My ninth grade civics teacher (also 11th grade history teacher), Burl Johnson, was also a county commissioner and deeply patriotic. This was in the ‘80s, when - as had been true for well over a century - White County was overwhelmingly Democratic. Mr. Johnson said on several occasions that “the Republicans stand for the rich man, and the Democrats stand for the working man.” We’ll skip over the fact he shouldn’t have been making political preference statements in the classroom. My dad used to say the same thing, as did a lot of people around the country. This was especially true during the Depression when FDR was president, pushing through all those social safety net laws, which is probably why, in 2016, people in their 90s (who remembered FDR) were more likely to support Bernie Sanders than Clinton or Trump.
Now, I’ve known (and still know) a lot of wealthy people who were incredibly kind, empathetic, and giving people. Heck, FDR and JFK came from very wealthy backgrounds. Conversely, there are very rich Democrats who give a lot of money to politicians. So you can’t paint people with broad strokes. But, by and large, I agree with the past words of Burl Johnson and my dad: the Republican Party tends to benefit the wealthiest 1 percent way more than the middle or working class. The kind of wealthy people my grandma referred to as “the big shots.”
This hearkens back to my very first entry in this column two years ago, about Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 Virginia. The poor white folks, free black folks, and runaway slaves all came together to rebel against the colonial elites, and it was barely suppressed. Southern colonies then began to pass laws meant to divide white workers from black ones and pit them against each other. The implicit promise the elites gave to poor whites was “stick on our side, you’re one of us, we’re better than THEM.” The Populist movement of the 1890s made some temporary cracks in that dividing wall, as did FDR’s New Deal.
More bricks were put in the wall, though, first by Nixon and then by Reagan (look up “the Southern Strategy,” or Reagan’s speeches about “young bucks” and “welfare queens”). Republicans inundated the white middle-and-working class with “others” to be scared of and have only ramped it up in recent years. As LBJ said, this was a tactic to distract them so they didn’t notice their pocket was being picked. Remember all that stuff I wrote about the white middle class feeling abandoned and betrayed beginning in the 90s? That was because of Republican economic policies - but there were GOP politicians and pundits constantly giving them other people to blame. People who were different. “Black people want to live off your tax money!” “Immigrants want to take your jobs!” “LGBTQ people are… are wearing dresses!”
Many liberals have done themselves no favors by appearing to drip with contempt at the “backwardness” of the working class. They, too, have added some bricks to that wall. Not NEARLY as many, true, but bricks nonetheless… reinforcing the idea that liberals think the white working class is stupid and evil, which only pushes them farther into the camp of those who are using them.
Drag queens, immigrants, and minorities are neither hurting you nor holding you down. Billionaires whose only concern is making more money (and keeping it all)… that’s who is behind your economic woes. Your other woes are only imagined - exaggerated fears planted in your mind to keep you voting against your own real interests.
Farmers, factory workers, immigrants, minorities… and yes, LGBTQ people (drag queens included), and wealthy people like the Roosevelts and Kennedys …no matter their color or race… should all be on the same side. Against the big shots, the real elites, trying to keep everyone else down so they can make one more buck. THEY are the “dividers.”
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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