump and the fellow members of his billionaire class. So Super Tuesday is being called historic. And to put this in historic perspective I’m joined now from New York by Frances Fox Piven. Frances is a distinguished professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York’s graduate center, and the author of many books, including Why Americans Don’t Vote And Why Politicians Like It That Way, and most recently Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. Joining us from Washington, DC is James Early. James is the former director of the Cultural Heritage Policy for Folk Life Programs at the Smithsonian Institution. He’s also a board member of the Institute for Policy Studies and a board member of the Real News Network. Thank you both for joining me. FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Glad to talk to you. JAMES EARLY: Thank you. JAY: So just as we speak here, Donald Trump looks like he’s going to be winning seven states, and the vast majority of the 500-some odd delegates at stake. Ted Cruz has won two states, I believe Texas and Oklahoma. In the Democratic party primary, Hillary looks like she will win six states. Bernie Sanders will win two. He was expected to win Vermont, which he did quite handily, but he also won Oklahoma, which wasn’t so expected. As we speak, Massachusetts is still too close to call. Frances, so let me start with you. Donald Trump represents this overt kind of attack on Mexicans, an overt kind of racism building this wall, protecting what you’ve got from those people that want to come and take it away from you. Put into some significance, in terms of the fascisization of America, what Trump’s breakthrough means. Right now it looks very much like he will be the candidate of the Republican party unless they stage some kind of coup, which is possible, at the Republican convention. But frankly, even if he isn’t the candidate, if it’s Rubio or Cruz, it’s not like they don’t represent more or less the same far right. PIVEN: Well, there’s the far right and the far right. What is alarming to a lot of people, including old-fashioned Republicans, is that Cruz is a hatemonger, and particularly given the changing demography in the United States, you can’t have a major party that just operates with hate as its fuel. JAY: Sorry, Frances, you said Cruz. Did you mean to say Trump? PIVEN: I mean to say Trump. I’m so sorry. But you know, Ronald Reagan, when he first expressed his aspirations for the presidency in 1976, and then when he ran in 1980, a lot of Republican party oligarchs were not very pleased with the prospect of a Ronald Reagan run for the presidency, and then a presidency. And there was a kind of adjustment. Trump is not so much further out than Reagan was, with this difference, I think: that Trump really is stirring up a lot of hate in the white working class, among the so-called Reagan Democrats, perhaps, among the rednecks, or whatever you want to call them. And I, you know, just yesterday I was talking to a Mexican worker in upstate New York who, he’s been here for 25 years. He was with his family, his three little kids and his wife, in a Home Depot, and they were speaking Spanish to each other. And this great big white guy comes over to him and says in a menacing way, speak English in Home Depot. What? The–. And my friend Alfonso, and I think so too, this is a kind of sentiment, a kind of behavior that is getting license and approval by Trump, and we’re going to see more of it. We are seeing more of it for that reason. Nevertheless, I don’t think that disarray in the Republican leadership is a one-time historic event. There’s been disarray before, and they could accommodate to it. But I do worry about the popular currents of hatred that are being encouraged by the Trump campaign. JAY: But James, to a large extent, is this being encouraged by the Trump campaign, or in a sense giving voice to something that’s been resonating resentfully in certain sections of the white working class? Not just working class. This can be small business owners, professionals. This certainly isn’t all working class support for Trump. But if we do identify in terms of the sections of the working class, predominantly white working class, they’ve been kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. You know, the liberals who they blame for their misfortune, to a large extent, rightfully so get blamed. And the sense that it has been the corporate Democrats that have not solved any of the basic problems facing the working class defend a kind of unbridled capitalism. It’s Clinton that took off most of the fetters off Wall Street. But at the moment the only way out, the only way they feel to express this anger against that, is it’s channeled through Trump and via Trump. Then they get to express their hatred for the other, because they don’t quite know who to actually blame for all this. EARLY: Well, I think this is being channeled through Trump, but I think first we have to reckon with the fact that we are still in the throes of a deep crisis of capitalism. And I think we have to call it for what it is. It has now since 2008 been not just an expression on the part of leftists, social democrats, or left anti-systemic capitalists. It’s in the mainstream press that there was an ethical crisis of deep and open greed on the part of Wall Street and the banks. And it has set forth a material crisis in the daily lives, not just of the working class and certainly not just the white working class, but it’s a cross-class proposition, coupled also with a paralysis in governance where ideology, particularly on the parts of the