In the book chapter, “How to Talk to Your Conservative Brother-in-Law”, the filmmaker and author Michael Moore in his 2003 book entitled Dude, Where’s My Country? offers advice to the reader on ways in which someone who identifies as a ‘liberal’ could have productive dialogues with a family member who is staunchly ‘conservative’ in their politics. He suggests how several ongoing political topics that instill fear and anger among conservatives could be framed differently by liberals, a category which Moore conflates with ‘the left’ - which I previously addressed.
Conservative fear nr. 1: Liberals love to tax others
The first ‘trigger’ topic that seems to ignite conservatives’ fears and anxieties is the notion that liberals love to tax people – seemingly though not the 1%, but rather the ‘ordinary’ working person who, like most of us, live from paycheck to paycheck – or now in our digital age, direct deposit to direct deposit. Moore implicitly draws on the neoliberal discourse (which has become hegemonic since the 1980s due to politicians such as Thatcher and Reagan) that liberals want to bleed working people dry with onerous and, in some people’s opinion, superfluous taxes.
To counter this notion, he counsels the reader who identifies as liberal that one should “first, and foremost, assure your conservative friends or relatives that you do not want their money” (p. 187). This ideologically-instilled fear of higher taxes advocated by a liberal social-welfare state has led to many working Americans to embrace the tax cuts espoused and implemented by the Right.
In the past two years they may have received a modest amount of tax refunds on their income (usually no more than a few hundreds of US dollars). But what has gone up are their health insurance annual premiums, since the US, as most people know, does not have universal health care for people under 65 years of age.
These insurance premium increases have effectively negated any tax refund so that Americans are paying more out of their pocket than in years past. Moreover, the tax cuts that have been far higher relative to the 1%’s income in the past 35 years or so have led to crumbling infrastructure of highways and public transportation, defunding public education, the closing of public libraries, and so forth.
An ideologically-instilled fear of higher taxes advocated by a liberal social-welfare state has led to many working Americans to embrace the tax cuts espoused and implemented by the Right.
So, instead of repeating and perpetuating the neoliberal trope that the government “is not the solution, it is the problem” (in Ronald Reagan’s famous inaugural speech) because it only wants your (tax) money, how about instead re-framing it that it’s not the government that wants your money, but the system known as ‘capitalism’?
Ask your conservative family member or friend if they feel they’re getting “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”? If they say yes, then ask, “OK, do you know how much the CEO (chief executive officer) of your company makes?” If they don’t know, tell them the average salary of a CEO in the US is now about 300 times the rank-and-file worker’s salary. Now ask, “Do you think that CEO works 300 times harder than you to deserve that kind of salary? Is he (and it’s almost always a ‘he’) worth that much more to the company? He’s worth more than 300 of you and your co-workers?”
Democracy: for real?
This could open up a dialogue on how people view their workplace. If you ask Americans if they believe in democracy, I believe most would say “of course!” Perhaps you could then ask how they define ‘democracy’: “OK, what is democracy to you? Just showing up every year or two to vote at a polling place only to have many elected officials disregard the majority of our voices? Or is it something more? How about your workplace? Is democracy there, where every worker has a democratic say and vote in how much everyone including your boss should get paid? How much bonus would everyone get if the products of your surplus labor brings in profits to the company? Does everyone have a vote on who gets promoted or how much time off for workers during the year? In connection with your workplace, could your community collectively and democratically decide what is best for everyone; for example, in terms of the environmental factors of the local workplace, how its pollutants might affect your community? If all this sounds good to you, then you believe in a democracy at the workplace.”
"Socialism literally means the “social” – that is, you and me working together to make our world work for you and me and not the 1%.” Try this with your conservative friend and/or family member and let me know how it works.
Now, the question would be, if your conservative friend and/or family member agrees with all of this, would it then be feasible to say, “Cool, and by the way, this idea of a democracy at the workplace actually has a name – it’s called socialism. Yeah, that’s right, socialism. Forget about what you heard about it from the media or your high school textbooks. Socialism literally means the “social” – that is, you and me working together to make our world work for you and me and not the 1%.” Try this with your conservative friend and/or family member and let me know how it works.
