A couple of years ago, working-class Americans did that by electing Donald Trump as president. It’s no surprise, anybody with eyes could have seen it coming, and maybe they did, but they didn’t do anything about it. From 2010 to 2013 the Association of Democratic State Chairs was regularly called to task by the Chair of the Wyoming Democrats for paying attention to every minority but working-class Americans. The Democrats didn’t want to hear it, but they have now.
Consider how working-class people felt: they worked hard all their lives, often at not very rewarding jobs – often at jobs they might lose at any moment. They seemed to get further in debt and lose confidence in themselves when all they were trying to do was get ahead, to have a better life. They were lost between the values of the different political parties.
Democrats were doing their best to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged Americans, but not the lives of the working class. Republicans were doing their best to make it easier for people at the top of the heap to make more money and make it faster. Working people got the message.
They got the message of international trade agreements like NAFTA, and it wasn’t the official message that by creating jobs in poorer countries, their citizens would be able to afford to buy American goods. It could have worked if Americans had kept making things, but many of the production jobs went overseas. These treaties were not written by elected representatives of working-class Americans, they were written by the industrial powers of the world and administered by the World Trade Organization.
Until only recently, government subsidized healthcare was provided only to the poor and the elderly. If you were still working and pulling your weight, you could buy as much health insurance as you could afford, which most working people could not. If they could, it was expensive. If they couldn’t, they were one serious illness away from bankruptcy. If they had a pre-existing condition, they couldn’t get it covered. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has made that better, but more could still be done.
Higher education was touted as the way to a better life, and if you got a college degree, whole new worlds would open for you. And when people with college degrees wound up working as janitors, the solution was to get an even higher college degree.
But college cost money, and those who got a college education wound up with loan debts that took decades to pay off. Colleges made money, college tuition lenders made money, and students got a piece of paper that said they were smart. Society seemed to place a premium on only highly educated people.
It didn’t place a premium on unskilled labor. It didn’t even place a premium on skilled labor, and the institutions that could teach such skills were underfunded and looked on as providing a second-class education. That, at last, is beginning to change and the former vo-techs are now given the status of colleges and getting government funding. Proudly, Montana has been one of the leaders in the movement.
But the message is still there for working Americans. The political parties are still run by the monied interests, the same interests that sold families mortgages they couldn’t realistically afford and then kicked them out of their homes when they couldn’t pay. The same monied interests that only ten years ago caused the second greatest financial crisis in American history. Millions of working Americans lost their life savings, but the people responsible didn’t go to jail.
Working people know who’s been writing the rules, and it hasn’t been them. By electing Trump in 2016 and a Democratic House in 2018, they have shaken up both political parties. Something may get done, but it won’t get done unless working people keep the pressure on politicians of both parties.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.