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Resentment and Aspiration: How Donald and Hillary Explain America’s Dysfunctional Politics

In the first 18 years of my life my parents liked to say that we were part of the middle class.  It brought them pride and helped alleviate the pain and insecurity we dealt with daily. That phrase, middle class, had a way of bestowing status to our family: my father and mother, as Latino immigrants, were happy to have succeeded in starting a family and surviving in the United States.

Unfortunately, reality placed my family more in the realm of the working class—a struggling, need all the income we could get working class.  My father often worked two jobs but too frequently was underemployed or unemployed; my mom worked full time; my siblings got jobs once they were legally able to; I started working for my dad as a house painter when I was 12 and then the day I became 16, I started to work at a fast food restaurant.  Yeah, we were middle class in mind alone not in the real world.

Things had not always been that way.  My father had been a union member in an auto parts factory.  Times were good then.  He ran a side “business” of house painting and he was also briefly a co-franchise owner of a small gas station.  Yeah, three jobs.  My mom did not work. This was the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. Then we moved from New Jersey to Florida in 1978 and then things turned out as already described.

Regret colored our first years in Florida as we remembered New Jersey, believe it or not, as the good old days.  However, soon that nostalgia dissipated to growing alienation as anger, frustration, and fatigue from tough work (try house painting in FLA heat) defined too much of our existence to care for happy remembrances anymore. While not a citizen and unable to vote until later in the 1980s, my father supported Jimmy Carter in 1980 while my mother argued for Reagan.  Both soon aligned with Republican politics despite the contradictions.

Our family and the lives of many Americans were weighed down by enormous debt, poorly paid work, and meager to non-existent health care. I remember quite distinctly my father going to unlicensed dentists to get needed tooth and denture work done because he could not afford anything more.  My father did not go on a vacation between 1984 and 2005, the year of his death, because he could not afford it.  We always had used cars which helped heighten our olfactory and hearing senses as we tried to anticipate the next breakdown.  We did not get central air in our south Florida home until I was 18 (10 years of oscillating fans), and even then, only after getting financial help from my father’s parents.

We took on a second mortgage for some relief but this only revealed the increasing financialization of the economy.  The insecure, low paid work of the service economy only exacerbated our powerless positions and precarious dependencies marked by the constant fight for a living wage.  It’s not rocket science to figure out the major reason for decreasing unionization—too many see the high cost of taking such a risk in the context of rabid managerial anti-unionism.  This is called disciplining the workforce and I am afraid to say that it had a way of redirecting political energy into unproductive arenas.

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Yet my family held on to the notion that we were middle class.  Stubborn you might say but very real nonetheless.  Such an outlook, disconnected from context, helps explain much of the current political consciousness and disposition.  The default demeanor is cynicism and the distorted, contorted, and confused sensibilities of what constitutes reality.  It lends to a politics of two seemingly opposite dynamics: a politics of resentment and a politics of aspiration.  One leads to lashing out, the other to self-blame.

Why this autobiography from a son of immigrant parents?  I wanted to start there as a reflection on the peculiar undercurrents of aspiration and resentment that I believe has shaped much of the vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) and Donald John Trump (DJT).  Namely, years of identity politics and disempowering political economy has hijacked the heart and soul of progressive politics and replaced it with what I have called the politics of aspiration and resentment.

The politics of aspiration makes one fear taking any political action to improve one’s condition like unionizing and leads one to doubt the ability of any politician to change the status quo.   The politics of resentment also depends on fear but it seeks to scapegoat and simplify while reducing politics to a cult of personality.  Both originate in efforts to maintain hierarchy and thus are two sides of the same coin.  DJT represents the macho, people’s magnate; HRC is the maternal, professional member of the elite.  Both mock democracy though the nature of their condescension confuses the electorate into believing that a meaningful difference exists.

Class understood as identity rather than an articulation of political and economic power or lack thereof is the fog that impedes clear sight.  Blinded by meaningless cultural gestures embedded in bourgeois assumptions, weakened by insecurity and financial entanglements, and consistently miseducated about the nature of power, much of the American electorate has checked out intellectually to challenge the status quo.  The Sanders’ insurgency provides hope as a promising first step of transforming that apparent insurmountable problem.

Bernie Sanders’ message often hits deaf ears, so to speak, not because the problems he seeks to confront are not true or real but because too much of the public is mired in dramatic identity politics or unable to connect the dots—years of dumbed down education has made too many incapable to do the analytical work necessary to see how power actually operates.  And really, who has the time when Americans are juggling so much between work, family, and play?

Resentment lends to blanket blame and too often to conspiracy and aspiration leads to conformity.  The beauty of conspiracy theories, for example, are their neat and simple explanatory applicability to all situations and yet never quite uncovering anything.  Its intellectual relative is conventional thought and the cult of the possible, an equivalent of running in place but often framed as pragmatic strategy.

The media plays its role in this great project of miseducation so as to ironically sabotage democracy.  Imagine if CNN had devoted ten percent of its time covering why the primary process and super delegates are wholly undemocratic.  Hard, I know, but that silence speaks volumes. The politics of resentment and aspiration function as the coordinates that keep much of the electorate locked in a perpetual holding pattern, never quite able to land on the precise issues causing vast inequity and inequality.

The obsession with DJT is sadly an effective distraction to keep everyone off the scent of what really ails the United States. His candidacy is the embodiment of identity politics and distorted political economy.  His Democratic counterpart is HRC.  The media hails one as the heir apparent and the other as a throwback fascist demagogue.  The real losers are the American electorate.

No matter how much evidence mounts up to reveal HRC’s dependency on Wall Street or cultish faith in neoliberalism (including microloans, free trade, and welfare reform) and DJT’s equaling appalling business record regarding pay and environmental destruction, nothing sticks.  Sanders offers lengthy discussion of the destruction of austerity politics and neoliberalism and the vast majority of the media offers the equivalent reaction of a deer caught in headlights.  Paralyzed, they seem to need smoking gun evidence of a Wall Street suit passing a suitcase to HRC with money falling out of it marked “Protect Wall Street” to understand Sanders’ association; DJT gets a pass on economics but the media loves to gossip about his lack of political correctness.

Only one candidate represents a real threat to the status quo and that is the one challenging austerity policies and the ruling elite.  Bernie Sanders fires up real fear in the DNC and RNC, even if their cynical derision and painfully obvious avoidance suggests he is not a serious force.  Don’t believe that for a second.  Sanders is a real Mr. Smith goes to Washington and for that he is deemed too dangerous to cover, at least in a serious or substantial way.

His widespread success reflects how much his argument is resonating: why can’t the richest country create a more equitable and just society?  That the youth of America are catching on and so many across other ages and cultural groups (Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Whites) appreciate Sanders’ honesty suggests that he is striking a powerful chord.  Maybe, just maybe things are now starting to turn in the right direction.

More articles by:

Thomas Castillo, Lecturer in United States History, University of Maryland and a full time academic advisor.  He is currently completing a book manuscript entitled, “The Right to Work: Class Struggle in Magic City Miami, 1914-1946″, a social history of class and power in Florida that critically analyzes how conservatives co-opted the term “right to work” distorting its original positive and progressive connotation. 

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