Thursday, October 13, 2016

Understanding Trumpers

We are often the cause of our own resentments.

I know I am. Perhaps there are things I want to do but something holds me back. My own personality; my own misperceptions; my own reluctances; messages from my parents, parts of them that live on in me whether I like it or not. My own laziness. My own comfort in the familiar. My own confusion over what I can change and what I can't. My fears.

That's actually what I see when I see a red stain over the middle of the country, broader in the middle and the lower right of the picture, tapering in the less populous mid-continent. Or when I hear about Arlie Hochshield's five years in Louisiana with the left-out whites who think others are being taken care of, but not them. Or about others who lurk about the South and talk to Trump sign-displayers who still talk about the Communist New York Times. I see Reagan voters, I see Bush voters, I see McCain and Romney and now Trumpers who inexplicably vote for lower taxes on others than themselves. I see What's The Matter With Kansas voters. They resent what they have supported and still support and cause to be perpetuated and I guess can't help themselves from doing it to themselves.

Years ago I took a year and lived in Sweden, doing research on medical care, and learning Swedish so I could travel comfortably throughout the entire Swedish Empire, as I joked at the time. If you don't learn the language of the country you are in, it's hard to really be in the country you are in, and it's good to use your brain even if it's hard going. But I was surprised to see how easy Swedish is for English speakers, despite the weird sing-song that I like so much. Unlike Asian and African and Bushmen languages, there are so many cognates and the grammar is straightforward for us. We hear that English is half Romance and half Germanic, with other words thrown in from somewhere else, like typhoon, and assassin. But the Germanic side of English isn't actually German, it's Scandinavian, from the Vikings in the ninth and tenth century – by the way, for a great read, read The Long Ships by Frans Bengtssen (New York Review Books Classic, recommended by my local bookseller Diesel Books, who said Michael Chabon loved it, and I see why, after reading it). So Swedish has an eerie familiarity for an English speaker.

I also read about 10 books on Sweden, the first being a basic history of Sweden. What I didn't know was that in the early days of the 20th century Sweden was known as “fattig Sverige,” or “poor Sweden.” (“Sverige” is Swedish for Sweden, and is pronounced “Sveria.”) That's why we have so may Scandinavians in the upper Midwest; just as the Irish fled the famine (and English oppression), the Swedes and Norwegians fled poverty that had no obvious end in sight. The ostensible reason I had gone to Sweden was to see how the Third Way (Marquis Childs' term) worked. At the time that the imagination of most of the world turned to Communism, the Swedish Social Democratic party, the political arm of the Landsorganisation (the LO, pronounced “landsorganisa-shoon”), had taken the country by the bootstraps and booted up. They enforced equality, and education. As time went by, they saw that they were a small country, a cold country, a homogeneous country, a country with iron and lumber up north, and fish, and about 6 million people when I was there, and an out of the way country that no one had to cross to get to somewhere else. So if they were going to make something of themselves, they would have to do it by themselves, and they would have to think it through and figure out what to inject to the world and how to do it.

So they did. They saw they had to marshal their resources as they found them, and use their brains and their self-discipline and their capacity for unity as enforced by a dominant party. They had to target their shots and specialize in what the world needed. To tell you the truth, I forget now exactly what they found. Electrolux, that I remember. Forest products. Steel. From Wikipedia: “motor vehicles, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, industrial machines, precision equipment, chemical goods, home goods and appliances, forestry, iron, and steel.”

But here's the point I'm trying to make. They saw the need for self-discipline, education, pulling together, and thinking things out. When they found what they thought was their best shot, they went for it. And that effort had to be extensive and people-centered. So they invested in training – they paid for people to go to school. And they invested in moving people around – they paid people to move, paid for new housing, and let them spend supported time getting situated and learning their new skills in these industries. Paid them not to work for a while.

So, guess what? It worked. Fattig Sverige became fattig no more. It became a country that worked because they tried to make it work, they dared, and they did it through a state that people complained about, but that they supported and paid lots of taxes to, and that was worthy of trust. Today (well, in 2013), from The Local, a Stockholm publication: Sweden has come in second place in a ranking of citizen well-being on the OECD's Better Life Index, beating its Scandinavian neighbours but still outgunned on the happiness scale by the Australians.”

