Frank Stricker introduces Helen Epstein, "Left Behind," a review-essay in The New York Review of Books, March 26, 2020, on Anne Case and Angus Deaton's Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, and Jennifer M. Silva, We're Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America.
In response to the CV crisis, it is possible that Republicans and Democrats will see that trillions are spent to keep the economy from falling into a long Great Depression. (And, perhaps, help to re-elect Donald Trump.) But you can bet that not much will be done about deep social and economic problems, including these two: extreme income inequality and the dearth of good jobs. The people discussed in Helen Epstein's review won't get much help.
For several years now Anne Case and Angus Deaton have studied the surprising upturn in mortality rates among white adults without bachelor's degrees. Deaths of despair, the authors call them. Suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths have risen among this population. Many of those suffering the sharpest increases in mortality are at the center of the opiod epidemic. Over the years they saw their world ripped apart when factories and other businesses shut down. They joined millions of black people in urban neighborhoods and rural areas around the country who, for decades, have been poor, unemployed, and victims of politicians and business leaders who don't care. Low-education white males, too, have been left behind by globalization, anti-unionism, automation, and taxing and spending policies that favor the rich and accentuate rather than moderate income inequality.
Although major economic indexes have been improving for a decade and jobs are more plentiful than in 2010, there are still millions of drop-outs and left-behinds. Not much has been done for millions of them--white, black, or brown. The new progressives in Congress have programs that will help these people, but some Democratic Party leaders and funders are aggressively centrist. Worse, Republicans, starting with the President, are always working to take away health care for millions of Americans. They have not been willing to spend for a large-scale infrastructure program, they don't want to tax the rich for anything, and they won't lift the federal minimum wage from its sub-poverty level of $7.25. Mr. Trump has not succeeded in restoring manufacturing to its former glories, nor has he been able to "bring back" coal. Jennifer Silva's book is the sad story of joblessness and social disarray in a Pennsylvania coal town. One wonders why poor whites in red states don't vote for politicians who are inclined to support real solutions. For now Democrats are more likely to be fixers than are Republicans.
I can think of several reasons why poor whites vote against their own economic interests. Racism is a major factor. For example, I might be receiving government benefits, but I feel good thinking that Democrats are the party of welfare-giveaways and the party of black people, who, undeservedly, get the lion's share of government benefits. Also, we know that Democrats love the immigrants and immigrants are the reason I don't have a good job. Other explanations include the so-called social issues such as gun rights, abortion rights, and gay rights. Also, as Helen Epstein suggests in her review, hyper- individualism and self-blame muddle people's heads about class power and about the realities of interdependence. This phenomenon may especially afflict poor white males (It's a white man's country, right? Why haven't I succeeded?) Many poor whites end up not voting or voting for politicians who are fighting to take their Medicaid away.
One final explanation is that many Democrats, including presidents, have not been staunch champions of the working class for quite a while. In fact, until Trump, not one president of either party opposed free trade treaties that made it easier for businesses to export factory jobs. Bill Clinton pushed for NAFTA. (However, it is true that two thirds of Democrats in Congress voted against NAFTA while three fourths of Republicans voted for it.) In recent decades, few Democrats have worked hard to protect and expand unions. Some of this has changed in recent years, due to the influence of Bernie Sanders and people like him. Whether Joe Biden has gotten the message is not certain.
I believe that I have posted Helen Epstein's article on my Facebook page.
The views expressed here are Frank Stricker's, and do not represent the views of the National Jobs for All Network or California State University, Dominguez Hills.
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