The autumn of our discontent

· Logos/Ethos

 November 4, 2020                                            

Here we are, the morning after. Deadlines being what they are, you know the results of the election and I don’t. Nevertheless, it’s a safe bet the country hasn’t been transformed into Shangri-La overnight. After all, it would be simplistic to assume that Donald Trump is/was the cause of our current malaise and not a consequence. The populist grievances which found a home in Trumpism are the natural consequence of decades of economic, social and cultural disregard. The discontent is real and raw.

            In a 2015 paper, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton discovered an improbable increase in mortality since 1999 among less-educated (high school diploma or less) white Americans, mostly male, aged 45-54, the preponderance found in suicides, drug-overdoses, and alcohol-related diseases. Their movement toward lower and lower-skilled jobs resulted in a sharp decline in income, marriages, and home ownership, all signs of confidence in their futures. These “deaths of despair” could well have been predictors of the rise of Trumpism.

What turned against the white working class which had contributed so much to America’s rise as an economic world power? All signs point to the decline of the manufacturing economy and labor unions, the rise of globalism which only benefits those at the top, and increased opportunities for minorities. Perhaps their faith that their skilled labor would deliver a better life than that of their parents and an even better one for their children had been misplaced.

But this is not simply a story of economics. Being an American story, it must also involve race. Many working class whites may have unconsciously taken it as an article of faith that their whiteness would protect them from the ultimate degradation of landing on the bottom rung of the social class ladder, the default position of African-Americans for 300 years. But with the civil rights movement of the ‘60’s and affirmative action policies of the ‘70’s, steadily an influential Black middle class emerged, culminating in the inauguration of the first Black president in 2008. Pundits optimistically proclaimed the birth of a post-racial America, an analysis that would soon prove naïve. What did emerge rather was a level of white working-class resentment that found a voice, first in the person of the ill-prepared Sarah Palin and the nascent Tea Party movement, and then in the unlikely person of a bankruptcy-prone, narcissist whose overt racism drove him to challenge the very legitimacy of Obama’s election. His campaign’s opening rant against Mexican “rapists and murderers”, and a promise to “make America great again”, spoke to the anger, frustration, and grievance widely held among the increasingly disenfranchised. Though he has introduced no economic policies to significantly improve their plight, they remain faithful to the swagger of his message.

In “The Tyranny of Meritocracy”, philosopher Michael Sandel has identified yet another factor that is undeniably exacerbating their discontents. He indicts the Democratic Party by interpreting Trump’s 2016 election as a response to the political failure of the progressive, technocratic liberalism of the past four decades which became more congenial to a coastal and largely urban professional class than to blue-collar workers. He is critical of the notion of meritocracy itself, by which the dominant class smugly assigns credit for their professional success to bootstrap virtue rather than their accidental good fortune at having been raised in a family and culture that values and has access to higher education and the achievement it affords. Sandel claims this “meritocratic hubris” begets humiliation among the working class and intensifies their bitterness.

If Biden was indeed elected last night, he would be well served to redirect his party on a course that recognizes and values its roots in the working class. If Trump won, then hold on tight. Because it will only be a matter of time before his disciples discover that he never had their best interests in mind but merely exploited their resentment for his own ambitions.