Inter-class victim blaming is as old as politics itself. The rich blame the poor, the poor blame the rich, and everyone blames the immigrants and minorities. America is no exception to the rule that as economic prosperity declines, this element of the political discourse becomes more prominent. When the post-War boom came to a screeching halt in the 1970s, Reagan was right there to reassure the middle and upper classes that welfare queens were taking all of their money. It doesn't have to be true, only plausible. And there's nothing people with money will believe more readily than the idea that the government is taking it and giving it to poor people.

While there is an element of class conflict and blame-casting in every society, since the era of St. Ronnie we have seen some curious developments in our take on this form of rhetorical warfare. "Reagan Democrats" and other working-class whites who hopped on the GOP bandwagon in the 1980s for the first time in sixty-plus years were naturally quite receptive to the idea of using the underclass as a whipping boy, as the poor represent their primary economic and social threat. I mean, a white guy working in a screen door factory had to grapple with the reality that any person on "welfare" could and might take his job if not sufficiently vilified and beaten down. Slashing the social safety net was a self-defense mechanism for working-class whites, widening the gap with their economic competitors under the guise of small government rhetoric.

But then the right got all of the possible political mileage out of the poor and the welfare queens, it needed to find a new enemy. The Unions were a logical target, being a great irritant to the plutocracy since the 1930s. Suddenly "Reagan Democrats" found themselves on the receiving end of the politics of vilification. They were more than happy to hop on the "Let's blame the poor" bandwagon and suddenly the tables were turned. Before they knew what happened they became the malingerers, the leeches bleeding The Deserving dry. This too was successful, as middle class suburbanites gladly threw their lot in with Management to present a united front against the new enemy. You know what happened next: NAFTA, deregulation, and the end of blue collar industry in the United States.

Now the definition of who is a good, hard-working American deserving of wealth and, conversely, who is the drain thereupon is once again changing with the times. Having dispatched the poor and the working class (largely by setting them upon one another as Jay Gould boasted about so many years earlier) it has become necessary to move one more step up the ladder and vilify the middle class. Now the leeches and deadbeats are the petit bourgeoise. Civil servants. Teachers. Middle management. Basically anyone with a pension or benefits beyond a salary are destroying the country. And once again people who were integral to the previous wave of Blaming have become the Blamed. America is falling apart because your aunt worked at the County Clerk's office for 30 years and now wants a pension. Because of your daughter bought a house and then got laid off. Because of all the people incessantly whining about how they need health insurance or doing things like getting cancer when they don't have it. Because of people who insist that they actually need Social Security rather than just living off of their stocks and bonds in retirement.

That people can't recognize this progression is unsurprising and surprising at the same time. On the one hand, we know that Americans are politically ignorant and selfish enough to be OK with whatever negative things happen as long as it happens to someone else. On the other, the pattern that has been unfolding over the past three decades is just so bleedingly obvious – systematically eliminating one social class at a time to further the interests of the economic elite – that I struggle to understand how anyone could fail to notice it by now. Then they came for me, and there was no one left…

41 thoughts on “TURNTABLES”

  • Wow. Never before has the "share and enjoy" directive at the bottom of your blogs seemed so ironic. "Enjoy:" yeah, right.

    What you call "bleedingly obvious" just blew my mind, Ed. Pattern? I'd never seen one. I guess my naiveté is showing, because, on reflection, you're totally, devastatingly, right.

  • you left out 'the young blame the old' which we see here occasionally.
    great essay all true, but what to do? how is this trend stopped, reversed?

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    I don't know comrade x. It often seems lately that even the military is vilified by the right: "soldiers" = honorable; "soldier" = leach on government teat. "Veterans" = honorable; "veteran" = leach on government teat.

    Funny how when one soldier or a soldiers rights group makes a complaint they're suddenly some kind of leftist conspiracy?

  • Elder Futhark says:

    The next logical step is to treat those under you as prey. The limo safari awaits. The signpost up ahead: "Welcome to Detroit! And Good Hunting!"

  • Weren't Poor Laws passed in England shortly after franchise was extended to the middle class (and women?) Here, the middle class (and lower) vote for the people who want to disenfranchise them. Yeah, it's a democratic election, but that doesn't make it right.

    "If God did not want them sheared, he wouldnt have made them sheep," should be the Republican motto.

  • Grumpygradstudent says:

    Excellent post. Yeah, I'll echo the sentiment above; if this is obvious, I am an idiot. I've certainly never seen it put so succinctly before. Nice Job.

    I've been noticing one aspect of this story a lot lately: the bashing of public school teachers. The school reform (i.e., privatization and union busting) movement has picked up powerful allies on the left (including Bill Gates himself). We're going to start seeing teachers vilified en masse. It's gonna be a public relations slaughter

  • If they're poor or if they're in need, then they deserve it because clearly they did something to piss off God. Don't forget to go to church. In God we Trust….gosh darn it.

