The Myth of Unity
Last week the workers at a Mississippi Nissan auto plant voted against unionizing. In the country as a whole union membership is at an all-time low. At the same time the pay of working people is more or less what it has been for the last 50 years while the pay of plant managers, bank managers, and managers in all sorts of other branches of business has skyrocketed.
There are many reasons for this disproportionate enrichment of the upper-class and the stagnant wages of the people who produce things, or who do the paperwork necessary to keep this economy going. But surely one of them is the belief on the part of many working people that management is on their side and that unions are not.
This is just one example of what is striking about the American political landscape. Large numbers of voters do not seem to see where their interests lie. Donald Trump, a multimillionaire, who wants to cut the taxes on the rich and reduce assistance to the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the elderly, has the support of millions of Americans who work hard for a scanty living. They expect their lot to be alleviated by the representative of a class that is responsible for their deprivations in the first place.
Donald Trump is a member of the class of employers. Both in real life and in Reality TV he takes great pleasure in firing employees. Like other employers he is interested in depressing wages. Any person of limited income who supports Donald Trump is voting against his or her pressing interests.
People voting against their interest is a common phenomenon in our political system. There has been vocal support for abolishing Obama care among people who had health insurance for the first time thanks to this law. There is opposition to Social Security and other social safety net features among its beneficiaries. A lot of voters don't seem to know when they are relatively well-off.
These many different instances of voters being unaware of where their interests lie are a consequence of a grand deception that many Americans have bought into. Americans think of themselves as one people, "united under God." Politicians constantly talk about what "the American people will not stand for" or what "the American people demand." We have one flag and that flag is very important to many people. We have one national anthem (which few people can sing all the way through.) We have one government.
This mythology about being one nation, one people, might be fairly innocuous. People believe all sorts of weird stuff and that does not really matter. You may believe that there should not be fluoride in the drinking water. But there are other ways in which you can protect your children's teeth. You may think that your children will grow up more peaceful if they don't play with guns. (But when they are grown, those same children may still sign up to serve in the military.)
The mythology of national unity becomes destructive and dangerous when it obscures the divisions of our nation which makes some groups the enemies of others. In many situations the people who manage a workplace have interests diametrically opposed to the people who work for them. They do not belong to the same nation in any important sense.
Nissan built its auto plants in Mississippi where many people are very poor and good jobs are hard to get. That allowed them to recruit a docile workforce – people who thought that Nissan management cared for them, when in fact it only wanted people willing to work for low wages.
Donald Trump wanted to get elected and to be loved. The people who voted for him thought that they belong to the same nation and shared the same interest. They did not understand that it was reasonable for them to be cautious before trusting a millionaire real estate operator to be their best champion.
As long as the myth of one America is powerful among us, voters will ignore the fact that while we have one government, that government has very different relationships to different groups. Our government is largely run and concerned about the interests of large businesses. The interests of the little people, the interests of the people supporting Donald Trump are very far down on the government's list of interests.
The government's interests are in the first place those of white males. If you are a black male, the government is less often and less fervently on your side. Most of the time it doesn't pay attention to you.
In a way everyone knows this. Black Americans know this when the government's police becomes a mortal danger to them. Women know it when the government drags its feet making sure that equal wages for equal work for women becomes a reality. Native Americans, long the victims of broken promises by the US government, know this. Working class men, proudly wearing their Marine Corps t-shirts, nevertheless know that they do no have to live paycheck to paycheck.
But then they turn their back on these facts when they reaffirm a mythical unity on Presidents Day or the Fourth of July. They start thinking again about America as a unified nation. That is a more comfortable thought. Living in a world of constant struggle where suspicions are often justified and there are few people you can trust without careful examination is much harder than living in a world where we are all together and all unified and we can be sure that the other Americans care as much about us as we care about them.
It is difficult for the many young men and women, and for their families, in our Armed forces, many of them in acute danger, to think that they are fighting, not for a united America but for a ruling class using them for its own purposes.
But the united America is a myth. It is important to see the truth that America consists of many nations whose interests are at cross purposes. Some are more powerful and they get most of what they want. Most of us are not powerful and we get very little.
Wake up , America!