My Think Again column this week is called “The Contours and Context of the Conservative Class War in Wisconsin” and you can find it here.
Now here’s Reed:
America’s Crab-pot Mentality
Last Saturday, as tens of thousands of public employees rallied at the Wisconsin state capitol in what is now a continuing series of impressive protests against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, a few thousand counter-protesters also showed up to make their voices heard. In the latters’ eyes, the unions’ ongoing occupation of the capitol and state Senate Democrats’ refusal to allow the Wisconsin legislature a voting quorum are not so much an impressive exercise of First Amendments rights as they are a repulsive symptom of a privileged class run amok. And despite the fact that many of these counter-protesters had ridden to Madison on buses organized and paid for by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, they nonetheless stood in the cold, and without any apparent trace of irony, generally accused the public employees across from them of being conceited, un-American money-grubbers.
This paragraph from the NY Times article on last Saturday’s dueling protests in Madison pretty much sums up the political moment this country is having right now:
“‘You don’t care about this country! Shame on you, you’re selfish,’ one supporter of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal told union supporters, wagging his finger as he spoke. Moments later, a union supporter addressed the other side: ‘What’s wrong with you people?’"
I believe this question isn’t merely rhetorical, but a legitimate one worthy of understanding. Indeed, it’s worth understanding just exactly how our country has arrived at a place where poor and middle-class folks willingly engage in internecine class warfare against one another, with one side essentially acting as a cat’s paw for mega-wealthy conservatives intent on undermining every worker protection in existence.
For a helpful illustration of this behavior, consider the crab pot analogy. Place one crab in an open pot (or trap) and it can usually climb its way up and out with ease. But if you add a second crab or even a few more, no crabs will escape. Why? Because as soon as one crab starts to achieve some success in getting out, the others will pull it back down into the pot in a desperate competitive display of every crab for itself. In other words, by viewing survival as a zero-sum experience—where one’s success (or smaller amount of sacrifice) is seen as an unfair punishment for everyone else—these crabs act in a way that ensures that they all perish.
Of course, crabs behave this way because it’s in their nature, we humans don’t have such a convenient excuse. Thomas Frank in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, addressed what he saw as a broad swath of that state’s citizens succumbing to populist, conservative messaging in direct contrast to their best interests. (His conclusions, it should be noted, weren’t without their flaws.) But I see what’s going on now as something different than what he explored—rather than a choice by some in the middle-class to willingly choose self-inflicted wounds, it’s a desire to see others suffer to the same degree. So, what’s driving this zeal for middle-class economic Schadenfreude?