Clancy was already seated outside Starbucks at a table when I arrived, sipping his coffee and motioned for me to sit in the empty chair. I rushed in, got my coffee and returned. After the usual pleasantries, I got straight to the bottom line.
“Look,” I said to Clancy, “I get it. I get why many in the white working class are upset having lost their security and place in the world, and in many cases their income and benefits have gone down. I get it that many feel dissed and that this is partly our fault as ‘coastal elitists.’ I still do not understand why they landed on Trump as their savior, but I will put that aside for the moment. What I want to know is this: What are the underlying causes behind this troubled time we are in?”
“Funny you ask,” he replied, “I am just putting some finishing touches on a talk that I am preparing for a luncheon at the Cosmos Club next week.”
Clancy paused for a moment, wiped off his glasses and took a long sip from his Starbucks mug.
“Ok,” he said, smiling, “Are you ready to take notes?”
“Not exactly but go ahead anyway.”
“There are four reasons, some of which are interrelated. First, the civil rights movement. The second is Jack Welch. Third is the collapse of labor unions, and perhaps most important, the fourth is technology and how it has affected transformed the way we live.”
I quickly jumped in, “The civil rights movement? How could that be?”
“You grew up in Nashville in the 1950s, right? All schools were segregated at that time. African Americans had to sit in the back of the bus and use separate bathrooms and all the rest. If you were a poor or working class, white person, you could admit that your life was far from perfect, but at least you had others you could look down on. Were it not for the civil rights movement it would have been more of the same. The civil rights movement was the beginning of a sea change, eventually electing an African American as President of the United States. Surely there is a long way still to go to achieve racial justice, but it is no longer so easy for white people to conclude they are part of a superior race. Make no mistake, however, racial hatred remains a huge issue and a major factor in motivating hate groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and many others supporting Trump. That is what all the fuss concerning CRT and ‘Black Lives Matter’ is about. Disaffected white people are fighting back. That is why if Trump or his wannabees win in 2022 and 2024, it could be a grim day for America. I should point out, also, that it was not only working class people who were and are racists but a lot of other white people at all income levels. Racism in America continues to be a national sickness.”
“Well, one of the things that I am most proud of in my life is playing a very small role in that effort. My senior year at Davidson College I led a march in Charlotte voicing support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Embry and I worked on the front lines of the movement in southwest Georgia in 1966.”
“Another reason,” he chuckled, “that you could be considered the enemy.”
“Ok, but what does Jack Welch have to do with it?”
“Jack Welch was head of General Electric for about 20 years starting in 1981 and was considered by many the greatest CEO in the country, some have said ‘of all time.’ He was responsible for making GE one of the most profitable companies in the world, constantly beating financial forecasts. He was revered throughout the business world. Obviously he did a lot of things right, but his business style was ruthless toward underperforming employees, firing the ‘least productive’ 10 percent of employees every year. He was known as ‘Neutron Jack,’ kill all the workers and leave the factories in place. Many other companies followed his lead, focusing mainly on increasing quarterly earnings and dismissing underperforming employees. Compensation for CEOs and high level managers skyrocketed while pay for the average worker stagnated or even diminished. The result was a huge cut in jobs, including well-paying jobs with benefits and huge disparities in income, which is partly responsible for the vast income gap today. The top one percent accounts for almost 20 percent of all household income.”
“But,” I said, “Surely it was not just Jack Welch. It was a lot of other CEOs too.”
“Of course, I just use ‘Neutron Jack’ as an example of a change in philosophy of putting shareholders ahead of employees and focusing almost exclusively on the bottom line. The social contract that existed in the U.S. between labor and management in the 1950s and 1960s which rewarded loyalty and treated workers as corporate ‘family’ was replaced by every man for himself and let the chips fall.”
“So what about labor unions?” I asked, “And why have they shrunk so much?”
“Well, it is remarkable how much they have shrunk and how irrelevant they have become in most industries. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, about 35% of the U.S. workforce were in labor unions, many of which were very powerful—both in achieving higher wages, more benefits and better retirement for their employees, and also, they were powerful politically. Now the percentage is only around three percent, and the most active and effective unions tend to be public sector unions. And keep in mind, unions took elections seriously, they got out their members to vote, and they voted for Democrats. That is not happening today. If the unions were still strong, we would not be in the mess we are in with the MAGA world.”
“How did this happen?”
“There are a lot of reasons including mismanagement, graft, and corruption in some unions. But the main factors boil down to three things, first, an aggressive anti-union posture in many companies beginning in the early 1980s and continuing today, second, more legislation in states for right to work and other anti-union laws, and third, and, I think, most important, the global economy and the relative ease of moving factories and jobs overseas. If unions appear to be a threat, management can threaten to close operations and move them to China or some other Asian or South American country, and many have done just that. Unions have no recourse.”
“Do you think that unions will come back and will they make a difference?
