It is profoundly disappointing how little discussion there is about what the social/historical roots are that led to the yawning, bitter divide that has opened in our country. I am not talking about the recriminations alleged by both sides in this deepening conflict. I am interested in what historical changes have led to the gulf. Most of what passes for analysis, both real and imagined, are narratives about the venality of particular players and conspiracies.
It is dangerous and unhelpful to over generalize. The fact is that the reasons that people voted for Donald Trump or Joe Biden are far more complex and nuanced than the noise on social media would suggest. The idea that the millions who voted for Donald Trump are all fanatical adherents who worship him is no more true than that all those who supported Joe Biden consider him a paragon of righteousness.
I know people who voted for Donald Trump who freely admit that his crudeness as expressed in his tweets make them very uncomfortable and who do not support his draconian actions in separating children from their families. Conversely, I know people who voted for Joe Biden who consider the record of his long career to be a trail of support for policies they abhor.
Still there are strong trends that should be acknowledged.
On the one hand, there are those who opposed Trump who routinely dismiss his supporters as ignorant and racist. There is a strong class tone to their attacks. For them, his supporters are a bunch of redneck white guys. They assume that if you support Donald Trump you do not believe in science and they assume that these people uniformly and uncritically support the police.
Conversely, there are those who supported Trump who view the Biden people as a bunch of elitist snobs who look down on them. They view the pro-Biden voters as hypocrites who talk morals but are dedicated to feeding off the trough of government handouts.
There is little question that there are individuals who fit all of these stereotypes but the social media noise drowns out the voices of the many people who cannot be pigeonholed. These people, I count myself among them, are increasingly marginalized in a trend that threatens to boil over into serious violence and the potential collapse of the American experiment.
In our culture it is easy to fall back on myths and popular trends. Most people are absorbed by the basics of keeping a job and raising a family and have little time to research anything.
Most of us live a myopic existence with only impressions of the past or what the future may hold. It is easy to assume that our current society is, as the conservative commentator Francis Fukuyama who served in the Reagan administration wrote, “the end of history.”
Make no mistake, the United States is still an evolving experiment. Even the most cursory examination of history reveals how transient societies are. Consider how brief our status as an empire has been. Some, like the Roman Empire endure for many centuries, but many others like the Napoleonic or the British come and go.
Analysis should begin with a good dose of humility.
The Disturbing Trend
It is beyond the scope of this post to offer in depth analysis of modern trends or to offer solutions. This post is to encourage people to step back from looking for villains and rather to try to think more broadly about what is transpiring.
One clear trend has been the decline of income for most Americans during the last fifty years. There was a period when many families felt confident that their efforts on behalf of their children would insure that their offspring would enjoy greater affluence and security than their parents’ generation. Since the 1980s that sense of security has been deteriorating for many.
This is well documented in this article by the Pew Research Center. The graph below shows how the wealth of American families has been largely flat:
The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019. This downsizing has proceeded slowly but surely since 1971, with each decade thereafter typically ending with a smaller share of adults living in middle-income households than at the beginning of the decade.Pew Research Center
This trend is like an ominous cloud that hangs over our nation. While large segments of communities of color have never known economic security the economic reversal has been experienced almost entirely among white Americans without a four-year college degree, who make up 38 percent of the U.S. working-age population.
Evidence of this can be seen everywhere. A drive through most upstate towns serves as a grim tutorial. Beautiful buildings from eras when these communities flourished are now commonly unoccupied and deteriorating.
In their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Nobel Prize winners Anne Case and Angus Deaton, documented that the life expectancy for white Americans between 45 and 54 was declining. This sad development is oddly unique to the US but I expect the trend will develop in other countries .
This story from NPR reports on the grim impact of this decline.
This reversal has come almost entirely among white Americans without a four-year college degree, who make up 38 percent of the U.S. working-age population. “Something is making life worse, especially for less educated whites,” Case and Deaton write.
Much of the decline stems from higher rates of suicide, opioid overdoses and alcohol-related illnesses — the “deaths of despair” that Case and Deaton refer to. Americans “are drinking themselves to death, or poisoning themselves with drugs, or shooting or hanging themselves.”
Case and Deaton don’t shy away from the likely cause of this public-health scandal: The collapse of the steady, decently paid manufacturing jobs that once gave meaning and purpose to working-class life.NPR March 18, 2020
There was a time when Americans without college degrees who were willing to work hard could find good jobs in our industries which would support a family and provide a modicum of security.
A trip through the heartland of our country grimly documents the passing of that age.
