A friend of mine, who is liberal, told me recently, “Having grown up in the South in the 1950s, I know something about how it feels to be part of a group you’re told is superior. It feels really good. It’s a feeling that shouldn’t be under-estimated.”
That got me thinking about the anger of many white men, and why they’ve lent the force of that anger to the political right.
Imagine you’re a white man, particularly in a region where racist ideology and patriarchy have been especially powerful. By virtue of being white instead of black, and male instead of female, you’ve got higher status than roughly three-quarters of the humanity around you. And if you’re straight, not gay, you get to feel even better about yourself.
The feeling of self-worth is a big part of one’s overall feeling of well-being.
The straight white man, in the old order, is the embodiment of “born on third base, and thinks he hit a triple.”
What if a political force came to take all that away from you?
You are told that black people deserve the same rights and respect as white people. Laws are enacted to compel everyone to act as if that were true.
As if that weren’t enough, this same political force — American liberalism, through its political instrument, the Democratic Party — declares that women are as good as men, and deserve the same treatment and opportunities.
At this point, the white man has been thrown out of the top quartile of his community and into the general pool.
Then this same liberalism insists that gay people are not inferior to straight people, and shouldn’t be subject to persecution or second-class status.
No wonder there are so many angry white men who regard liberalism as their enemy. Never under-estimate the value of what liberalism has taken from them.
Instead of being born on third base as their fathers and grandfathers were, they have to step up to the plate and hit the ball to establish their worth.
But at the very time that they need to earn some of the respect and sense of value that was just handed to their forebears, plutocratic political forces and economic changes have made getting ahead more difficult.
Gains from rising worker productivity are no longer shared by workers but go into rising corporate profits. Wages for men without higher education have stagnated, even declined. Jobs that used to be a route to middle class life have been shipped overseas, and replaced by low-paying work. The power of labor relative to corporations has declined. The route to advancement through higher education has become far more expensive — unaffordable for a great many families except by taking on huge debt.
The Republican Party, as the instrument of the forces of corporatist oligarchy, has had a major hand (more so than the Democrats) in injuring the economic prospects of these men. But the ways these injuries have been inflicted are more hidden than the social revolutions that toppled the old order of automatic superiority.
Added to that, Republicans are much better than Democrats at getting people to see what they want them to see. So it’s not surprising that these angry white men align themselves with the Republican Party — “voting against their own interests,” as liberals tend to describe it.
The value that patriarchy gave men at the expense of women, and that racial tyranny gave whites at the expense of blacks, and that traditional morality gave straights at the expense of gays, was unjust. The Democratic Party has done right to help redress those injustices.
But the value that has been taken away from average working men in our society, who are prevented from participating in the rising tide of wealth in America, is also unjust. The Republican Party has done wrong to help the rich and powerful take wealth and power from average Americans.
The anger of many white Americans males is understandable. But in an ideal world, they would side with justice in both cases: they’d accept that they should no longer benefit from the old unjust order, but they’d also assert their rights against the new injustice that deprives them of their fair shot at the American dream.
(The question of how basically good people have been captured by a destructive political force, and basically intelligent people have been manipulated into supporting a force that is working against their well-being, is an issue that is explored in my “Press the Battle” series that is unfolding here these weeks on Blue Virginia.)