We hear a lot these days about the ‘forgotten people’ — United States President Donald Trump refers to them repeatedly; they are supposed to have voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union last year; in Australia, One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson claims to be their champion.
Rather than being forgotten, they appear to be the most talked about people in Western democracy — but who exactly are they?
It rather depends on the time and the place. The first reference that I can find belongs to William Graham Sumner, a professor at Yale University in the United States during the 1880s. His forgotten people were those who “attend no meetings, pass no resolutions, never go to the lobby, are never mentioned in the newspapers, but just work and save and pay”.
In other words the solid middle class, the nouveau riche or not so nouveau riche who were emerging from the melting pot of post-Civil War America and were rapidly becoming the backbone upon which the country would transform into a world power.
They popped up again in quite a different form less than half a century later when in an election speech in 1932, US presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that national prosperity depended upon plans “that build from the bottom up and not the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the financial pyramid.”
In 1932, as the US economy was spiralling into the Great Depression, this was an obvious reference to the poor workers forming ever increasing dole queues, unable to feed their families and with seemingly no hope for better times ahead.
No more than a decade later and Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, at that time temporarily out of office, claimed the life of his nation “is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, for what their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of the race”.
Move on and US President Richard Nixon was speaking about the “silent majority” bewildered by irrational protests over the Vietnam War, and not much later another US President, Ronald Reagan hailed the “heroes of America” a classless majority made up of factory workers and entrepreneurs.
So it goes on.
What are we to make of this? The forgotten are the staunch middle class with a solid work ethic; the poor and the unemployed; the god-fearing propagators of the race; pro-war and anti-war; factory workers calling for isolationism to protect their jobs and entrepreneurs revelling in the global marketplace.
One thing they are not is forgotten.
They have been courted by politicians the world over, hoping to achieve power by the populist road. They have been promised the earth — their jobs back in industries where the work is now being done by robots; a return to flag waving nationalism in a world that increasingly draws its wealth from inter-dependence.
They are the tools by which political parties and individuals climb to power. They are indispensable to every potential demagogue with simple answers to complex questions.
They will be tricked, lied to, duped, filled with false hope, always to be eventually disillusioned — but they will never be forgotten.