The argument is simple: large segments of the US working population once belonged to unions. In those unions, we found power, but we also found community. And while a lot of attention has been paid to the power we lost as union membership declined, we have spent much less time talking about how we lost that sense of togetherness, that sense of solidarity that unions provided. And what has replaced that community, in many cases, has been a dangerous form of right-wing conspiracy worship in the form of militia membership, Qanon, and anti-government lunacy in a variety of forms.
Historian Kevin Gannon, who many remember from the Netflix documentary 13th, joined The Rick Smith Show to talk about how this happened, beginning with those who could have fought it, should have fought it, but mostly chose to sit it out, and how that choice was perceived:
Rick: “[Workers] want somebody who they perceive is going to fight for them, even if it’s the wrong fight.”
Rick: “If there’s a street fight, [the Democrats] will offer to hold your coat. Maybe. I want somebody who’s gonna ball up their digits and get in there and mix it up.”
Kevin: “The Democrats stopped fighting for them because the Democrats have stopped fighting for the working class … period.”
Kevin continued, turning to the subject of how the right co-opted those old coalitions and transformed them into a population that now votes for the very people who have been taking power away from working people for generations:
Kevin: “[The] working class […] is the most powerful multi-racial coalition in this country and when you have white workers who […] feel alienated and are committed to having somebody fight for them and then the right says “We’ll fight for you because you’re white,” well, you’re still fighting for me, so all the potential that is embedded in working-class politics and good progressive union-oriented working-class politics has been co-opted for the last several decades.”
Rick: “[T]his is where unions served a real purpose. It brought people together. It got people to join into a common interest and that common interest is better wages, hours, conditions, better opportunities for our families, better communities. That was the what drew us together and as Republican policy – and some Democratic policy […] Democrats were responsible for the destruction of unions too – destroyed the union’s ability to bring people together, those people sought other things out. And that’s how you end up with the Q-kooks and all these right-wing militia groups and all of this insanity that’s out there.”
While no one argues that this is the entire reason for the rise of the conspiracy culture we now live in, none can argue that this is not a significant factor in how we ended up where we are today. It’s an important discussion, and one that isn’t going away any time soon.
To hear the rest of Rick and Kevin’s conversation, the podcast is available below:
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