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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Capitols Under Attack—How Did We Reach This Point?

 By Bill Street

The sound of breaking glass can be terrifying, be it in the capitol building in Salem, D.C., or in a dorm room in Lenoir Rhyne, North Carolina 50 years ago. Of course when it happened to me, I ran to the windows (which with hindsight was truly stupid) to see a half dozen pickup trucks, about 20 men in white hoods and a cross burning in front of the dorm, the place where I was sleeping.

Their motivation was no different than the deluded Oregonians who attempted to seize our state capitol or those who looted the capitol in D.C. All three groups across both generations and weeks had been convinced (or convinced themselves) that their acts were patriotic. They had to defend this nation from the “other,” from change, from the enemy.

They were and are mostly small men. They are small because they are afraid. They have chosen to follow a leader who offers salvation and gives them someone to blame for their life. They are given simple solutions to complex problems that are, in all three cases, literally black and white.

How did we get here?  Following World War II, Hungarian Karl Polanyi published a book in 1944 that remains as relevant today as it was then. He documented the transformation from a society served by a market-based economy to a society controlled by a market-based economy. He concluded that democratic forms of governance and unregulated markets assist in creating the conditions which lead to the rise of fascism. Witness 20th-century Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan (to a degree), the US (multiple times) and many times since for direct confirmation.

In a society controlled by the logic of the market, profits are more important than people. Given the choice of saving a business or saving a person, society chooses to save the business. When people are put ahead of business, such as during this pandemic, the backlash is large and instantaneous. Government efforts to create economic equity are met with cries for a balanced budget and deregulation. In the midst of a global pandemic, workers are sent into super-spreader workplaces to process hams and chickens where management bets on which worker will contract the virus.

For Polanyi, indicators of a fertile climate for fascism include: “irrationalistic philosophies, racialist aesthetics, anti capitalist demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the (political) party system and widespread disparagement of the ‘regime’.”  Sound familiar?

Even more chilling is his description of the timeline.  

“Yet one significant feature of all its (fascism) organized forms was the abruptness with which they appeared and faded out again, only to burst forth with violence after an indefinite period of latency.”

And abruptness clearly describes the attack on the capitols in Salem and DC. The irrational beliefs fed by years of deceit and fear mongering in terms of the Trump Presidency and the generational fear handed down from father to son in terms of racial prejudice cannot and will not be easily undone. Black lives have never mattered in this country and still do not.

Substantial research tells us that presenting “facts” to conspiracy theorists hardens their belief systems. It is impossible to convince racists that people of color are not the cause of their plight in life. Just as dozens of court cases and audits have failed to convince Trump cult members that he lost an election.

As a political party about to control all three branches of government in D.C. and in Salem what are we to do? Will arresting and prosecuting the leadership of these traitors be enough? If the hatred resides and thrives in the heart of the snake, will cutting off its head eradicate it?

What are our other options? The rise of right-wing, irrational political organizations in Oregon, the U.S. and around the world (it is an international phenomenon, which suggests it is larger than any unique set of issues or actions in any specific country) has followed two longer-term conditions.

One has been the shift of non-university educated voters from alliance with left-leaning political parties to right-leaning political parties. In many EU countries, as well as in the US, and most clearly since 1980, non-college educated voters from the dominant social group, (in the US that would be Caucasians),  have increasingly voted for right-of-center and extreme-right political parties and candidates. Following roughly the same time line has been the dramatic rise in economic inequality around the globe.

One possible interpretation of this data could be that left-of-center and center-left political parties stopped listening to and fighting for those who a generation ago we would have labeled as middle class. Under the rubric of the “big tent,” we have sought to expand our base to college-educated professionals and technical, Fortune 500 staff.  In the process we may have helped undermine the most successful coalition in our party’s political history, the one created by Franklin Roosevelt some 80-90 years ago.

We have reached a point, even within our Party here in Clackamas County, that citing FDR’s phrase of “social justice through social action” has become controversial. With few exceptions, neither in the halls of Salem or DC, do we pass legislation aimed to undo the conditions that create “economic royalists,” another creative and meaningful FDR term.

The 70 million US citizens and 958,000 Oregonians who voted for a demagogue, con man, and serial liar must be helped and policies should be created which alter their economic conditions (not perhaps how they would frame the issues).  

Here in Oregon, Timber Unity is using the same playbook as Trump. Mistakes in how we transitioned from a natural-resource economy to an urban, high-tech one have destroyed the social fabric of rural areas in our county, along the coast and in eastern Oregon. Proposed cap-and-trade legislation is another example of identifying the correct issue but failing to comprehend and mitigate the true costs of the needed transition to a green economy.

If we wish to re-invigorate our democracy we need to develop policies that hold harmless workers and communities in that and future transitions. We can save the spotted owl, late succession-stage forests (i.e. old-growth), forestry workers and their rural communities. We just need the political resolve to do so. For if we continue to allow market forces to determine their fate, then we will also be determining our own fate, a terrible specter with our capitols sacked and armed fascists in the streets.

Simply put, when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer then the latter will harshly and emotionally target the authority and system which they feel has put them in such a horrible place. Polanyi’s book is as valid today as it was 76 years ago. Can we learn from it?