  • I've known for a long time about getting the underclasses to fight each other. Until now, I didn't think about the fighting moving up the income scale.
    You forgot to mention the Librul Elites running the colleges, they were St. Ronnie's secondary target right after the Welfare Queens. Now they are going after everyone in between.

  • @ladiesbane: "Here, the middle class (and lower) vote for the people who want to disenfranchise them."

    Our perennial flaw, and one that confounds our European friends. Hell, even my Caribbean handy man can't figure out this disconnect. Part of the explanation has to go back to the Protestant ethic, by which financial success is seen as proof of high moral character (ie, divine favor), part to the egalitarian myth, with one's low income proof of some kind of internal failing, and part to the lower-class awe of wealth and privilege themselves, to make toppling the wealthy from power all but unthinkable. Add to this the weight of modern media, allied to the rich, of course, and you've got a self-sustaining irrationality. And one not likely to change anytime soon.

  • Oddly off-the-mark.

    Blaming classes beneath you for your woes has never gone out of style. Dismantling social programs? Definitely class warfare. That parts clear enough. But globalization was hardly a plot to axe blue-collar working jobs born out of some attempt at classwarfare.
    Profit is profit. Once countries with large, desperate pools of workers became stable enough to participate in global markets, they did. American manufacturers simply cannot compete with overseas labor markets. Nor can they compete with the non-existent or lax foreign environmental regulation (much smaller, but probably the next biggest cost factor). If the US laborer has lost out, it's because billions of people are now coming out of poverty and are competing with that worker. Global inequity has translated to domestic inequity. The route of the problem lies with global inequity. Not a conspiracy.

    One solution here is to lift all countries out of poverty and the environmentally ruinous policies which contribute to such cheap manufacturing. Not saying that's easy, but when labor and environmental damage is no longer be profitable to export, it won't happen.

  • Damn, Ed. I hadn't noticed this trend (not having been alive in the 80's) but your explanation of it is horrifyingly rational.

    When will the next Progressive Era emerge? The robber barons had a few good decades about a century before all of this began, but starting in the first decade of the 20th century there was a great upsurge of Progressive sentiment. Why isn't that happening now?

  • @comrade x – Good point.

    That's the group that gets a huge chunk of our tax dollars, all sorts of social hand-outs (free housing, education, retirement benefits, etc.) on top of fair wages, and controls wars (Afghanistan costs us over $100m PER DAY). You'd think they'd be at the top of the list for vilification for blowing tax dollars.

    Alas, if you voice any hint of dissent from the military, you're immediately branded as against our troops.

  • First, agree with Doug above: this blog is often guilty of pitting young against old. I get it – you hate Baby Boomers. I'm a Baby Boomer myself and frankly, I hate us too. But damnit, you are guilty of the same thing you are pointing out in this excellent post.
    A couple years ago an old high school friend (class of 76 – so that's how old I am) friended me on fb. He's a union pipe fitter in Chicago. Every political statement he's uttered has been Republican Party orthodoxy. I've asked several times if voting for an anti-union party doesn't bother him: after all everything he's got has come through collective bargaining. His answers are so convoluted I can't begin to decipher them. But I understand: he agrees with all the critiques right up “unions are bad”. He won’t believe the Republican Party is out to destroy unions until it’s too late. Until then he will be voting for them.

  • They came for the blacks, and I did nothing – I wasn't black.

    They came for the poor, and I did nothing – I wasn't poor. (At last not THAT poor.)

    They came for the unions, and I did nothing – I didn't pay no union dues.

    OMFG – They're coming for the middle class! Why won't anybody help me?


  • @Bob–

    I'm sorry, but the Baby Boomers need to be called out. They benefited from the social programs set up before them and helped dismantle them as they were no longer needed. Focusing too much on this is counterproductive, but I think Millennials and Gen X'ers have a right to bitch about it every once in a while.

  • As usual, Marx has insights that would be extremely useful if anyone were willing to listen, if Marx hadn't been basically put in the "Hitler" box in American society.

    It's all about class consciousness.

  • @HoosierPoli: Of course we're still in denial about class in this country. Just study the acceptable terminology.

    We accept "working families" but feel uneasy with "working class," heaven forfend "lower class." Like Starbucks, which has no "small" sized coffee, we have no lower class, only middle, upper-middle and, um, well-to-do: "upper class" is used as a pejorative. We don't even work "for" our bosses, we work "with" them, or better still, as members of the same "team."

    So "middle class" is the only acceptable class term, and we are supposed to consider practically everyone in it. And charges of "class warfare" are used to bludgeon the lower orders when they're caught surveying the larders of the rich.

  • @ Zeb
    I do agree, the baby boomers do need to be called out. A perfect example of the baby boomer generation dismantling the social programs the benefited from is the video of John Gibson(asshole) debating a 20 year old college student who was running for Gov in California during the recall. The students issue was the increase of student college fees, John Gibson took the normal platform of "the finger thing means the taxes" and then not a few seconds later mentions that the fees were significantly lower when he went to college.
    Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKsvkggHvJY

    Marx = atheist
    Marx = communist
    Communist = atheist = bad
    Basically, the view of 90% of Americans.

