The forgotten tribe: America’s working class

Countless working-class Americans of all races and ethnicities, who work hard and play by the rules, are fed up with the extreme partisanship that permeates the country, and with meaningless acts of violence, including the storming of the capitol. These people are the forgotten tribe in America.

In general, working class people are those with a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree who live in households with annual incomes roughly between $30,000 and $70,000 for two adults and one child. They are somewhere between the poor and the middle class.

Americans by some measures are more deeply divided politically and culturally than ever before. We live in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are sure they are right and prepared to engage in violence to make their point.

For the last many years, political correctness; cancel culture; social justice; multiculturalism; the all-pervasive claim to victimhood; judging people on their ethnicity, gender and race rather than the merits of their work; and the politicization of just about everything has generated more heat and fumes than light. For all their rosy rhetoric on the subject, the ruling elites have less experience with ethnic and racial diversity than the working class.

These factors, and probably dozens of others, are contributing to the breakdown in the American genius for reaching compromises that meet the real social and economic needs of the working class.

Both the extreme right and the extreme left are corroded by ideology. Extremists on the right label their counterparts on the left socialists, and the left calls the right fascists. Each faction takes the law into their own hands while politicians see which way the wind is blowing and refuse to intervene. The growing divisions help explain why the nation’s political center is shrinking.

At the same time, the media, both traditional and social media, have accelerated the fragmentation of cultural and political identities. Conservative and liberal TV networks only highlight information that confirms their audiences’ biases, creating ideological echo chambers.

The worst of the fallout from this polarization will be felt by the forgotten tribe. These issues have done little to help them make ends meet and keep their families safe from COVID. Is it any wonder when they walk past a statue of that schnorrer Thomas Jefferson they don’t experience any trauma? Working people, after all, have to work.

America’s working class doesn’t have the luxury of engaging in ideological pursuits; they have to take care of their families, paying for groceries, medical bills, making mortgage or rent payments. The pampered and self-consciously fortunate regard the working class as “deplorables,” half of whom believe Elvis is still alive. Their understanding is the comic book version of diversity. They live in white neighborhoods, send their kids to private schools, and summer in the Hamptons.

These ruling elites don’t have to live with the unintended consequences of their decisions. The working class are the ones who have to work. As long as they do, it hardly matters what color their skin is or what accent they have. All the while, the economic system directs food, shelter, energy away from those who need it most and toward those who need it least.

The causes of the forgotten tribe’s problems have been well documented: The rate and speed of technological changes, growing monopoly power and concentration, and globalization. Is it any wonder why the working class is losing hope in a better future (get real, they are not Bill Clinton)? They are an endangered species, living paycheck to paycheck.

Despite copious amounts of cash provided to families and unemployed workers, COVID-19 rescue plans don’t provide long-term solutions for making work pay, giving the working class the education and skills needed to get better work, and to strengthen families and communities to support work. These omissions only exacerbate the fraying cohesion of America’s society and political fabric.

Leadership lessons from ‘Twelve O’Clock High’

The two best examples of crisis leadership for contemporary students of management and leadership are World War I and World War II. The former a gold mine of information illustrating virtually every conceivable way of doing things wrong and World II a nice balance between doing thing wrong and doing things right.

World War II was actually three separate wars that took place at the same time: United States versus Japan in the Pacific, the United States and the United Kingdom (UK) versus Germany in Western and Southern Europe, and the Soviet Union versus Germany in Eastern Europe.

Germany and Japan started World War II having great successes by doing things right. Then they lost their way and ended up doing everything wrong.

In contrast, the Allies (US, UK, and the Soviet Union) started off doing many things wrong, mainly out of ignorance and false illusions, including the misuse of air power.  But they managed to get their respective acts together and wound up doing most things right.  They won the war, and in so doing, reshaped the world.

Running a business has a great many parallels with running a war.  To succeed in either, you must set realistic goals, identify and deploy the relevant resources necessary for achieving these goals, and then skillfully implement the options you select.  After that you have to roll with the punches that inevitably whack you from unexpected events and adjust your strategy with dispatch.

Two fine Hollywood movies made in the late 1940s effectively dramatize “war situations” that are also common in business.

“Command Decision” is one of the movies with themes that translate to business.  It deals with strategic decision making at the command level.  The other is “Twelve O’ Clock High,” which is about a manager taking over a failing bomber group and whipping it into shape through a program of stern discipline.

It is the harrowing story of the first B-17 bombers in England in World War II and the terrible losses they took before long-range fighters were available to escort them on combat missions over Europe. The movie was adopted from a popular novel that was, in turn, based on a real event that affected the Eighth Air Force in England during 1942 and 1943.

The new leader immediately incurs the hatred of aircrews when he comes down hard on the lack of discipline.  He deals harshly with slackers, segregating the worst misfits into a crew known as “The Leper Colony”. He openly criticizes mistakes, insists on a high level of professionalism and is a straight talker who appreciates straight talk in return.

Resentful of the new management style, all the pilots ask to be transferred out of the unit.  But the new commander sticks to his principles. As the bomber group develops combat effectiveness and the group’s performance improves, and the loss of life decreases, the pilots change their minds and support the new commander and his leadership style.

This story dramatizes steps the leader took to restore the morale of people who had come to regard themselves as “hard-luck failures” who had accumulated the highest loss rate and the worst bombing effectiveness record and motivated them to become a winning team.

The film highlights timeless leadership lessons such as creating a strategy; setting clear expectations; creating performance standards; giving clear directions; putting the right people in the right jobs; communicating the “why”; restoring accountability, and pushing, pushing, and pushing until the job is done.

Whether commanding a bomber group or managing employees towards making their numbers, these leadership qualities are essential and universal, especially in situations of extreme emergency and crisis.