Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Red Necks and Blue Collars

Didn't need no welfare state,
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days.

Archie Bunker was a character of the 1970s.  The show, All in the Family, was so popular precisely because Archie Bunker was so credible.  Consider this.  He worked at the loading dock yet made enough so that Edith could be a homemaker.  He had a family, including for a while his live-in adult daughter along with her husband.  During the first couple of seasons the Meathead didn't have a job.  A blue collar guy to the core, Archie was living the American Dream.  His home was his castle.  He had his chair and it definitely was his chair.  He could have a beer sitting in that chair after he came home from work, watching TV or listening to the radio.  He could hold forth.  He did hold forth.  Though he was very angry, he really had it made.  Those were the days.

* * * * *

The Reagan coalition never made sense on purely economic grounds.  As I wrote in jest some years ago:

Of Trickle Down
He's been a clown
From the very beginning.

On the economics, it was the well to do who benefited.  The tax cuts meant a lot of increased wealth for them.  The aura of deregulation meant they could play fast and loose with the financial markets.   The move southward from the rust belt meant labor costs could be reduced, thus increasing the return to capital.

For the Archie Bunker types their recompense was something else, symbolic rewards and a way to vent.  On the former, there was first Bakke, which preceded the Reagan Presidency, followed by an ongoing assault on Affirmative Action.  On the latter, there was first Rush Limbaugh, then later Fox News.

This combination 'worked' politically for upwards of 30 years.  It is failing now, because capitalism is failing now.  The part of the equation that is not being talked about nearly enough is that well functioning families require a stable income source that is sufficient to produce a middle class life-style.

That capitalism in the U.S. has been failing has been evident at least since since the burst of the Internet Stock Market bubble, circa 2000.  (If you read The Reckoning by David Halberstam  you could make a reasonable argument that it started 20 years earlier, as the American auto companies failed to match the competition from Japan.)  Increasing debt replaced income generation as a way to maintain a middle class lifestyle, but that clearly was not sustainable.  Since the burst of housing bubble, working class people have had much more limited access to borrowing.  The consequence has been a general malaise, one indication of which is the increased suicide rate of middle-age white males.  Archie Bunker was living the American Dream.  His latter day counterparts are living the American Nightmare.

How much worse do things need to get before they begin to start getting better?  What does getting better look like?

* * * * *

In thinking about writing this piece, I wondered about how Archive Bunker would have viewed the PATCO strike and Reagan's busting of the Air Traffic Controller's union.  Bunker clearly would have voted for Reagan, but he was a union member and perhaps would have felt some solidarity with the strikers.  However, the assassination attempt on Reagan preceded that strike and gave the President enormous popularity.  It's hard to say how Archie Bunker would have reacted to that strike..

It seems easy to say, however, that Archie Bunker's current day counterpart would be for Donald Trump.  While the Tea Party movement began the fraying of the Reagan coalition, clearly it's Trump's candidacy which is demolishing it altogether.  Trump may have no real solutions.  But he owns the symbolism and the venting.  That explains his popularity in this election cycle.

Indeed, until this point in the essay, I've pretty much followed the line or argument recently offered up by David Frum in a piece in The Atlantic.   Actually, near the end of the article, where he offers up Option 3: True Reform, Frum seems genuinely nostalgic for Eisenhower middle-of-the-road conservatism, though immediately thereafter he argues that it will be almost impossible to get there from here. 

At present, establishment Republican leaders seem to be in a panic.   Perhaps cooler heads will eventually prevail.  Who knows?  If I were betting, however, I'd say those cooler heads won't make themselves prominent till after we have another Democratic President, but then I'd only do this with somebody else's money.

In the meantime, the Republicans appear to be in quite a tight box.  How can Archie Bunker types live a good middle class lifestyle when the labor market is now global and, whether you consider workers in Mexico or India or elsewhere, they offer competition for American labor that is considerably cheaper?   And then there is the problem with the rich donor class, who seem so self-absorbed and into manipulating the system for their own benefit that they are blind to the needs of the Archie Bunker types.  There is also that since Newt Gingrich was Speaker, so for more than a generation, the Republicans have practiced scorched earth politics and demanded absolutes that might appeal to the Archie Bunker types on symbolism, but didn't do a thing on the economics.

In my reading of history, Bill Clinton, was the first Eisenhower Democratic President (though maybe Jimmy Carter should claim that mantel).  And he lucked out because after the mild recession under Bush 1, which is was why Clinton won in 1992, the Internet became a phenomenon and drove the economy for the rest of the 1990s.

We may have used up all the good luck then.  Now pessimism appears the norm.  Absent Frum's real reforms, what else is there?   This clip of Archie Bunker blowing the raspberry at the TV seems an apt way to conclude. 

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