  • Legal Quandary says:

    ChicagoJo –

    What an unfair description of the military, who does not "get" a huge chunk of our tax dollars – the money is spent on our national defense. Believe it or not, military members are not pocketing that money. Remember that it is the civilian leaders who determine whether the country goes to war, not the military leaders, and certainly not Joe Airman and Jane Soldier.

    And social hand-outs? Really? Take a good look around a military installation the next chance you get and see what the "free" housing is like. And the "free" medical care. Which by the way, is not "free" but is what military members receive in exchange for signing up to get shot at. Incidentally, if you would like their "free" benefits and the opportunity to spend six months to a year away from your family, I hear the military is still hiring.

  • @doug

    I don't think we reverse this trend. A reasonably egalitarian society is an historical anomaly. We may just be returning to our feudal equilibrium.

  • @Zeb
    Forgot to add, do you think we(the Millennials and Gen X'ers) will reverse the trend? Will we be any different than the baby boomers?

  • @Legal Quandry –

    No, military members aren't pocketing the money but defense contractors sure as heck are.

  • zeb and ts46064: You are missing the point. John Gibson is a baby boomer. So that makes him the spokesperson for boomers? The typical boomer?? An uber-boomer???
    Stop and think for a second: the boomers are just now hitting Social Security/Medicare age. Does it make sense to accuse them of greed for cutting programs they have paid into their entire lives just at the point where they are going to start collecting?
    The ruling elites in this country – the moneyed, politically powerful gang – are the ones destroying social programs. They range in age from The Greatest Generation to whatever we call people in their 20s today. Find a 25 yo investment banker on Wall Street and ask his opinion of SS. Oh noes!!! Young people wanna rob us of SS.

  • Fair enough bob, but its an example of the fuck you I got mine attitude. I'm also not saying my generation will/won't be any different.

  • @Bob

    This is true, but since the Baby Boomers constitute the majority of the electorate, their generation is principally the one that buys into this false consciousness, despite the evidence of their upbringings.
    The University of California system is a perfect example, although the trend started before the Baby Boomers really took power. The Boomers haven't dismantled SS and Medicare yet because they're just now coming into it. All those other things have been prime targets for their chunk of the electorate.

    Obviously, I'm overgeneralizing a bit, but I think the trend has been clear.


    No, I really doubt the Millennials will be any different (except that we'll likely have a lower standard of living!).

  • I can see how well the Repugs divide and conquer strategy has worked out.
    Urban vs rural. Race vs race. Coast vs heartland. Now, young vs old.

    You people blame the boomers for the actions of the right wing corporate elite that
    controls virtually all the media, and spews their vile pollution all day, everywhere . Well, I guess that's better than blaming Mexican immigrants, other people with dark skins, or the unions.

    Oh — wait — no it isn't.

    Stereotyped thinking folks.

    Pay more attention to Bob, OK?

    Ass holes,
    JzB a disgusted boomer

  • The right wing corporate elite didn't do it alone. They had the complicity of a generation or two. Like I said above, it's useless to fixate on this problem–you're right in that it can become a distraction from a bigger one–but it should be pointed out, in the hopes that future generations don't follow suit.

    Sorry, friend.

  • @jzb – Damn, beat me to the "divide and conquer" punch.

    Probably 'cause you old guys get up so damn early…

  • I just think that it is quite funny when the generation that said don't trust anyone over 30 starts complaining about the young people criticizing then now that they are well over 30.

  • @BillCinSD
    I just think that it is quite funny you have no fucking idea that Baby Boomers are not a generation – we’re a group spanning several generations. I'm a boomer and I was 6 years old when Jack Weinberg said that in 1964. Takin' it to the kindergarten, baby! Down With Nap Time!
    I would try to explain to you how taking the words of one person and hanging them on 100 million is wrong, but I fear it would be a waste of time.
    If I quoted something dumb uttered by a black person and used it to smear all African-Americans would you see that as a brilliant insight or as an example of racism?
    Don’t trust anyone under 52 (to be amended next March)!

  • The Moar You Know says:

    Crabs in a bucket.

    For those not familiar with the concept, here's the deal. You go and grab a bunch of crabs and put them in a bucket. Walk away, go looking for some more crabs. It's OK. They won't run away.

    On the contrary, any crab that tries to get out of the bucket will be immediately yanked down by all the other crabs. The crabs can all get out easily if they would work together, but they won't do that. They might end up being the last one in the bucket!

    America 2011: Welcome To The Bucket.

  • "Inter-class victim blaming is as old as politics itself. The rich blame the poor, the poor blame the rich, and everyone blames the immigrants and minorities."

    Ugh. This is exactly what I'm writing about at this very moment, only taking it a step further back to the late 19th century. This fucking country, sometimes…

Comments are closed.