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Capitol Assault, Shay’s Rebellion and the Footballs of Mass Consciousness

| Steve Clark |

After 57 percent of white voters went for Trump in November and, then, a section of them stormed the Capitol this week, progressive people are asking, “What is the deal with white Americans?”

It’s a good question. Obviously, Trump made it ok to stand up for white supremacy, and he made conspiracy theory into a fine art. And he turned out his voters. But, it would be unfair and counterproductive to label them all “deplorable.” How should we assess the state of White America?

A crucial first step is to recognize that American society — along with the section that voted for Trump — is the on-going interplay of its three adult generations (Boomers, GenXers and Millennials), each of which has a unique character.

Only among the oldest generation, age 65+ (the Boomers), did Trump win a majority of votes (52%). Boomers are an idealistic generation, and, whatever their individual politics — left, right or center — each Boomer absolutely believes he or she knows best…and facing, now (late in life), an unsatisfactory end to their lifelong social and political endeavors, Boomers are desperately striving, one last time, to put their ideals into action. This is true of left and right Boomers as well as the middle. While rightwing Boomers are the core, both of Trump’s cabinet and his fan base, far fewer GenXers (45%) and Millennials (35%!) cast votes for him.

A generational conflict of this nature always occurs late in America’s Fourth Turnings, those every-80-year intervals when the evolving generational constellation fosters a mood of social crisis and transformation. Yet, precisely because this conflict emerges in every cycle but to little consequence, we can alleviate fears of it getting out of hand this time around.

Shay’s Rebellion

Take the case of Shay’s Rebellion, during the crisis era of the American Revolution. The colonies had fought a long war and won independence from England in 1783, completing a crucial first step in the Revolution. But the second step, after military victory, was the actual construction of a functional self-government. Initially, the former colonies (led by the era’s elder, idealistic, Awakener generation) set up government under the Articles of Confederation, a structure that left the central government weak (relative to the various states) but appealed to the anti-authoritarian streak that persisted (and still persists) in America’s idealistic psyche. But, without an effective system of finance, the new national government could not discharge its obligations to the younger citizen soldiers who had left home and family to join General Washington in defeating the British. Meanwhile, a postwar debt crisis led state governments to increase taxes on their citizens. Pinched and indignant, a few thousand former soldiers in Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays rebelled and marched on the local armory. State militia provided a strong defense; Shays and others escaped to Vermont but were tried in absentia. Two men in custody were hanged, but, eventually, the rest (including Shays) were pardoned, yet with pariah status. Shays died a lonely alcoholic.

A few years later, in 1791, soon after the Constitution was adopted and Washington became the first President, the Whiskey Rebellion kicked off in western Pennsylvania when the new government imposed the nation’s first federal tax (a whiskey tax). At the time, a host of Revolutionary War veterans had settled on this western frontier, claiming lands granted them as compensation for their wartime service. Led by former Major James McFarland, hundreds of veterans and their followers joined the rebellion, only to be squashed by federal troops sent by Washington. In the final confrontation, McFarland, himself, was killed.

My point, here, is that a large section (possibly, a majority) of the older generations — after defying existing government and demanding its capitulation in the early years of Fourth Turnings — ends up resisting new authority in midstream, even resorting to violence in vain efforts to impede this turnover of history.

We see the same thing, today, in the majority of struggling Boomers who continue to back Trump out of their own need of help and the persistent fear (true, in fact, and nurtured by Trump) that the government is in cahoots with the nation’s elite to cheat them of their rightful due. Most of these abide Trump’s racism because — in the lack of enough government spending to actually ensure their personal security — they feel pitted against minorities in a contest for survival. As one (white) Boomer who has spent most of his life in rebellion against our government’s failures (though enjoying, even in that, the benefits of white and male privilege), I understand anti-authoritarian (anti-government) sentiment, but progressive GenXers and Millennials — for good reason at this late date in our nation’s crisis — are intolerant of such dangerous thinking and destructive antics. If history is a guide, after this week’s showdown at the Capitol, today’s Trumpers will be singled out for the same kind of absolute suppression endured by Shays and McFarland.

Owing to the ongoing generational gestalt, today’s white rightwing oldsters have little chance of enlarging the cultural foothold they gained (over the last four years) through Trump’s articulation of their gripes. They will remain dangerous and sometimes destructive, but the majority of their younger followers will move to the center and left as the government implements programs of genuine social investment while continuing to beat down and lock up elder rightwing leaders.

WVO’s Consciousness Football

The Workers Viewpoint Organization’s consciousness football is another way to evaluate the white voter in America. WVO’s analogy dates to the late 1970s when the young, Boomer-dominated New Left was trying to figure out how to build a revolutionary party. It was obvious that “advanced workers” had to be the target of our outreach and recruitment, but their interconnections and roles relative to the total body of Americans — the masses — was little understood. In contrast to WVO, most leftists viewed the masses (and mass consciousness) as a giant pyramid, with the most advanced at the top and widening strata of less politically astute workers as one moved from the advanced to the middle and, finally, to the backward at the bottom.

WVO attacked the pyramid as belittlement of the masses, their consciousness, and their necessary role in social transformation. Noting Chairman Mao’s observation that “the masses are the makers of history” (not the advanced workers or the party, itself), WVO asserted that, far from a pyramid, the consciousness of the masses is shaped like a football.

As in the pyramid, the most advanced workers are a relatively small number, but, unlike in the pyramid, so are the relatively backward workers. The vast majority are the fat sections of the football between the two ends. In normal times, the ends are small in number and of little practical consequence, dominated by the mainstream in the middle. But, in times of crisis, the football elongates. The center is squeezed, and more people are pushed toward both ends. The backward and the advanced grow in number and activity, becoming more crucial in the political dynamics of the middle. Yet, the middle remains the largest section, and, ultimately, the way it moves determines the course of history. While its passive normalcy anchors the nation’s politics “in the middle” most of the time, in Fourth Turnings, it shifts left and right, until it finally draws a verdict on its true leaders and locks itself, to one end of the football or the other, for the duration of the turn.

Early in this Fourth Turning, after 9/11, neoconservative Boomers (Bush et al) got their shot at power, but their proposed resolution — a democratic renaissance in Iraq after a US invasion — proved not only imaginary but disastrous, and our nation stumbled along with centrist, neoliberal leadership (Obama) in Bush’s wake. Eight years into that, with their personal situations devolving, American voters, in desperation, took a deal with the devil (Trump) that promptly descended into chaos.

Minds Clear Now

However, with George Floyd’s murder on May 25 — and the nationwide rebellion against police violence that ensued — the middle sections of the American people largely cleared their minds. Aroused in the midst of a pandemic by one too many video-taped police killing of unarmed black men, America’s middle shifted its support to Black Lives Matter, and when Trump tried to mobilize the US military behind his call for law and order, the generals stood with the people and rebuked him. That was coup attempt number 1. Last week, desperate in his final weeks, he tried it again, also in utter failure.

The racist diehards who enjoyed a resurgence under Trump will now crawl back — or be beat back — into their old confines, but the beat-down will succeed only if the majority of white Trump voters are given the opportunity to join the rest of the nation in finding good, secure jobs in post-pandemic, post-industrial society. For this, the Biden Administration must step boldly forward with programs like the Green New Deal and a federal Job Guarantee. If white Trump voters see and enjoy real opportunity in their own lives, they will embrace intersectional collaboration for the greater good. That is the nature of the middle forces, whatever their race, ethnicity or gender, whatever the time in history.

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