Saturday, August 13, 2016

Shrinking Unions Leave Some White Workers Vulnerable to Demagogues Like Trump

Many white working-class men in the United States are attracted by the racist and misogynist messages purloined by the fake billionaire and real self-promoter Donald Trump. Why is that so, and more importantly, does it have to be so? That is the question the sociology professor Neil Gross raises in a recent New York Times article.

“Recent research in social science and history suggests that they [white working class men] might have been out front in the fight against Mr. Trump — if only the American labor movement weren’t a shell of its former self.” 
Gross reaches back to a 1959 article by the famous sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset where he pointed out an underlying authoritarian streak in the working class.
“Using evidence from surveys, Mr. Lipset found blue-collar workers to be less committed to democratic norms like tolerance for political opponents, preference for rational argumentation over charismatic appeals and support for the rights of ethnic and racial minorities.
These tendencies, he claimed, were a function of lower levels of education and the isolation of many workers (for example, coal miners) from people who were different from them. Authoritarian attitudes also owed something to the work itself. Controversially, he suggested that manual work was at odds with the abstract thinking required to appreciate complex, pluralistic solutions to political problems.
Yet in Mr. Lipset’s view unions had the potential to counter such tendencies. If infused with a democratic spirit — organized and run in a non-autocratic fashion with an eye to the greater good — a labor union might inculcate civic virtues in its members, pushing them to think and vote in a more enlightened way.”
Later research has questioned Lipset’s thesis and pointed to lack of education as a more important factor behind this authoritarianism. Another factor is the shrinking unionization in the U.S., since labor unions traditionally were able to guide its members to support progressive causes, which despite the fall in unionization played an important role in Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.
“In Europe, as in the United States, working-class men are a key constituency for the far-right political parties that are now ascendant. Yet in a study published last month of 16 European nations, the political scientists Christoph Arndt and Line Rennwald found that union membership helps inoculate workers against the far right’s message. While the far right has been able to gain ground even in countries like Sweden where unionization rates are high, in general employees covered by collective bargaining agreements feel less threatened by the social changes that agitate far-right ideologues. (It is not an accident of history that Hitler abolished German trade unions as part of his consolidation of power, or that farmers and small business owners were more sympathetic to the Nazi cause than were industrial workers reared on unionism.)”
This points to one reason for why many worker’s, especially older white workers with low education, have fallen prey to a windbag from New York. With unions out of the picture for many workers, they are on their own.
“There’s a lesson here for the future,” Gross writes. “American unions have a checkered history and are far from perfect. But as an institution, unions are an essential bulwark for democracy. We’ve allowed them to wither at our peril.”

Neil Gross: The Decline of Unions and the Rise of Trump (New York Times, August 12, 2016)

Read a couple of earlier posts about the white working class and authoritarianism:
What Whites with Broken Hearts can Learn from the Crow Indians
Does history repeat itself? Does this sound familiar? On the origins of Trumpism...