...I'm okay with being REALITY-based.

Thursday, December 18, 2003
      ( 10:11 AM )
Let Them Eat War

Buzzflash has a great interview with sociologist Arlie Hochschild about her article "Let Them Eat War" about why 50% of blue collar white males will vote for Bush despite the fact that he's done everything possible to worsen the quality of their lives. This is a fascinating interview and the underlying article is really interesting as well. The basic theme is not that this important voting bloc is ill-informed (though most Americans are), but that a very fine piece of manipulation is taking place with regards to these men:

Maybe, however, something deeper is going on,
which has so far permitted Bush's flag-waving and
cowboy-boot-strutting to trump issues of job security,
wages, safety, and health – and even, in the case
of Bush's threats of further war – life itself. In an
essay, "The White Man Unburdened," in a recent New
York Review of Books, Norman Mailer recently argued
that the war in Iraq returned to white males a lost
sense of mastery, offering them a feeling of revenge
for imagined wrongs, and a sense of psychic rejuvenation.
In the last thirty years, white men have taken a drubbing,
he notes, especially the three quarters of them who lack
college degrees. Between l979 and l999, for example,
real wages for male high-school graduates dropped 24
percent. In addition, Mailer notes, white working class men
have lost white champs in football, basketball and boxing.
(A lot of white men cheer black athletes, of course, whomever
they vote for.) But the war in Iraq, Mailer notes, gave white
men white heroes. By climbing into his jumpsuit, stepping out
of an S-3B Viking jet onto the aircraft carrier USS Abraham
Lincoln , Bush posed as – one could say impersonated
– such a hero

But it's not just the hero motif that attracts them. Another, even more subtle thing is taking place, as further explored in the Buzzflash interview:

BuzzFlash: Well, what is it? You
identify a sort of an emotional trade-off, basically, that
the blue collar support of Bush isn't based on facts;
indeed, many of these blue-collar males are aware of
the facts. But Bush is offering something else. He's
offering them, as you say, confidence in reestablishing
their role in the center of the patriarchal world.

Hochschild: Right. And this is a delicate point to try to
get across. I think we all have feelings and they all can
get appealed to. It doesn't mean a person is stupid if
their feelings are getting appealed to. But I do think
that this is going on, and that there's a kind of a
dilemma here that the blue-collar guy, since the ‘70s on,
has been suffering a giant economic downward slide.
His paycheck is worth less. His job has become less
secure. His benefits have been carved down. And all of
this is bad, bad news for him. His wife's had to go to
work, and now, 30 years later, the two of them earn
what he alone would have earlier earned.

With this economic hit has come a cultural hit. Now
I think it's a worldwide story, a kind of economic undermining
of patriarchal customs and expectations. And so, with
this economic decline may come marital instability -- a lot
of hard things have hit this guy. And so how he feels
psychologically becomes a really important question. And
I think the story is that he believes -- whether it's true or
not -- that a lot of people have come up from behind him.
Women have come from behind. Minorities have come
from behind and gotten ahead; immigrants, new arrivals,
have come from behind and have gotten ahead. Even the
spotted owl -- a lot of them are not environmentalists
because they think somebody's now putting animal rights
over their human rights. As he's sliding down, he imagines
all these groups moving up.

And a very understandable thing to do is to look at them
and want them to go back where they came from. The feeling
is one of frustration, fear, anger. What he's not doing is
looking at Bush, the guy at the top, who's rigging the whole
economic game, and who's not doing a thing to support him,
and who's actually deflecting blame away from the top. So
it comes down to this: those feelings that come with a kind
of loss of position, income and status among blue collar
males is being exploited instead of addressed.

BuzzFlash: In this age, when liberals are accused of being
politically correct, the right-wing movement is probably even
more of a practitioner of political correctness on many
accounts. And Bush can't communicate directly to the white
male about how he stands for the white male being on top,
so there's a lot of coding going on, it seems. And much of
this is subliminal, because Bush can't say, well, I keep Laura
in her place, but --

Hochschild: You never see her. She's in a lockbox.

BuzzFlash: And she's always walking behind him and is
carefully scripted to say as little as possible. If she says
anything, it's once or twice a month, and it's a sentence or
two, or maybe a highly controlled interview. In their
relationship, she symbolizes the woman who is always
deferential to the husband. And Bush himself, although he
comes from entitlement, in many ways he shows that the
more he fails, the more secure maybe white males feel who
are feeling uncomfortable with their position, because he's
still the President of the United States. It is a reinforcement
of all of the white males -- that no matter how much they
screw up, they're still head of the family.

Hochschild: I think that's a really very perceptive remark.
Bush is a kind of a Dagwood, you know? However awkward
and wrong-headed, he's still the head of the family.

Hochschild ends her underlying article with a plea that we need to find a democratic candidate who "addresses the root causes of blue-collar anger and fear and who actually tackles the problems before us all, instead of pandering to the emotions bad times evoke." This reminds me of so many different arguments about social questions - like gays in the military or student achievement - it seems our society has become complacent enough to only expect the worst of people. This way of thinking has literally been embodied by our sitting President - everyone had such low expectations that when he didn't screw up too badly during his campaign, it appeared as a major victory. So we allowed someone like that to become our leader, and that has perpetuated the entire psyche of ruling by fear and low expectations.

Bush has been able to convince a large part of the electorate that he is worth voting for because he is projecting a certain patriarchal, in-charge image while at the same time beating these people down and coddling their worst fears and expectations. So while they know on an intellectual level that he (or any republican) has done nothing to help them in any practical way, and what's more has left a worse world for their children, they are able to ignore this on an emotional level because the emotional response to a culture-think that expects the worst is to be relieved when they see an image (no matter how hollow or false) of someone who is better than that worst expectation.

It's not enough for the Democratic candidates to keep hammering home the obvious: that the economy has worsened, that these blue collar white men are no better off because of Bush, and in fact, their lives are worse. They have to go further and build up these men - expect more of them, expect more of us as a nation. The candidates have to embody the kind of leadership that lifts people up, and empowers people - not the kind of false leadership that tears people down in order to appear more powerful and in charge. If the Democratic candidate, whomever that may be, can do this in an effective way, he will have no trouble winning that voting bloc away from Bush. I have to believe that the strength of human dignity is more powerful than an image disguising low expectations. That old dogmas can be truly put aside in the wake of new understanding of fellow humankind. That men and women alike can put aside the restentments harbored for so long against other kinds of people and come to realize our common dreams and our common humanity and our common needs... the main one of which is a leader that will empower us to change this country into what it truly is capable of being. I hope that my belief will prove true this coming election.

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