I was shocked when I heard that my conservative Grandma had stormed out of church after her pastor denounced "being gay as the worst sin." My 81-year-old grandmother, who has two gay grandchildren, wasn't taking any of that shit, and made my mother, my aunt, uncle and cousins leave the church after having attended it for nearly ten years.
Doing such a thing in a small town in western Pennsylvania, which fits Barack Obama's definition of a "bitter town" almost perfectly, is unheard of. It was an absolute scandal throughout the small town where she lives.
However, what was even more shocking was that when, at Thanksgiving dinner, I asked my grandmother which book she was reading, she responded, "Glenn Beck's 'Common Sense.'" Fortunately, my mouth was full of mashed potatoes so I had a few moments to gather myself before responding politely, "Oh, yes, that Glenn Beck, he's a passionate fellow." My aunt, responding genuinely, replied, "Oh, yes, Glenn Beck he really makes you think about things in ways that nobody else ever does. I watch Glenn Beck's show everyday."
My uncle Billy, a Vietnam veteran who's been laid off seven times, looking to start a fight, piped up, "Michael, do you like Glenn Beck?" The whole table turned to me, and for the first time in my life I was glad I suffered from a stutter. Fortunately, my grandmother mercifully invoked the "politics and religion at the dinner table" rule before my stammer came to a standstill.
There are at least eight million daily followers of Glenn Beck in America, and a good chunk of them are people like my grandmother and my uncle Billy - well-intentioned people that care about their country, their families and their communities, otherwise they wouldn't watch a show about politics. However, to label all these Glenn Beck followers as unreachable, bigoted racists is an extraordinarily dangerous and misleading move for the progressive movement, which aims to include all people.
My grandmother's own vocal protest for gay rights in her church disproved that Glenn Beck followers tend to vote Republican merely because of gods, gays and guns. Sure, this wins over a large portion of them, but it doesn't explain how the Republican Party is able to win over people like my grandmother, who were once hardcore Democrats and never fell prey to such hate-baiting tactics in the past.
My grandmother is a registered Democrat, the widow of a union leader and local Democratic leader, whom my mother claimed must have rolled over in his grave when he heard my grandmother voted for a Republican. My uncle Billy comes from the same place; growing up, he told me that we needed to abolish both parties and form a worker's party, due to his deep distrust of both major parties.
The right has been winning over working-class whites by fostering hate since Richard Nixon. They are good at targeting groups. However, there has always been an equal number of white working-class people who never fail prey to such fear-mongering tactics. They voted for plenty of the most elite sounding northeastern liberals like Michael Dukakis because they knew Republicans were on the side of big corporations - the true elitists. However, this has all changed dramatically in the last 20 years because Republicans are actively targeting those working-class people using a different appeal.
The county where my grandmother is from -Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania - in 1988 voted for card-carrying ACLU member Michael Dukakis by an 11 point margin of victory, yet voted for McCain in 2008 by a 17 point margin. What happened in between, you might ask?
Tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs disappeared, and Westmoreland County was turned into a degraded version of its former self. Democrats on the national level did nothing in response to challenge the corporate ideology that wiped out their community and their way of life.
Glenn Beck followers tend to primarily be these inhabitants of the "bitter towns" who lost faith in government. As my colleague Sara Robinson points out, why would working-class people trust a government that is "so clearly rigged to suck money straight out of their pockets into the tax-free offshore bank accounts of the wealthy - who, of course, turn right around and use that money to buy off our government"?
The fight then becomes over who controls government, and cable TV news presents them with faces that fight the Ivy League liberal-elite stereotypes. Glenn Beck and his followers attack liberals as being out-of-touch Ivy League elitists, neglecting to mention that most prominent conservatives are also Ivy Leaguers.
We respond by calling the other side "stupid" in cable news sound byte clips, and they respond back at us by calling us "elitists"; this quickly devolves into an endless series of glorified name calling.
As Matt Taibbi notes in his must-read piece "Sarah Palin - WWE Star," about the soap operatization of politics via cable news:
What we call "politics" has devolved into a kind of ongoing, brainless soap opera about dueling cultural resentments, and the really cool thing about it, if you're a TV news producer or a talk radio host, is that you can build the next day's news cycle meme around pretty much anything at all, no matter how irrelevant ...
And while some of us are old enough to remember that once upon a time these arguments always had at least some sort of ideological flavor to them, i.e. the throwdowns were at least rooted in some sort of real political issue (war, taxes, immigration, etc.) we've now got a whole generation that is accustomed to screaming at cultural enemies as an end in itself, for the sheer dismal fun of it.
This is the dilemma that relying on impersonal communications leaves us in. Cable news and other forms of electronic communication tend to win ratings using name calling and conflict. The blogosphere has done incredible things in educating the base, educating a young net savvy generation, funding political causes and holding cable news personalities like Lou Dobbs accountable. However, it hasn't changed the fundamental dynamic of cultural resentment between social and economic classes that cable news breeds. In some way, the Internet fuels it even more - just Google Sarah Palin and you'll see what I'm talking about. Cable news breeds a cultural resentment that creates a sense of distrust between college-educated liberals and potential allies in the working-class communities. In order to restore trust in government, we must restore trust in the people that are supposed to run government - ourselves.
In his famous book "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam shows that trust among people disappears when members of different socio-economic classes don't interact and get to know each other through social organizations. He aptly names his book "Bowling Alone," based on the statistics that more Americans are bowling than at any time, but in fewer and fewer bowling leagues. What we need to do to rebuild trust among classes is to bring people into organizations where they can realize through interaction their shared interests.
Currently, there is only one place in America where illegal immigrants and Glenn Beck followers sit down together on a regular basis and fight for their collective self interests - the halls of organized labor. Unions unite people behind shared self-interest and a common social purpose: making their jobs better - something we all desire. Through working together, they gain trust of one another and are less likely to be victims of conservative scare tactics.
The statistics don't lie. Obama won by 23 points among white, noncollege graduates who belong to a union, even as he lost by 18 points among all white, noncollege voters.
Working-class whites aren't just more likely to vote for progressives when organized labor is strong, so are people of color, women and young people. As the landslide loss of corporate, anti-workers' rights Democrat Creigh Deeds in Virginia shows, working whites will vote for Republicans for cultural reasons when a Democrat fails to stand up for them. However, people of color, women and young people don't have a cultural punching bag in "liberal elites," so when Democrats disappoint, they simply don't vote.
Thus, keeping people from joining unions and thereby upsetting the conservative ruling class that thrives on cultural resentment is the number one goal of conservatives. The biggest barrier for making strong unions is the fact that 30,000 workers are fired from their job every year for trying to join a union. In the United States, an employer has to post a piece of paper saying they fired a worker for trying to a join. As my father, a union organizer, always said, "If the penalty for robbing a bank was you had to post a piece of paper saying you robbed a bank, we'd all be bank robbers!"
Killing the Employee Free Choice Act is the number one priority of the Chamber of Commerce for this reason. It's more urgent for them to squash than climate change and health care reform put together. They know that increased unionization threatens their whole balance of power.
It is time that we realize that the Employee Free Choice Act is this important. The Employee Free Choice Act is not just a union issue. Without a revitalized labor movement, we get bogged down in the cultural wars of TV, and any progressive change we make is unsustainable. We need to create organs of social dialogue.