Meanwhile there is another economic trend in America:
I would venture to say that a trend where the lives of so many Americans are plagued with the kind of despair that leads to illness and death while simultaneously the wealth of the society is being transferred to the top 5% is a society heading toward some kind of collapse. I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of catastrophe but that this trend, if not addressed, cannot end well.
Parsing the Trending Non Answers
The Leading Right Wing Responses
The Immigrant Threat
The thorny problem of dealing with illegal immigration is real. Unfortunately many on the right exaggerate its threat until it appears as out of a horror film from the fifties. Those who offer a more tempered assessment of the stresses associated with immigration are too often dismissed.
I have never seen any, and I mean any, study or analysis that shows that the decline of America’s industry is the result of illegal immigration. While illegal immigrants may contribute to some wage suppression, it should be clear that the closing of plants cannot be attributed to illegal immigration and it is the loss of our industrial base that is the real source of declining wages.
The issue of illegal immigration is actually more of a symbolic way for people on the right to document what they see as the government’s failure to focus on the needs of its own citizens. It focuses on the fear that the country will eventually be overrun by other desperate people in the world, invading the US. It is a potent image.
Whatever the merit of these fears, it does not explain the decline of the US industrial base and the disappearance of good paying jobs.
Trade Policy: Ripped Off By Other Nations?
This theory asserts that decades of feckless Democratic lead governments have allowed our trading partners to take advantage of us.
The problem with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that the decline in income and the rise in unemployment is a severe problem for many of the very same countries that the Trump administration has targeted for tariffs. If they have been gaming the US, these countries have done a very poor job of it.
England, France, Italy, Spain, Canada, Japan, Mexico… These countries that are allegedly exploiting us and who the Trump administration is slapping tariffs on are experiencing many of the problems that our own country is struggling with.
In fact, China is really one of the few countries to have grown substantially during these last decades. Indeed an argument can be made about the loss of many jobs to China, but it does not explain the trade wars with most of the other countries subject to our tariffs.
While the Chinese manipulation of their currency contributed to their ability to export their goods there is little doubt that the low wages of their labor was probably the most important factor in China’s success.
There is also the troubling fact that four years of trade war with China has had minimal impact on our trade imbalances with China. One might well ask, where are the rejuvenated industries this war was supposed to achieve.
Deficit Spending and Big Government Are Killing The Economy
Many on the right, along with many Democrats, argue that deficits are responsible for our economic problems.
The huge tax cut passed by Trump was so big that even its supporters conceded that it would lead to deficits which it most definitely did. The Trump administration has overseen a huge increase in debt.
The problem with this blanket fear of deficits is that it ignores history. The issue of deficits is far more complex than this kind of attack assumes.
The United States ran a huge deficit during World War II and yet those deficits not only allowed America to defeat Germany, Japan, and the Axis but allowed for a major post war economic boom.
A Bloated Federal Bureaucracy
Another argument often made is that the size of the federal government has contributed to our economic decline.
Looking at recent history (from 1984), however, the largest drop in the number of Federal employees occurred during the presidency of Bill Clinton (Jan. 1993-Jan.,2001). The highest number of employees occurred during the early years of Barak Obama’s Presidency but, similar to Clinton, Obama oversaw a major reduction during his two terms in office (Jan.,2009-Jan.,2017). In contrast, during President Trump’s presidency (Jan. 2017-Jan.2021)there was an expansion in Federal government employment.
There appears to be little correlation between economic growth and the number of employees in the federal government.
The Leading Response By The Democrats And Liberals
For many Democrats and liberals there appear to be two basic responses.
The first is that the country can educate and train itself out of the decline. Somehow the marginalized Americans who have been laid off by vanishing manufacturers can learn new skills. Usually when pressed we hear about how these people will become computer programmers or some such.
Has anyone noticed that after several decades, this strategy has appeared to have failed?
The reality is that education and training is not a realistic solution for many displaced workers especially older workers.
Most importantly, this strategy does not create jobs.
The second response is not really an answer. It basically writes off millions of Americans. It simply asserts that globalization is here to stay, and job loss is part of that reality. It doesn’t attempt to propose a solution. Such assertions come dresse with great regret. “Those jobs just aren’t coming back.” “Dirty coal is no longer in demand when oil, natural gas, and non-polluting forms of energy are more efficient.” “It’s too bad about West Virginia, those people are going to have to find other work.”
It is easy to make this argument when you are a hedge fund manager or a doctor, or a Congressional representative from an affluent district. It is a hard sell for the coal miners in West Virginia or the laid off auto workers in Flint Michigan or the woman delivering pizza who used to have a good job in a steel mill.
I find it stunning how easily people I have met who are otherwise kind and generous can so easily dismiss the future for so many millions of their fellow citizens.