The United States has a long and glorious history. We were poor, too. The colonists didn't have much. Look at what they wore in the Civil War – God, they had nothing! They had a couple of shirts and pairs of pants, maybe. And yet the country came to prosper, led along a different path than Sweden, rich in natural resources and a constantly enriched population of ambitious immigrants who understood the need to learn a new language, get educated, and work hard. World affairs helped as Europe despoiled its own lands and industries and we had lots of fields to ourselves. But when they regrew, we didn't see exactly how we could target our shots forward. Almost inadvertently, it seems, we enlarged our capacity by putting our women to work, and we are now, certainly belatedly, starting to find strength in our formerly excluded populations, our “minorities.” So progress is being made.

But we are not biting the bullet the way the Swedes did. Globalization and automation are here to stay, and they should be. Imagine the backbreaking work of farming, or mining, or working on the line. As Galbraith observed in his autobiography, when he worked in the agricultural fields of Ontario, he quickly found the attraction of “inside work,” on his road to economics stardom. Who would want to go back to the past of drudgery? Imagine if the fields could plow themselves, wouldn't that be great? Yes, of course it would be, and it is, but the problem is, who owns the means of production, who reaps the reward? Therein lies the rub. How does one distribute the benefit?

You have to find a way that people who are displaced get the benefit of the advancing technology. That was the genius of Sweden. They did it in a social democratic way. They took those displaced workers and made of them something else, not usually economists, but technicians in other fields that needed skilled workers. They paid for them, and the people put in the work. That is precisely what the United States has not done.

We have instead followed a Conservative line. We have kept our money from the state instead of investing in our people through the state. We have neglected not only transportation infrastructure, but people infrastructure. We have said the government is the enemy. We – and I mean not me, not my part of the country, but rather that red swatch of states from South and Southwest up through the Midwest and Upper Midwest, and don't forget coal country in West Virginia and Kentucky – have been distrustful of government and instead voted for conservatives for 40 years at least. The Christian Coalition has been successful. The governing group is not really a majority of the country, actually, it's the residue of the constitutional compromise that ensconced the Senate in the hands of the small states, that didn't foresee the importance of cities and coastal states. My America would vote for more training, for more support for the displaced, for rifling our economic shots, at least I think we would. But the less than 1 million Wyomingites have two senators and disproportional power, and so do the other red states. The South is still afraid that the money would go to those more darkly hued than themselves. The Democratic Party has been unable to muster the dominance the LO forged in Sweden, the country has been unable to think of itself as homogeneous in spirit, and those traditional populations in the South and the Southwest and the Midwest and the Upper Midwest and coal country have voted for lower taxes on others that they could have used to retrain and relocate themselves. Even Democratic Presidents have had to minimize their objectives. The Republicans have won, and whoopdedoo, where are you now, my fellow Americans?

My wife says, yes, it's a shame where they are economically, but what are they doing for themselves behind their Trump front yard signs? Well, I answer, what can they do? They don't have the schools and the training programs and the relocation funds and help available to them. Not everyone can do it for themselves, get themselves together and move to California or wherever and pull themselves up all by themselves. Most people are just average, and a fair percentage, I guess 49%, are below average. I remember them from high school, giggling or hacking off over on the side of the classroom. What were they ever going to make of themselves, they who couldn't learn French very well or chemistry or very much at all? They needed help then, and they need help now, and they could get it if they were smart enough to know they weren't smart and that they needed help.

Independence is great, I like it myself, but sometimes it gets in the way. Sometimes you have to work with others and trust, and sometimes you have to be smart enough to see that the business school people, graduates of Wharton, are just going to look after themselves. So you have to elect people to go out and make sure you get taken care of, and then be willing to do your part. You have to hang together and work together.

And sometimes you find that you can't. You get deluded and you get seduced, your memories of your parents and how they voted get in the way, and for 40 years or more you vote for those who lie and cheat and steal and do business the way the business schools taught them. But in the end, with all your resentments at your lot in life, you have to look at yourself straight and understand that, in the end, you did it to yourself. And then you have to take yourself by the bootstraps, boot up, and do for your children what your forefathers did for you, and start your journey with a single step, and just change how you vote, and do what you can do differently, if what you have been doing hasn't been working for you. You have to turn the red stain blue, and do it by the roots. The grass will always grow if you let it.

Budd Shenkin


  1. Buddy,
    It is unfathomable for TruBlues to understand how someone can vote against their pocketbook. But the Reds actually do. Having grown up & lived in The South, it seems normal to me that people think it is better to vote their beliefs than their purse. And it is not aways about Race. Blaming the South'side views on racism is a bit lazy! The Rural South has been ignored which fits their desire to not be bothered by "Government". So voting to reduce government taxation may fit with "I don't get services, why should I pay for services I don't receive!"
    How else can you explain the states voting not to expand Medicaid? Crazy.

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