Republican party, not just the far-right wing of the Republican party, but the so-called moderates and the establishment of the Republican party, who for ideological reasons and racist reasons have not found any compromise of any significant measure with Democrats. So I think the subjective circumstance of a crisis in the economic system, and where the corporations and the banks have made money hand over fist after being backed and saved by the tax dollars of ordinary citizens, this is prima facie to not only the working class of all ethnic and racial groups, but it’s prima facie [inaud.] a degraded system, a non-functioning system, across class lines. And so that we see that Donald Trump is able to give some reflection, some articulation, of that, some direction for that, we find a lot of middle class people, and even upper class whites and a few non-whites who say, well, you know, I don’t really agree with his language or with his comportment, but we need to right the ship of America, we need to fix things. That’s a crude kind of narrative for this deeper material crisis that everybody is feeling in their lives. We see the similar concern on the part of a lot of young people voting for Bernie Sanders, but also white working members of the white working class. And it’s not altogether clear whether those members of the white working class who are voting for the Sanders articulation are free of racism and a kind of nativism. But what is clear, that what they hold in common with white working class people and other white classes who are expressing these racist kinds of views is that they are feeling a pinch in their material lives. So I think we have to unravel the objective circumstance that has given rise to this, and then to look to the subjective expressions that come from Trump on the far right, and a kind of idealism of both liberal and Utopian that’s being expressed through the Bernie Sanders campaign. JAY: Frances, the–try to understand the response of this section of the white working class, and it’s hard right now to tell in terms of size exactly how it compares to the sections of the white working class that will vote for the Democratic party, and particularly for Bernie Sanders, which I think represents a demarcation from, you know, the normal corporate Democrats. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. In 1964, Governor Wallace, representing very overt racism, won a significant vote, I believe 43 percent of the vote in Indiana. He won something of 64 percent of the white vote in Maryland. This feeling of this section of white workers, that they’re under threat, their security is under threat, and not being able to identify, you know, that the enemy is something systemic and it’s a, if you want, use Sanders’ language, a billionaire class, and they blame the failure of the liberal elite–and it is a failure to actually solve the problems. In fact, especially in the ’60s, you know, the liberal, meaning the Democratic party, wanted to bring sections of the black working class more into society, certainly under the pressure of the civil rights movement. But the competition that then arose for jobs, that sort of burden of that was all borne by white workers. It certainly wasn’t borne by the elite. In fact, it created, you know, more competition for jobs, created somewhat lower wages, and so on. Tell me about–help us understand this section of why white workers respond to this kind of demagoguery. PIVEN: Well, we have a long history in the United States of jingoism, of xenophobia, of tribalism. That was the basis for the organization of the mass parties in the 19th century and in the 20th century. These parties were not organized on class lines. And that included both the Republican party and the Democratic party. Even in the 1930s when there was something that could be interpreted as a class-based realignment in American politics, it was a class-based realignment that was deeply infused by ethnic, nationalistic, tribal identity. And Democratic local politicians cultivated those identities. And it’s notable that the breakup of what there was of something like a class-based party alignment in the New Deal Democratic party, that was fractured by the rise of the civil rights movement, the intrusion of black demands, black issues, black aspirations for freedom and advancement into national politics. That not only drove out the white South from the Democratic party, but it made it very hard for the Democratic party to hold itself together even in the centers of white working class population in the cities of the North and the Midwest. So none of this is new. I guess the question is whether we can cultivate an alternative set of narratives about American politics in the past and American politics in the future. An alternative set of narratives in which white and black and ethnic working class people can forge a degree of solidarity against the looming assaults of neoliberal capitalism. That’s the question that Bernie is, in a certain sense, raising. That’s the question also that the movements of the past five years are raising. Bernie didn’t come out of the aether. He didn’t invent himself. He’s been there a long time. What makes it possible for him to wage a national campaign is that there are many currents in American political life which are beginning to speak about extreme inequality, and using the issue of extreme inequality to forge a degree of empathy and solidarity among different racial and national groups in the working class. So we also had the Wisconsin protest. The Wisconsin protests lost to Governor Scott Walker, an especially