“A house divided against itself shall not stand.” — Matthew 12:22-28, and Abraham Lincoln, 1858
“If we don’t hang together, by Heavens we shall hang separately…” — Benjamin Franklin, 1801
“Divide and rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(Aug. 2, 2018) — Make no mistake. The Supreme Court’s recent Janus v. AFSCME decision was no aberration. It was merely the latest skirmish in the long-running corporate/capitalist war on workers. America’s already battered workers lost this one, too.
Janus was no surprise. We have known for years that the SCOTUS is hardly a worker’s best friend. A month before the 5-4 Janus decision, the same divided court sided with employers in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, maintaining that workers could not band together in class-action suits against employers when their civil or labor rights were violated. That decision leaves aggrieved workers no recourse but to seek redress through the individual arbitration set out in most employer contracts, where history has shown the deck is stacked against them.
At least five SCOTUS justices have made their positions clear. Judges who favor employers don’t want workers joining hands and acting in concert. Both Janus and Epic Systems weaken workers by separating them from one another. The decisions are recent, but the ploy has a long history. Even before Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 “Modern Times,” with its iconic scene of one lone man swallowed by the cogs of a giant machine, we’ve known how well individual workers fare when pitted against the corporate behemoth.
This divide-and-conquer corporate playbook that at least five members of the Supreme Court consult regularly is not limited to court proceedings. As old as Julius Caesar and as new as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, our recent history has proved its applications are limitless.
During his first term as governor, Walker was caught on tape saying he was out to “divide and conquer” Wisconsin. A bit shocking to hear from a governor, maybe, but hardly surprising, for divide and conquer has always been the bully’s favorite ploy. It’s been employed by bullies for centuries, from Caesar, who picked off parts of Gaul one by one, to the more recent Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon, who capitalized on white backlash to the Civil Rights movement to flip blue states to red in the 1960’s.
Since then, Nixon’s deliberately racial politics have become even more explicit, the not-so-subtle dog whistles of the last century amplified to an deafening din. Our president makes rude remarks about non-white countries, and retweets anti-Semitic language or outright lies about non-white immigrants.
At his rallies, Trump doesn’t stop at attacking Hispanics and Muslims. He riles his base further by encouraging even more divisions, trotting out a rolling list of “enemies,” inviting his fans to detest them, too: newspapers that track and report on his lies, his political opponents, and foreign leaders who have criticized him. Almost anyone or anything but Putin or Russia. But always, as background music that swells again and again, the old standard of those brown people swarming into our country that we should somehow fear.
Then, as the “boos” he orchestrates rain on the enemies he’s named, the president smiles, basking in the anger he’s created and released.
By now the divide-and-conquer ploy should be familiar enough. Both in and out of the White House, here and abroad, our politics emphasizes rancor and division.
Domestically, the guns, God and gays memes we’ve heard for decades may have worn a bit threadbare, but as recent elections prove those issues still pack a punch. Abortion certainly does, and the current administration’s immigration practices, based as they are on obvious distinctions between religions and skin colors, are hardly intended to bring people together. For a nation that still features e pluribus unum (out of many, one) on its Great Seal, the message of those polices that the only true Americans are white Christians who stand for the national anthem is a vicious poison poured directly on our nation’s delicate roots.
Not enough division yet? How about voter suppression measures that target minorities and the poor? Above all, those on the Right don’t want people banding together to vote their interests. We might end up with universal healthcare or a reasonable minimum wage, or taxes on the rich might actually rise instead of fall, all measures poll after poll tell us are supported by the majority of citizens. But not all majorities are created equal and it was a different kind of majority, the 5-4 corporate friendly majority on the SCOTUS, which recently approved Ohio State’s voter purging plan in their Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute ruling, striking another deliberate blow against a united electorate.
And if voter suppression alone were not enough to keep the electorate at bay, the court has at least temporarily let stand Wisconsin Republicans’ gerrymandering that in elections effectively discounts the value of Democrats’ votes by 7-10% (Gill v. Whitford). For now, the court seems willing to leave partisan gerrymandering decisions up to the states, a stance the court has resorted to many times before, when it chose to duck a tough, politically fraught decision.
Since before the Civil War, states-rights’ arguments have been used to weaken the ties that bind us together as one nation. Today some see states as potential sanctuaries from the reach of many federal laws intended for the common good. Beyond voter suppression and gerrymandering, current states’ rights proponents see that strengthening states’ rights might make it easier to gut environmental regulations (those left in place after Scott Pruitt’s reign) and even modify or eliminate the Endangered Species Act.
Ironically, the corporate right has fallen so in love with the divide-and-conquer strategy that their president is busily applying it willy-nilly, occasionally to the corporate world’s distinct discomfort, as Trump’s unilateral tariff war has proved. Certain that the U.S. economy is strong enough to bully any other single nation, Trump is doing all he can to break up the European Union and bring Canada and Mexico to their knees. Revealingly, during French President Macron’s visit to the United States this spring, the president suggested to him that France withdraw from the ECU. Confusing himself with Caesar perhaps, Trump might have thought that a divided Europe, like Gaul, will fall.
That certainly seemed to be the case at the recent NATO summit, when Trump joyfully sowed more division by publicly criticizing the British Prime Minister for her failure to engineer the kind of hard Brexit that would weaken the European Union, by praising her political enemies, and then by calling the European Union itself our enemy.
Like all the bullies before him, because Trump understands that unions or alliances of any kind strengthen his opponents, he is does all he can to divide them. Whether those opponents be political parties, trade alliances or labor unions, if they can first be weakened by division, they can be more easily subdued.*
While the president and the corporate/capitalists have their differences on tariffs and trade, their attitude toward workers and unions hasn’t changed at all. The Trump administration and the capitalists who support it both like workers well enough — as long as workers are so weakened they can’t cause trouble.
Unfortunately, by allowing themselves to be divided by racial, religious, gender, or other hot button issues over the last 50 years, America’s workers have enfeebled themselves to the point where they are now almost no trouble at all.
We may not know how the administration’s tariff stare-downs will end, but we do know that since the 1960’s American workers’ share of corporate profit has sharply declined simultaneously with declining union membership and influence.
If nothing else, that decline should have delivered an unmistakable message to America’s workers: their corporatist/capitalist foes don’t need any help. With all their money, their majorities in Congress, the Presidency and the SCOTUS on their side, the corporatists are doing just fine.
The uncomfortable truth workers must face is that when they allow race, religion, gender, class or abortion or immigration issues to divide them, they have, wittingly or not, enlisted on the wrong side of a war they are already losing.
It’s not new and it’s still simple: Those willing to be divided are willing to be conquered.
Willing or not?
That’s was always the choice, and it still is.
Ken Winkes is a retired teacher and high school principal.
* Still skeptical? This little-reported executive order which strikes closer to the home of labor has now been implemented.