“I am not able to answer that question yet. I certainly hope so. We need strong, progressive unions. Let’s table it for discussion later.”
“So, what about technology?”
“Well, of course, this one is a no-brainer and has affected everything we do. First the impact on jobs. Elevator operators, secretaries, bank tellers, and newspaper print setters have almost disappeared, along with countless other jobs, but on the other hand, new jobs are being created every day. The challenge is that many of the new jobs require retraining and often more skills, and our country does not have the infrastructure in place to provide the retraining and proper education. Also, it may require moving from a town or city to another location some distance away where the new jobs are being created. We are not doing a good job at that.”
Clancy scared off a hungry pigeon eating the crumbs from a pastry under the table and continued,”There is one other impact of technology that is responsible and that is television, more specifically cable television. Almost everybody has cable tv today allowing them to watch whatever they want to. There used to be only three and then four broadcast television channels–NBC, ABC, CBS and then Fox. We Americans all saw the same commentators every night, and all broadcast networks were generally middle of the road, mainstream. You could also throw PBS into the mix though the viewers were fewer. Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Robin McNeil, Tom Brokow–you know the names. While cable actually started in the late 1940s, it was not until the 1980s that it began to become mainstream. CNN premiered in 1980. Fox News and MSNBC did not become live until 1994. Now people watch what they want to, and it is usually the news coverage they agree with. We do not see the news from the other side.”
“Well, I favor MSNBC,” I volunteered,” And do not think it is biased at all.”
Clancy laughed and then added, “Do not forget about Facebook, Twitter and all the social media. This is also relatively new. Facebook did not become live until 2004. I will tell you without all the revolution in technology it would be a different story. Somebody like Trump could probably not get elected.”
“All of this is very interesting, and I think spot on, but I also think there is something you are missing.”
“I may be a bit naïve, but my image of the ‘old fashioned,’ blue collar worker is an Archie Bunker kind of guy that had a decent factory job, maybe in the industrial Midwest, who got paid a living wage, had decent benefits, good health care insurance and a generous, ‘defined benefit pension.’ His wife stayed home and kept house and raised the kids, and they lived in a modest home that they owned in a modest neighborhood. It might not have been fancy, but they could get by, maybe go out to a movie or a restaurant every week or so, and every few years they could take a beach vacation. They felt pretty good about their lives. Many of their children were able to get college degrees and jump to the middle class.
“Fast forward to the 21st Century and we find something different. Now to get by you need two incomes in a household. The stay-at-home mom is now working at Giant or Safeway or in some kind of service job. Pensions have been replaced by 401Ks, health care coverage is lower, and the factory worker is now working at a Home Depot or Target. Families are dealing with a lot more stress, trying to work, and at the same time to keep a family together, often without affordable day care for kids or affordable rents or housing prices. This added stress has been a factor in opioid addiction and deaths along with mental health issues leading to even more stress and unhappiness. For all these reasons, a lot of working class people are not happy campers. So are others who may have white collar jobs but also are struggling. I read the other day where almost two-thirds of the working population live paycheck to paycheck. This explains some of the anger and the need for something different. Along comes Donald Trump, recognizing the unhappiness in people’s lives and promises to shatter the old way of doing things and to punish the elitist snobs and arrogant uppity ups that have no clue as to how ‘ordinary people’ live.”
Clancy smiled and replied, “I think I will add a fifth reason.”
As we parted, he replied, “But if we are talking about the rise of Trump and Trumpism, it did not begin with the Donald. It began with the Newt. Next time we get together let’s talk about how the Republican populist rebellion began about 30 years ago led Newt Gingrich and and his ‘contract with America’ and fueled by energy from the Tea Party. See you next week.”
6 thoughts on “Coffee with Clancy 2: How We Got into This Mess”
Brilliant! But I think Clancy means the Oath Keepers (rather than “Gate Keepers”). I agree about the trashing of civility and political norms that Newt supercharged; I wonder, though, if it didn’t begin even earlier, with Lee Atwater, for example.
Thanks, Alex.I need your copy editing. Correction made.
This is , perhaps, a bit beyond your brief, but two things
1 In a couple of weeks I am to lead a discussion in my French group – “Is US democracy dead?) Your take on this, please.
2 do you connect what seems to be happening in the US with what is happening around the world today – a sinister movement to the extreme right? In Europe we saw this very thing in the 1930s; Is this what we now seeing in the US, Italy. Brazil, India and here in the UK?,
What are the reasons? Is it because more and more are people feel disenfranchised? Is it, in part at least, due to the influx and influence of people of one country making their home – and wanting a say – in another country. In short is it about nationalism; even isolationism?
I’ve gone on too long! But I am worried for the generations to come.
will give it a try….
We have set a great example of how you bring democracy to the world.
Thanks so much for keeping me on your list as needless to say I really appreciate seeing your posts.