I was raised in a working class home. My father toiled for over thirty years as an aircraft mechanic, and before that he was a truck driver and a salesman. Before that, he served in the Navy during World War II. To join the Navy, he dropped out of high school in his senior year.
Dad was a registered Democrat, as most people in quasi-Southern state Oklahoma tended to be in the 1960s, if you get my mortified drift. But I don't think I ever remember him voting for the Democratic candidate in a presidential election. I mean, this is a man who put a “Goldwater for President” bumper sticker on my tricycle. I'm serious. On the local level, though, he voted Democratic and Republican, based on whomever he thought was the best candidate. And that's the way that it should be.
However, as I reached adulthood, I noticed that the people Dad was voting for for president really didn't represent his economic interests very well-- and that meant they didn't serve MY economic interests very well, as someone who wanted to go to college from this working class household. They tried to destroy the power of working people to band together in unions to demand fair wages and benefits. In fact, their rhetoric demonized the phrase “working people” as a kind of shorthand for “communists who want to redistribute wealth.” Of course working people want to redistribute wealth! If it’s their labor that enriches corporations and CEOs, they should be paid wages that reflect that! My father climbed through the fuselages of commercial aircraft for over thirty years. He studied diagrams of wiring and schematics and took tests continually. He came home reeking of sweat, covered with metal shavings that cut his skin hundreds of times before he could shower them off. His labor made those planes fly.
How could it be American to claim that he was just a sucker who was spoiled in asking to be able to bargain collectively with his fellows for a fair wage and benefits? Who benefited from the anti-worker policies of the last 40 years? Let’s see. In 1980, the average differential between workers’ salaries and CEO salaries was 42. This means that CEOs earned 42 times more than their average workers’ salaries. Now, fine, CEOs have more education and decision-making responsibility, so they should be compensated for that. Okay. But by 2005, that multiplier was up to 411. That could be justified if corporate earnings had increased at a similar rate, perhaps, but they haven’t. And workers’ wages have stagnated as unions have been depicted as crime-infested communist fifth columns—and many working class and middle class voters have bought it! Genius!
These administrations and congressmen that my Dad voted for wanted to alleviate requirements that corporations actually fund their pension plans, and wanted to encourage shifting the options for people to save for their retirement into stock-market based plans. These plans were good for the corporations, because more people would then buy their stock, which would then reward their shareholders. It was perfect! Not only would employees' toil enrich the corporation, but they would reinvest their wages into company stock, which would then make them work harder because their retirement would depend upon the success of the company in the stock market as well as in the greater marketplace (And if you think those two things are merely synonymous, you are cute.)
These same administrations for which my Dad voted came up with a brilliant strategy. They would get working class people to vote for their anti-working class administrations through a bugaboo of social issues. "Gun ownership!" my dad cried-- but we had one rusty squirrel gun from circa 1908. "Criminals loose on the streets!" But we left our cars unlocked and our house unlocked and the worst thing that ever happened to us, crime-wise, was that someone once stole our dog. A guy once tried to back a truck up to our house and steal some lawn equipment, but our neighbor who was built like a gorilla started questioning him and the guy split.
Then there was this gold mine: "Abortion!" You know, we never knew anyone who got one, but there was still something strange about the political career of this issue. Republican administrations have controlled Washington for 28 of the last 40 years, but abortion really seemed worthy of a few loud platitudes only at election time. It was especially good to get Catholics and fundamentalist Christians to vote Republican contrary to the teaching of their religion in almost every other area (And, Catholics, if you don’t believe me, try a few of these: Laborem Exercens
, Mater et Magistra
, Pacem in Terris
, Populorem Progressio
. And to all Christians, try looking up how many admonishments there are regarding justice for the poor in both Testaments, and then try looking for the term “abortion” in Holy Scriptures. Try online concordances—it’ll be quicker. I’ll wait.). Strange that in all that time, what was talked about so loudly before the first week in November every four years suddenly disappeared as an action item immediately after that. It seemed that Republicans had very little interest in actually eliminating abortion, because then how could they distract voters into voting against their economic self-interest? The majority of the judiciary of this country have been appointed by Republican presidents. Abortion hasn’t disappeared because it is too useful of a political tool. And that surely is evil.
My Dad managed on his very modest wages to put three kids through college, and as long as we got plenty of loans, we made it. But there was no extra to put toward retirement besides the pension plan. Every year, the money covered fewer things, and the corporation was legally allowed to renege on the promises it had made to its retirees. Every year, doctors’ visits and medicine became even more expensive. Every year, property taxes on my parents’ modest little house went up to pay for things that should have been paid for through an equitable tax system. By the time my Dad’s cancer was killing him, he decided to spend $10,000 on a (futile and excruciating) chemotherapy regimen. Eight weeks later, he was dead. But before he died, he admitted that the government he had voted for absolutely didn’t care about people like him. Except to charm their votes from them every few years through the cynical use of issues that, ultimately, don’t matter as much as being able to live in a modest, comfortable, dignified way after a lifetime of back-breaking toil. Toil that has made this country great and powerful. Toil that is sneered at by the conservative elites
who dress up their disdain for American working people by plunking hardhats on their heads or by clutching dead pheasant carcasses every now and again so that they can masquerade as being “just like us.”
And here's the secret: taxes pay for good things as well as bad things. The trick is to demand that our government not spend money it doesn't have and then use that irresponsibility to cut services the government SHOULD be providing to all of us. If only we weren't distracted by a load of stalking horse issues that disguise the very dangerous and irresponsible economic agenda of the GOP-- an agenda that has gotten us into a very real crisis today.
My Dad was a hard-working American. He deserved better policies from his government in exchange for his precious vote.
Maybe that’s why people like the make-believe “Joe the Plumber” bother me so much. This man supports anti-worker policies and then wonders why he can’t get ahead. He hasn’t undergone the training that is required to be a plumber, but claims that Democratic policies are what’s holding him down. He claims that Obama would prevent him from buying the plumbing business for which he works while omitting that he doesn’t have the training (or, frankly the funds) to do so, nor even to be a licensed plumber to begin with. And he doesn't have the sense to know that neither McCain nor Obama have anything to do with his failure to pay his OHIO state income taxes.
"Joe the Plumber" isn't real. My Dad was.