evil politician. But nevertheless, the protests occurred. Students and working class people rallied in the national capital to try to stop a very oligarchic and dictatorial agenda. And that was followed by Occupy. Occupy made We Are the 99% the slogan of the country. And that was followed by Fight for $15, and that was followed by Black Lives Matter. So a lot is happening that isn’t in the Democratic race. You can’t see it. There aren’t protest movements marching across the screen when we watch candidate debates. But the fact that a maverick like Bernie Sanders, who’s been there forever, right, since the early 1960s, that a maverick like Sanders can rally such support means that there is a kind of change afoot in the United States, in American attitudes. Yes, we are a xenophobic country. Yes, we are racist. Yes, we are whatever we are. But there is some evidence that people are beginning to see beyond those inherited [inaud.]. JAY: Right. James, this whole election year is filled with ironies. But I guess one of the biggest, or in some ways saddest, ironies, Bernie Sanders is actually winning, as the way I understand the breakdown on Super Tuesday in some of these other primaries, he’s actually winning the majority of the white working class vote over Hillary Clinton. She’s beating him in states where there is a large African-American vote, and she’s, you know, going to win the majority of delegates on Super Tuesday, and we’ll see what happens in Michigan, which is not too far away. But clearly the working class, it’s interesting, the split here, that sections will go with Trump. A significant section is going to go with Sanders. But that neoliberal corporate Democrats, that help, as I said in my intro, grease the wheels for the rise of these kind of dangerous clowns, they’re, they’re keeping their control through the support of African-Americans. EARLY: Well, I think it’s a lot more complicated and a lot more simple at the same time. We need to go back and re-read the narrative of the founding of the republic called the United States of America. There was never a pure working class. It was always a racialized working class. Which set the seeds for white workers who could not have access for a good standard of living during the period of slavery to come up with this hatred, to be fed these deep racist rationalizations that were put forth by the elites of capital. The dehumanizing of enslaved Africans. And to build in this notion of a white skin privilege, which was an ideological affinity, but did not [resound] to an improved material circumstance of life for white people. That is still being very much played out. And the Bernie Sanders articulation, which I support very strongly, of the economic class proposition as reflected in this degraded life that we’re living as a result of the 2008 crash of capitalism, does not answer the cross-class issues of racism. And what the liberal Democratic party under the misguidance not only of Bill Clinton, who moved to the center, and Hillary Clinton, but also an establishment kind of black leadership caucus, has moved into a cross-class reference for black people to say that your racial concerns connected to your economic concerns will be uplifted by the Democratic party. And this is where white progressives and many black progressives have failed to look at this intersection of class and race, and to understand, why are black people across class lines locked in to the centrist Democratic party? If we don’t look, if we don’t understand that nexus, if we don’t under–if we don’t grapple with the deep racist ethos of America, obviously there is a deep class ethos of the United States of America, but it has always been infused and overlaid with a race proposition. So that black political leadership, including members of the progressive caucus, black caucus members in the progressive caucus, along with centrists, have moved the masses of black people across class lines under Hillary Clinton. And that has been narrowed, and we have to open up this narrative so that black voters can be confronted with realities. What is being pitched to the black community across class lines by the establishment of the Democratic party is that your issues are only domestic. It has nothing to do with foreign policy, where when boots are on the ground blacks and browns and Asian-Pacific Americans die at higher percentages than their white working class or middle class counterparts. That’s not just a class proposition, that’s a race proposition. When you look at the issues of U.S. foreign policy, and you look at where African descendants are, or you look at where people of color, in which I would include Palestinians, there seems to be no empathy on the part, no overt empathy, on the part of liberal or progressive black leadership in the black caucus, for example, to examine Hillary Clinton’s policies with regard to apartheid government, Zionist government, in Israel. We hear nothing about the–. And so that, I think this, this articulation that it’s simply a class proposition, is not getting us anywhere. We have to look at, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has put on the table, what is the intersection of class and race in America? JAY: But James, is there not also in a sense perhaps a certain, if you want, wisdom in the black vote here? Meaning that, you know, as bad as the conditions have been with the Democratic corporate leadership in power and whatever, you know, living standards really didn’t improve, or maybe a hair, in comparison to when Republicans were in power. If you, you know, going back to Johnson, at least