In the mid-1930s, the writer George Orwell researched, worked, and lived with several working-class communities in the industrial north of England for his book project The Road to Wigan Pier. One of his many poignant observations stemming from his sociological work is that “the ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party that means business” (p. 182).
Orwell attributes this to the at-times condescending attitude of some liberals and leftists towards those who disagree with them. He wrote, “possessing a technique which seems to explain everything, [Marxists] do not often bother to discover what is going on inside other people’s heads” (pp. 186-187). And perhaps not much has changed since then because 60 years after The Road to Wigan Pier was published, Stuart Hall (1996) said pretty much the same thing:
“It is critical intellectuals, locked into their own kind of cultural elitism, who have often succumbed to the temptation to give an account of the Other - the masses - in terms of false consciousness or the banalization of mass culture, etc...But the politics which follows from saying that the masses are nothing but a passive reflection of the historical, economical and political forces which have gone into the construction of modern industrial mass society, seems to me historically incorrect and politically inadequate. I would say quite the opposite. The silent majorities do think; if they do not speak, it may be because we have taken their speech away from them, deprived them of the means of enunciation, not because they have nothing to say” (p. 140).
On this, I would concur with Michael Moore’s advice that one should “admit that the left has made mistakes” (p. 189).
Us and Them
I also agree with Michael Moore’s important piece of advice to liberals: that in making any political arguments to conservatives, in order to appeal to them you must frame it as being “about them and for them” (p. 187). However, this raises the question of who exactly is “them”? This is where the main confusion lies, not only for those who identity as liberals, but also those who identify as leftists or socialists. A good part of this confusion around who is “them” is due to the problematic notion of who are the ‘middle class’ and who are the ‘working class’. In the historical context of Europe and the US, the terms ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class became the normative social categories during the 19th century.
In the historical context of Europe and the US, the terms ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class became the normative social categories during the 19th century.
Raymond Williams (1983) in his Keywords, wrote that the term ‘middle class’ indeed “implied hierarchy and therefore implied lower class: not only theoretically but in repeated practice” which has become “an expression of relative social position and thus of social distinction” (p. 65). In contrast, the term ‘working class’ has become widely accepted as “an expression of economic relationships” and “implied productive or useful activity, which would leave all who were not working class unproductive and useless (easy enough for an aristocracy, but hardly accepted by a productive middle class). To this day this confusion reverberates”(p. 65, emphasis in original).
Yet, despite these different notions, it is important to talk to people (including your conservative friend and/or family member) who identify with either middle or working class that they both “sell and are dependent on their labor”, which “is the point of critical overlap between the models and the terms” (p. 66).
So, this is the “them”, or rather, the “us” – whether one identifies as ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’, or ‘leftist’: the overwhelming majority of us who need to sell our labor on a daily basis to pay our bills for food, housing, and all the other reproductions of everyday life in order to live. But this notion of ‘middle’ class has divided those working people who identify as such from their fellow workers who have been ‘working’ class their whole lives. Again, it was George Orwell in his Road to Wigan Pier, who asked:
“How many of the wretched shivering army of clerks and shopwalkers, who in some ways are actually worse off than a miner or a dock-hand, think of themselves as proletarians? A proletarian – so they have been taught to think – means a man without a collar. So that when you try to move them by talking about ‘class war’, you only succeed in scaring them; they forget their incomes and remember their accents, and fly to the defence of the class that is exploiting them” (pp. 226-227).
Let us move beyond this division of ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class, because as Orwell put it so brilliantly, “it directs attention away from the central fact that poverty is poverty, whether the tool you work with is a pick-axe or a fountain pen” (p. 229).
Hall, S. (1996). On postmodernism and articulation: an interview with Stuart Hall. In D. Morley
& K. H. Chen (Eds.), Stuart Hall: Critical dialogues in cultural studies (pp. 131-150). London:
Moore, M. (2003).Dude, Where’s My Country? New York: Warner Books, Inc.
Orwell, G. (1937/1958). The Road to Wigan Pier. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society (Rev. ed.).New York:
Oxford University Press.