Quiet Desperation and American Fascism

AP Photo/The Advocate Messenger, Clay Jackson

Voting precinct booths are empty early Tuesday, May 17, 2011, in Danville, Kentucky. 

This is an updated version of an article that ran in The Huffington Post.

There’s a must-read article if you want to understand why Democrats are losing the support of low income people who benefit from government programs like Medicaid and food stamps and logically should vote for Democrats based on pocketbook interests.

Alec MacGillis of ProPublica, writing in The New York Times Sunday Review, observes that for the most part, the poor aren’t defecting to Republicans—they are not voting at all.

His exhibit A is eastern Kentucky, one of America’s poorest and most government-dependent regions. But the poor are so marginalized and disaffected that they are disconnected from civic life entirely.

Looking more broadly, MacGillis reports that non-voters are far more likely than voters to have incomes under $30,000, not to have health insurance, not to have bank accounts, to have received government aid such as food stamps, and to have borrowed money from relatives.

As if to confirm MacGillis’s point, consider Saturday’s Louisiana gubernatorial election. Remarkably, the Democrat actually won. All it took was a thoroughly disgraced and corrupt Republican opponent in David Vitter, who consorted with prostitutes, and an outgoing incumbent Republican incumbent, Bobby Jindal, who was a national joke.

How often can Democrats expect that sort of harmonic convergence? Not very. Even so, Democrat John Bel Edwards, a Catholic social conservative with a military background, only won 56 percent of the vote.

But the deeper story is in the turnout. Louisiana has 3,536,185 people of voting age. In the 2012 presidential election, 1,152,262—less than a third—turned out to vote. Four years ago, in the gubernatorial election that Jindal won by a landslide, just 673,239 voted. This time, only 444,517 bothered—about one in eight eligible voters. Williams was elected governor with the support of about 9 percent of the Louisiana electorate.

A lot of the people who stay home would vote for Democrats if they bothered to vote at all. This problem goes far deeper than better techniques for getting out the vote. It reflects a massive decay of civil society, a deep disinterest and contempt for government and politics, one that often seems richly earned.

This is also the soil in which fascism grows. As political scientists have demonstrated for more than a century, it is mass society, in which people are disconnected from the “little platoons” beloved of Edmund Burke and the local associations celebrated by Tocqueville, where a strongman can suddenly seem the solution to people’s inchoate frustrations with their own lives and the irrelevance of politics.

And evidently, the quiet desperation is such that the crazier the strongman’s pronouncements, the better. Cue Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz. Figures like these channel the rage and alienation, not a serious discussion of remedies.

MacGillis also found a deepening division between the working class and the poorest of the poor. Far from seeing common interests, struggling working class voters increasingly have contempt for those who need government benefits. The economic pressure on the bottom 90 percent divides them against themselves. Kentucky, whose local version of Obamacare led the nation in covering the uninsured recently voted in a Republican governor committed to killing the program.

There is no easy solution for the deepening disaffection from politics of society’s most vulnerable. It’s not a matter of more clever techniques to get out the vote.

There was a time in America when poor and working-class people did have representative institutions that connected them to civic and political life. They were called labor unions.

Even today, with union strength at its lowest level since before the New Deal, after more than a generation of corporate union busting, union families are more likely to vote, more likely to vote for progressives, and more likely to have a political grasp of their situation than people of similar condition who are non-members.

Other institutions such as worker centers and immigrant self-help groups can help reconnect society’s most marginal. But so far they are no match for the increased power of society’s richest and the feeling on the part of so many citizens that, as Elizabeth Warren famously puts it, “the game is rigged.”

The stakes could not be higher. America is a democracy only to the extent that citizens feel that it is worthwhile to participate. We are in a race between new organizing strategies and credible leaders on the one hand, and demagogues and mass alienation on the other. And time is not on our side.

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