Sunday, February 14, 2016

Desperation and Despair Pushing the Political Tectonic Plates

Edward Hopper, Sunlight in an Empty Room, 1963

The plate tectonics of American politics and society are shifting under our feet.  In what direction and to what end remains to be seen.  We may be about to see the biggest change in 50 years; perhaps the biggest since the post World War II consensus came undone with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.  Whatever is coming, the days of the political status quo for the past 35 to 40 years are numbered.

A clue to some of the factors driving these changes came in a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that the mortality rate for middle aged whites (men and women) with no college education spiked at an alarming rate for almost 20 years.  They were the only demographic group to see an increase in mortality.  All other demographic groups in the USA saw a decrease in mortality.  Internationally, the USA is alone in this.  Mortality rates are declining for the same middle aged demographic with limited educations in other developed countries.
This is the biggest spike in mortality for any group since the height of the AIDS crisis.
The primary causes of death are drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.  The study goes on to try to account for this.  They conclude that rapidly deteriorating living standards tied to growing difficulty in finding decent paying employment are the major factors driving this spike.  We may be looking at an effect of NAFTA and other trade agreements that dumped cheap foreign goods into the American market and exported manufacturing jobs to countries with no floor under wages.  We may also be looking at the results of the systematic dismantling of American manufacturing due to outsourcing and foreign competition, along with the effects of the declining power of labor unions, and of the destruction of the old blue collar middle class.

Drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide; whole populations are dying a lonely death from hopelessness and despair.  It is hard not to feel alarmed by this.

Just to be clear, the mortality rates for Blacks and Latinos remain higher than that for whites, but those rates are declining while the rate for low wage whites is climbing.  Perhaps these rates are approaching a grim kind of parity.

I think it's safe to say that this growing desperation and despair drives at least some of the anger and the radicalism that we see in right wing politics these days, but that also drives anger and divisions on the left.

The spectacle of an entire population discarded so coldly and brutally offends our basic sense of fairness and decency.

Charles Blow in an essay in the NY Times points out that minorities of color in the USA never had any illusions of American fairness or decency.  To them it was glaringly obvious that the freedom and prosperity of the white majority depended on their oppression and poverty:

America has a gauzy, romanticized version of its history that is largely fiction. According to that mythology, America rose to greatness by sheer ruggedness, ingenuity and hard work. It ignores or sidelines the tremendous human suffering of African slaves that fueled that financial growth, and the blood spilled and dubious treaties signed with Native Americans that fueled its geographic growth. It ignores that the prosperity of some Americans always hinged on the oppression of other Americans.

Much of America’s past is the story of white people benefiting from a system that white people designed and maintained, which increased their chances of success as it suppressed those same chances in other groups. Those systems persist to this day in some disturbing ways, but the current, vociferous naming and challenging of those systems, the placing of the lamp of truth near the seesaw of privilege and oppression, has provoked a profound sense of discomfort and even anger.

"Structural inequality has leapt the racial barrier" Blow argues.  The white working class and the non-white working class really are in this together and both are reaping the consequences of decades of policy decisions that enriched some people at their expense.

Decades of GOP tactics that channeled rising anxiety about declining wages and living standards into xenophobic and racist passions are now starting to backfire on the Republican Party establishment.  Aging blue collar whites are terrified of demographic, cultural, and technological sea changes.  They are afraid that the world that they always knew will die with them, and that they will find themselves even more profoundly discarded in the strange new world that emerges all around them.  These fears drive the rude ferocity of the Trump campaign and the apocalyptic brutality of the Cruz campaign.
The truck drivers, factory workers, and mechanics are no longer willing to sit patiently while being lectured at about market fundamentals.

Their children and grandchildren have their own reasons to feel alienated from the political status quo.  The twenty and thirty somethings do not share their parents' terror of demographic, social, and technological change.  If anything, they welcome it.  This new world is the one that they grew up in and know, and they swim in it happily.  They have no living memories -- and don't want any -- of the Cold War and its culture.  That bogey-word "socialism" means Scandinavia, national health insurance, and paid family leave to them; not the Soviet Union and the state-owned command economy that their parents and grandparents knew.  The young ones are over-educated, under-employed, and underpaid with huge crippling debt loads that will follow them for the rest of their lives.  In addition, they have nothing like the guaranteed fixed pensions of their grandparents to look forward to.  They have to carve some kind of savings out of wages that just barely pay the rent and the student loan payments.  They will find that those 401K plans that their employers provide at relatively low cost are anything but secure and are inadequate to a life post employment.  These disappointing prospects and struggles to stay afloat are the frustrations that drive the passions behind the Bernie Sanders campaign.
The kids haven't faired at all well in the politics of patronage and plutocracy.

I think the official corporate media, the official designated spokespersons, the over-paid punditocracy, and academia missed this huge tectonic shift taking place right under their feet, and now notice it because it threatens them.  Who knows how this will all come out.  We could see a new birth of liberal democracy, or we could be on the verge of a fascist episode.
We'll all find out eventually.

No comments: