America’s Summer of Discontent

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To twist an old joke, what’s worse than a year with a US presidential election? A year with two US presidential elections. On the one hand, thinking about going through two national-level election days in a single calendar year is somewhat mitigated by the fact that our political and infotainment spheres have wrenched us to a point where we’re perpetually in a national election cycle all the time now, as can be easily seen by the cornucopia of news stories about who might run for president in 2024, and how potential candidates are positioning themselves for success even now, three and a half years before the next presidential election. I would argue, though, that the weeks leading up to that actual election day are their own special kind of hell, particularly for those of us who live in the swing states that get the most attention from campaigns and their seemingly endless stream of advertisements. Those are hard enough to deal with every four years; having to live through two of those less than a year apart would be absolutely horrific.

General elections in the United Kingdom aren’t entirely similar to American presidential elections, but as they’re both the most monumental kinds of elections each country has, there is a rough equivalency to be made. In 1974, the UK had to deal with two general elections before year’s end, as the first general election in February resulted in no party holding a clear majority; Labour held 301 seats to the Conservative Party’s 297, but 318 seats were needed for a majority in Parliament at the time, and Labour’s lead in seats was undercut by the fact that Conservatives won the popular vote by nearly a quarter of a million voters. After attempts to form a coalition government failed, Prime Minister Harold Wilson called another general election for October, which resulted in his Labour Party winning 319 seats — just one above the threshold needed for a majority.

Even with a majority, Labour’s hold on the UK was extremely tenuous, and as if the shifting Western political winds of the late 1970’s weren’t enough for Labour to contend with, the winter before the 1979 general election was punctuated by some of the worst weather in recent memory, along with a growing tide of public and private strikes that exacerbated tensions in the country even further. By the time that next general election came about, Labour was due for a shellacking, and the only real question was whether or not the Conservative Party, now being led by Margaret Thatcher, would obtain an outright majority of seats in Parliament. Not only did they get that majority, but they then stayed in power for eighteen years, and by the time Labour finally returned to power under Tony Blair, their centrism was unlike anything seen in the party’s history.

That period of time before the 1979 general election is popularly known today as the Winter of Discontent, and it’s important enough to be mentioned occasionally on American political television shows, often as a purported example of how small-l labour strikes can backfire in terms of generating popular sentiment against corporations and their executives. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of Ronald Reagan’s most-remembered actions from the first months of his presidency was his mass firing of striking air-traffic controllers, which kneecapped an American union movement already struggling mightily against the internationalism that had started in the 1970s. Although that individual event might not have been as all-encompassing as the Winter of Discontent was in the UK, it was a major link in the chain of events that culminated in the Democratic Party’s hard turn to the right following the failed 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, and the subsequent rise to power of the Democratic Leadership Conference and its leader, Bill Clinton.

The UK returned to even more conservative leadership after the 2010 general election, and America dealt with more than its own share of turmoil under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump. I can’t say that I didn’t hear talk of nationwide general strikes in those troubled times, but the only people who seemed to take the possibility of such strikes seriously were those who would self-define as being on the political fringes. With the growing number of American businesses being shut down for lack of employees willing to work for low wages (and, often times, even lower respect), the idea that we’re at the start of a general strike here in America is becoming more and more mainstream.

It’s hard to know how to feel about this. Eight years ago, when congressional Republicans forced a government shutdown that left many federal employees worrying about how they were going to feed their families, right-wing messaging twisted this tragedy by shifting focus to how the children of overentitled elitist jerks weren’t able to visit the White House during their school trips to Washington, DC because of shutdown cuts to Secret Service funding. Even though Republicans bled support during the shutdown and in its immediate aftermath, their messaging stayed strong, and not only did they retake the Senate in the next midterm elections, but we all remember what happened two years after that. It’s all too easy to see conservative media launching a similar assault now, ignoring the plights of working-class Americans being forced to work several low-wage jobs at once just to keep their heads above water (if they’re lucky), and instead decrying “socialism” as they focus on some upper-class twit bleating about not being able to get their daily fix of curly fries.

I don’t think anyone is expecting an anti-Reagan moment here either, something along the lines of the government taking over businesses that refuse to pay their employees a living wage, firing their executives, and then putting in new structures and regulations to make sure that everyone who works for the company can live without wondering how they’re going to make rent and buy food every month. If you were to invent a president who would do something like that, take the opposite qualities of that hypothetical president, and create a living embodiment of those opposite qualities, you’d be pretty darn close to Joe Biden. That kind of government intervention would probably be beyond the pale of even a Bernie Sanders or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but at least the two of them might conceivably support some kind of national strike to deal with the problems that American capitalism is creating for struggling Americans at this unique historical moment. It’s far too easy to see Biden using Reagan-esque tactics to break a general strike than to voice any kind of support for it, even if only to use his bully pulpit to encourage American businesses to pay Americans a fair wage. Biden was pushing DLC ideologies long before the DLC was even created, and he hasn’t changed all that much since then.

With as widespread as business closures have been in recent weeks, though, the old UK saying “in for a penny, in for a pound” springs to mind. We aren’t dealing with a hypothetical “would the deaths of nearly 600,000 Americans be enough to change this” situation any longer; that’s the reality we’re living in right now. If there is ever going to be a time for a mass movement rejecting the harshness of contemporary American capitalism, this is probably it. History is written by the winners, so now the question is whose discontent — the striking workers or the apoplectic upper-class — will win this time.

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