So If The Problem Is So Obvious, Why Are We Failing So Badly To Find An Answer?
Well, the main problem is that the models that have sustained US growth for decades are, for many reasons, no longer working and to find solutions will require rethinking many fundamental issues about how an economy works.
Unfortunately, the nature of media has evolved in a way that profoundly undermines the ability of citizens to work together to fashion solutions.
Matt Taibi, one of my favorite social critics, has written a book called Hate, Inc. that lays out the problem of the evolution (devolution?) of the news business.
Traditionally, newspapers and television news sought to reach the entire public. For many years, before the rise of cable television, there were only three broadcast networks (NBC/CBS/ABC). The three competed to reach the widest possible audiences. The one major advantage for this general approach to the news was that people shared the same basic facts. They could argue over their meaning and what to do with those facts but everyone shared the basic terms of the news. I do not want to romanticise this past. The news was not only fairly bland but as many critics have observed, it operated within the limits maintained by the corporations that owned these networks and the corporations who paid to advertise on them.
With the rise of cable, Fox News had the vision to break from this mold. Rather than compete with the major networks or cable channels like CNN, they found that there was a large and distinct audience whose world view they could appeal to. They could tailor their shows to play to the politics of conservative Americans. They would create a medium that would attract these viewers with stories that would reinforce people’s opinions. To interest people the news had to be exciting so they heightened the drama by crafting the news to play on people’s frustration. Stories were shaped to emphasize the righteousness of the good guys and the perfidy of the bad guys. Republicans were the struggling warriors battling with the sleazy Democrats.
This formula worked brilliantly. Fox became a money making machine.
Enter MSNBC. They evolved similarly. Stories on MSNBC endlessly report on the worst excesses of Republicans and the honorable efforts of Democrats to make a better world in spite of the mindless Republican operatives. Annecdotes about how foolish and greedy Republicans are is the basic stock of MSNBC.
As with Fox, this has worked well for MSNBC (if not as well as it has worked for Fox).
To my liberal friends, I would ask them to think about the lack of criticism on MSNBC regarding mainstream Democrats. During Barack Obama’s term more whistleblowers were prosecuted than in all the previous administrations in US history. Obama sent more immigrants seeking asylum back to their homelands then any previous administration. Obama declined to prosecute the people who authorized the uses of torture. His economic team was dominated by representatives of Goldman Sachs who made the banks whole using public money while doing very little for the many people who lost their homes.
The issue here is not that Obama did no good but that the nature of the coverage of his administration by MSNBC was meant to avoid making its followers uncomfortable by any pointed criticisms. The manichean world where there are only the “righteous and the evil” or the “smart and the stupid” built a reliable viewership.
The clearest example of this was the coverage of the Mueller investigation. Any story that contributed to the narrative that Donald Trump had conspired with with Putin [Russiagate] was played to the full. The story that Trump may have obstructed justice was not exciting enough. Trump had to be a Russian agent. There was hardly a night on MSNBC during the Mueller investigation that did not beat this drum. In the end of course the Mueller report failed to establish this.
I am sure that many of my friends who follow MSNBC still believe that Trump was an agent. This in spite of the lack of facts to support their contention.
It’s Not About Convincing Or Proselytizing
Politics has really come to be a matter of identity and not policy. I rarely argue with my friends about politics. It is usually events that cause people to change and not logic. George Bush’s debacle in Iraq was what caused many of the people I know who supported him to alter their opinions.
In fact, nationally many long term Democrats who voted for Barack Obama voted for Trump because of Obama’s failure to deliver on “change.” They supported him because they believed in his message that he was going to bring needed change to the culture of Washington and were disappointed.
Readers should remember that the majority of voters in Saratoga County supported Obama in both his runs and then in 2016 supported Trump. In 2020 the county went for Biden. These very facts should put the lie to the cheap myths about who voted for Trump.
I continue to believe in the value of putting forth helpful information for people so that when they are interested in reconsidering strongly held beliefs a dialogue is possible.
I continue to believe that we can learn from each other if we care to listen.
Case in point is my friendship with Rob Arrigo. Rob is a dedicated libertarian. We profoundly disagree about many important things but Rob is a smart and well read person and I am not afraid to learn from him.
There are hard core Trump supporters who do things like wear tee shirts that display “Camp Aushwitz.” I consider these people more than troubled. They are dangerous. But I also know that there are people who voted for Trump who are good people and that there is the real possibility of finding common ground with them overtime. That will happen when, in the future, we can agree on policies that will serve to address the deep seated problems that currently are undermining our democracy.
In the end, we have no choice. If we cannot find ways to unite around solutions to our country’s decline, there is no long term future for our democracy.