WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rekindling the solidarity championed by Pope Francis was seen as one way that the Catholic Church in the United States can respond to the fear and anger among working class voters that has been a factor in the 2016 presidential campaign, a priest said during an Oct. 25 panel discussion at Georgetown University.
“The fact that we’re all in this together… That concept is under assault” in an increasingly materialistic and individualistic culture, said Father Clete Kiley, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.
The priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago was among four panelists participating in a discussion on “Left Behind: Working Class Families and Communities” cosponsored by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
The angst, anger and fear fueling struggling working class Americans in the 2016 campaign was an underlying theme of the discussion.
“Pope Francis has said the Church needs to be a field hospital,” said Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who formerly served as pastor of a large immigrant parish there.
The priest noted while in recent years the Church has often been entangled in “culture wars,” he believes it is crucial for Catholics to accompany those who are suffering and to be engaged in the broader community, joining coalitions to work for justice and bring hope to those who are left behind.
“The kind of engagement we’re called to is important,” he said.
John Carr, the initiative’s director, opened the discussion by noting that the dignity of work and workers is central to Catholic social teaching.
Carr pointed out that Pope Francis emphasized the concept of solidarity in his 2015 address to a joint meeting of Congress, when the pontiff said:
“Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and – one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.”
That concept of solidarity is too often missing today in U.S. public life, Carr said.
Joe McCartin, the executive director of the university’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor – which also cosponsored the discussion along with Georgetown’s Baker Center for Leadership and Governance – noted how populist anger at the status quo helped fuel two very different candidacies in 2016.
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who now supports his party’s nominee Hillary Clinton, was buoyed by the support of college students and young adults, and some of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s key supporters have been working class white voters in depressed regions of the country.
Speaking of the workers in communities where jobs have been eliminated or outsourced, McCartin said, “These are people who’ve suffered, whose lives have grown more insecure.”
Carr noted that after the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs and a long period of stagnant wages in the United States, “Maybe the greatest deficit is the lack of hope and optimism.”
Panelist Tim P. Carney – a senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute – traveled to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, to examine the role that rural white poverty is playing in this election.
His article examined how Trump’s message has resonated in a town with an 8.5 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the state. An accompanying photo showed the main street of nearby Fayette City, where a boarded up brick building stood next to a church.
That story highlighted how that county in Pennsylvania has seen steel mills and coal mines close and how many young people have moved away or been drawn into drug abuse, with traditional yardsticks for community stability like employment, church attendance and marriage rates, all on the decline.
“They see their communities have crumbled, and Washington doesn’t have an answer,” Carney said.
Another panelist, Bill Fletcher Jr. – a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies – said it’s wrong just to look at rural white communities that have been left behind in the nation’s economy. Fletcher, who is African-American, noted that urban areas with large minority communities like Camden, New Jersey; East St. Louis, Illinois; and Fall River, Massachusetts; have been suffering for many years.
“It’s about capitalism crushing people,” he said, noting that the living standards for the average working person in the United States has declined since 1975. “We’re seeing communities destroyed, and cities transformed into neo-reservations.”
Fletcher said he believes that the fear and anger visible in this year’s election campaign among some white Trump supporters relates to the country’s changing demographics that includes a growing population of Hispanics.
“The white populism we’re seeing is fundamentally a revolt against the future,” Fletcher said.
The media commentator on workplace struggles also criticized white progressives, noting that in his view their economic concept of “a rising tide raises all boats,” unfolds more in the real world like the Titanic, where the poor people in steerage die first as the ship is sinking, and the people on the upper deck of the ship should do something about their plight.
Working for economic unity and solidarity is not enough, he added, saying that people should work together to dismantle attitudes about race that have been ingrained in the United States for centuries. Noting the Black Lives Matter movement, Fletcher said, “I have to know white workers will be concerned if I survive when I encounter police.”
Both the Democratic and Republican parties came under withering criticism from the panelists.
Thomas Frank – a political analyst and author whose latest book is Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? – said that income inequality has increased in recent years, whether a Democrat or Republican occupies the White House, and hit its highest level during the Obama administration.
He charged that the Democratic party “is not the party of working people. It’s the party of the professional class.”
Kiley noted how Trump and his supporters said that his not paying income taxes over a period of years reflected his being “a smart businessman.” The candidate used a write-off allowed under the tax code after experiencing significant business losses in the mid-1990s.
“What happened to the common good?” the priest asked, noting how many Americans somehow see avoiding paying taxes as a virtue. Critics of Trump have noted how taxes go toward funding schools, highways, the military, and programs for the poor.
Carney criticized Trump’s championing of poor rural communities, noting, “His populism is opportunistic… He saw a market opportunity” for his campaign. The columnist said that too often the Republican party has listened more to “K Street lobbyists” in Washington rather than working people across the country.
The journalist said Trump seems often to scapegoat “the wrong villains” in a campaign that has frequently targeted other poor people, like immigrants, instead of the powerful.
Several of the panelists spoke of the importance of labor unions in building solidarity and improving opportunities for workers and their families.
Fletcher noted that people’s living standards rose along with the percentage of union membership right after World War II, but the stagnation of living standards in recent years has coincided with the overall decline in union ranks. In the early 1960s, about one-third of workers belonged to unions, a figure that fell to about 20 percent in 1983 and now stands at 11 percent of salaried workers in the United States.
The author of the 2009 book Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice once worked as a welder in a shipyard and later worked for several unions and on the staff of the AFL-CIO. Fletcher said that it’s time to work to reinvigorate and rethink unionism, which should continue to hold “social justice at its core.”
Kiley said it was disheartening for him to see a TV ad in Massachusetts, where an auto worker voiced support for a proposed “Right to Work” law, which unions say are designed to undermine workers’ rights to organize and belong to a union.
The priest, who is the director of immigration policy for UNITE HERE – an organization of workers in the hotel, food service, textiles manufacturing, laundry and transportation industries – said that man was forgetting how unions have ensured things like 40-hour work weeks, paid vacations, medical benefits and retirement pensions for the nation’s workers.
One of the last questioners at the gathering was a Georgetown student who expressed her concern for facilities workers who are currently in labor negotiations with the university.
Kiley praised Georgetown students for their support in recent years of food service workers there.
“I think you saw the future of the labor movement in the question of that student. You see workers here as part of the community… That’s solidarity,” the priest said, adding, “…That’s what the labor movement looks like in the future, part of the community.”