these Democrats did use the power of the state to defend the most worse, the most egregious racist attacks, you know, from the George Wallace types and others. And is there, you know, a certain maybe legitimate fear that you know, who the heck is Sanders, anyway? At least Clinton is in the, that tradition, that would stave off the most overt racism that will come from a Trump, or the Republicans. And so you stick to the [inaud.] you know. EARLY: But Clinton is actually not in that tradition. Bill Clinton moved the classic liberal Democratic party of liberal whites, of trade unions which were very strong, and the black community, because the Latino community was not as integrated into the public space as it is now, he moved away from that Kennedy-esque kind of liberal proposition to a center-rightist. And the policies that were delivered by the Clinton administration, incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, the hit on welfare, particularly for marginalized black women. And what black leadership bought into was a kind of ideological proposition, is that we, too, are full Americans, and failed to deal with the material circumstances. Now, Jesse Jackson comes along with the Rainbow Coalition articulation in 1984, quite similar to the Bernie [Sanders] campaign. Picks up significant numbers of young whites who want to live in a better society. Moved a considerable number of black people who are now voting in the opposite direction. But white minors, when this black man showed up to look at the horrible circumstances in which they were living, they did not look at his skin color. They listened to the articulation of how he wanted to renegotiate policies that would help them elevate their lives. And so that, what we are seeing now is black leadership, the black establishment, has taken black people actually back to this why can’t we all get along proposition, and not actually look at how the policies, both of the Clinton administration, which Hillary Clinton was a part of. She was not just the wife. And they are not looking at the fact that black people are worse off at mass levels today than they were eight years ago [inaud.]–. JAY: You have to include the policies of the Obama administration. EARLY: When, when Barack Obama came in. So we have to talk to black people and challenge black leadership. We also have to challenge social democratic leadership, in the case of Bernie Sanders, to look at this intersection. What is the real intersection of economic class and racism? It’s not one or the other. And there’s still this tendency to downplay the role of a racialized class proposition in the United States. JAY: Frances, what do you think is the significance of the Sanders candidacy? It’s going to continue. The Clinton campaign was hoping for a knockout punch on Super Tuesday. They didn’t get it. Sanders has won at least two, two states. Perhaps maybe he’ll win. But winning is not the biggest issue in the sense that when these states are tied they, they’re going to get about–he’s going to pick up half the delegates. So you know, whether it’s a 1 point win one way or the other, it really doesn’t make that much difference. So he lives to fight another day, here. How important is this candidacy? PIVEN: I think it’s very important. And in fact, I have always thought, from the beginning of the campaign, I thought it was more important as a campaign than as the prospect of a Sanders government. Because a Sanders presidency would be blocked at every turn, and people could well get terribly discouraged by the fact that he couldn’t get anything through the Congress that–I mean, the financial interest [inaud.] will be crazy if Sanders were to win the presidency. But as a campaigner, he has this kind of stage. And he’s using that stage very well. He’s clear, he’s bold, and people trust him, this gruff old man who’s speaking these sort of homely truths of the old New Deal Democratic party, even though he calls himself a democratic socialist. So the campaign is very important. I think he’ll stick with it. He’s a stubborn man, and he’s got a lot of grit and a lot of stamina. And we should be glad for that, because there’s a lot of miseducation in American political culture. Bernie helps to correct that. The movements of the past five years are helping to correct that, to enlighten people. So it’s the campaign may well be the main thing, the main accomplishment of this election season, rather than the consequences of the election. Now, I share the fears that many people express over the prospect of a Trump victory. But I think it’s too early to allow one’s actions to be dictated by that fear. JAY: All right. Thank you both for joining us. And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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James Early is the director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Prior to his work with the Smithsonian, Mr. Early was a public program officer at the National Endowment for Humanities in Washington, D.C. He was host of Ten Minutes Left, a weekly radio segment of cultural, educational, and political interviews and commentary at Howard University's radio station. He is a former board member of TransAfrica, and a current board member of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Exchange as well as the Institute for Policy Studies.

Frances Fox Piven is a distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, and the author of many books, including Why Americans Don't Vote and Why Politicians Like it That Way, and most recently, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America.