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The polarization of our country isn’t between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. It’s between richer and poorer, elitists and proletarians, over-educated and under-educated, globalists and localists. The line between the two is a shifting one, depending on where you live, but the consistent difference is the ability to participate successfully in the economy. Successful participants are able, without onerous labor, to accumulate sufficient income, assets, and benefits to provide for security for themselves and family–a comfortable home, useful education, vacations and travel, health care, a few luxuries, and comfortable retirement. This was the reality once made possible for most middle-class Americans by competent public education and high-paying industrial jobs.
Those days are long gone. Fewer and fewer people can maintain an upwardly mobile life-style; more and more are falling behind. A recent survey conducted by the Federal Reserve revealed that half of Americans (49%) could not come up with $400 within 24 hours. How this shift to relative poverty happened over a generation is perhaps the central story of our time. A series of political decisions beginning in the 1970s successfully dismantled the middle-class state in favor of the plutocratic oligarchy under which we now live. Deregulation began under Jimmy Carter; Reagan busted unions and ingrained a hatred of “big government;” the Bushes and Clinton gutted welfare programs, repealed long-standing financial regulations, like the Glass-Stegal Act, and promoted globalization after the fall of the Soviet Union; Obama pursued identity politics while failing to reform Wall Street after the 2008 crash; Trump has focused on tax cuts for the rich (justified by trickle-dow economics) while dismissing scientific standards of truth and playing on racial and xenophobic fears.
Most of this can be understood as a reaction to the revolutionary politics of the 1960s. The young generation of the time, dismayed by the injustice of the Vietnam War and unaccountable corporate-military power evident the wake of the Kennedy assassination, threatened, for a time, to overthrow the social and political norms of American society. Blacks in inner cities, inspired by the civil rights movement, rose up in unprecedented revolt in a cry for social justice, contributing to the chaos.
These disruptions were not to be tolerated. Wealthy establishment leaders put their leads together and launched a top-down counter-revolution. They funded think-tanks, conservative media, and right wing politicians–most of whom preached a libertarian politics derived from Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. The catchword was “freedom” and the idea was to remove all impediments to making or sharing money. Crucial to their success was the co-optation of the Democratic party leadership, beginning with the Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. With the Democrats firmly on board, and with financial deregulation and globalization in the works, the counter-revolution swept all before it.
So here we are. Social justice has been reduced to identity politics, with economic justice left in the dustbin of history. Progressives on the political fringe are left begging for crumbs from the corporate table that will never come under the current dispensation: free college education, universal health care. The consolation prize is the apparent victory of gender politics in a now endless series of media exposes of powerful men abusing women–a victory perilously vulnerable to backlash.
The upshot is that our current politics is largely irrelevant. Odious and horrific as Trump may be, and he is, the liberal opposition lost most of its credibility when it sold out to the counter-revolution. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have little hope of restoring the old prosperity of the middle class. Globalization and a financialized economy with little benefit for ordinary people remains the order of the day.
Those benefiting from the status quo, even marginally, are unlikely to champion real reform. The only hope, if this analysis makes any sense, lies with the poorer, under-educated, proletarian localists. So far they have been enthralled by Trumpian rhetoric, the only blunt instrument they’ve been offered with which to beat up the establishment. But it’s not working for them. Trump is not a globalist, but he is committed to a financialized, growth-dependent economy. The problem is that trickle-down economics–global or local–isn’t going to work any more. Pollution, climate change, resource depletion, technology, population increase–all these conspire to frustrate future economic growth and to render increasing numbers economically irrelevant.
Trumpian economics is bound to turn sour. When it does his constituency will be up for grabs. Its members have been fed the red meat of racism , xenophobia, and sexism. Can they rise above prejudices which they may share, but which have also been foisted upon them? If globalization has a virtue, it’s multi-culturalism–a universal vision of humanity. Can multi-culturalism survive the end of globalization? What sources can inform a generosity of spirit for proletarian localists? Will they be kind to their elitist neighbors, or will they persecute them?
These are the questions of our time.