We offer here an essay by Professor Arthur Lerman that is really worth getting into. Why are so many people so Angry in this election?. More than usual. “Angry Populism.” This has been “used” in very different ways especially well by Bernard Sanders and The Donald Trump.
Some explanations have been offered in previous pieces in this blog, like the review of Thomas Frank’s LISTEN, LIBERAL!. Is it true that a kind of anarchism or at least obstructionism is growing among us? And see what you think of Lerman’s solutions or solutions “out there” that he identifies.
Note: this will be re-blogged with further comments and perhaps Dr. Lerman’s and Your “comments on those comments!”
Also note: Prof. Lerman stresses that this is a Draft, that may be influenced by comments and his own further thinking
2016 Presidential Campaign Lessons Neglect (Even Benign) No Longer an Option ©
In the past, there were cases in which groups or individuals could be ignored and/or exploited by ruling classes, because the ignored/exploited had learned to accept their difficult position as part of the natural or religious order, or because they saw no hope of change–including the prediction that any attempt at change will make their situations even worse–e.g., severe/immediate repression from the ruling classes, for example.
Of course, throughout history, there were many cases in which groups or individuals did not accept their difficult positions as inevitable, so history is full of rebellions and revolutions—upsetting and overthrowing numerous ruling elite regimes.
In our modern world, with the spread of the power of groups and individual to threaten and ultimately disrupt the peace and security of socially privileged classes and, more importantly, with the spread of the consciousness of this power, this ability to blithely ignore and exploit is even less of an option.
This increased disruption capability, and awareness of such capability, has come with such new conditions as:
- the spread of rights of peaceful political action–voting and communicating about voting to others.
- the spread of technology for communicating to wide audiences.
- the increase in social complexity, making it easy for individuals or groups to “throw a monkey wrench into the works”, e.g., putting an orange traffic cone in front of an entrance to the George Washington Bridge.
- the increasing availability of the tools of violence to allow individuals and groups to wreak havoc.
(Interesting side note: In the mid-1960s, in graduate school, I remember a renowned sociology professor saying that social control has become so intense that the individual was already incapable of independent action that could disrupt society in any way. Seems the above conditions, especially b, c and d would reverse this judgment.)
So in our day, it is ever more perilous for political elites to allow groups (or even individuals) to fall into difficult social circumstances. And, therefore, we come, during the current presidential campaign, to the phenomenon of Donald Trump.
Of course, he is not unique. Angry populist movements abound in recent history. What is interesting is, that the workings of democracy should have precluded the rise of angry populism.
One could conceive of the workings of democracy as parallel to the workings of a market economic system—if there is a demand, producers will automatically act to supply it. So, if there is a political demand, political producers—i.e., creators and implementers of policy—should automatically act to meet the demand.
In such a case, the political producers would be continuously surveying the demands of all voting groups (if not the demands of isolated, unrepresentative individuals) to make sure they are supplying what is necessary to keep these groups supporting them..
Moreover, similar to a market system, it’s not just one political producer in play. Like in a competitive economy, anyone can present him/herself as a political producer, proposing ways to meet demands. In the U.S. that has pretty much meant that two organizations of political producers—the Republicans and the Democrats—have been the ones to respond to demands, keeping groups needs met and ensuring social stability.
In the recent U.S. past, for example, political producers responded to the Great Depression of the 1930s with Social Security and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to the 1950-1960’s demand for racial equality with the civil rights bills of the 1960s, and to the 1960’s health problems of seniors with Medicaid and Medicare.
But, as with economic markets, the theory does not always work out in practice.
Markets are plagued by lack of accurate knowledge, so producers may produce what is not demanded, or neglect to produce what is in demand.
(Of special note—one of the most difficult areas of the market economy is those who have demands, but do not have the resources [money, goods, services] to make their demands effective.)
Political markets are also plagued by lack of accurate knowledge. Some of this is simply lack of information about groups and their needs—perhaps because of poor information gathering, or, perhaps because of not knowing where to look or what to look at, or, preconceptions about what exists. And there is also the difficulty that, one may know what exists, but one’s ideology suggests an improper response.
So, we have the rise of angry populism, personified by the candidacy of Donald Trump, presumably because our political producers—the Republicans and Democrats—lacked the requisite information about how to meet the demands of Trump supporters, or have offering the wrong “product” for meeting the demands.
(There is also a “Blame the Victim” angle here. Perhaps political producers have been offering the proper product, but those making the demand do not realize their demand is being met–i.e., economic progress during Obama’s administration?)
So let us explore the groups and the demands involved.
Trump’s support is coming from white voters with a high school education or less. Their clear economic demands are for secure, well-paying jobs. The analysis is that many of their jobs have been transferred overseas, leaving them unemployed, or employed at lower wage, less secure—often retail—jobs.
The obvious response of political producers would be to find other ways to provide secure, well-paying employment. Ways to do this would be to:
- Create alternative venues to work in—or promote private sector efforts to do so.
- One example is rebuilding the country’s infrastructure—everything from transportation (roads, bridges, mass transit facilities) to public buildings (hospitals, schools.
- And there are the new tech industries that are coming out of the Silicon Valleys of our land.
- And there is the possibility of reclaiming industries that have moved abroad through new technologies, including robots, which can compete economically with foreign sweat shops.
- Afford opportunities to upgrade skills to fit oneself into such new industries.
- And the government could always be an employer of last resort. The idea that there is nothing worth paying the unemployed to do is false. And given that the country as a whole (though our companies that offshore their production) is still making immense, profits, indicates that the means do exist to employ individuals elsewhere where they are needed—for example, putting more teachers in the classroom or healthcare workers in our hospitals and clinics.
Yet, our two main political producers—at least the more typical, “Establishment” Republicans and Democrats—have not placed these employment products on the political market—resulting in the angry populism that is supporting the “anti-establishment” Donald Trump.
The question is why? Is it not an axiom of the market place—economic or political—that the self-interest of the producer will move him/her to provide the product to meet the demand?
Above, we have noted some explanations—lack of information, misperception, interpretation. To these we may add lack of ability to produce.
For the Republicans, some of this is interpretation. The Republican ideology is that government—including the political producers running the government—is not supposed to be responding to economically based demands. The ideology is that when government gets involved, things get worse—the government creates and runs incompetent and corrupt programs, and the individual becomes dependent on government, becoming a burden instead of an asset to society. . It is for the individual to respond to the market on his own, creating the economic opportunity to respond to such things as international economic competition.
(On thinks of articles by Thomas Friedman in the NY Times, urging individuals to retool themselves through advancing their education to meet the modern economy. Of course, Republican ideology does not promote government support for such, or government guidance on what retooling for what end. And then, what if in a few years, new products and competition from abroad necessitate another course of retooling. And how many times can an individual go through such a process. What of the psychological burden?)
The Democrats (full disclosure—I’m a loyal Democrat) do believe that the government can effectively meet these demands—but they have only limited ability respond—since they don’t control the Congress. Yet, since they control the executive, they still get lots of blame, since it’s the executive that’s the “face” of the “not-responsive” government.
Also, there is the analysis of Thomas Frank, brought home in his most recent book—Listen Liberal, that the Democrats have written off the white, high school educated working class—seeing them as having turned against the Democrats for their devotion to non-White minorities—who are as threatening to them as are overseas sweatshop workers—and having become a party of the meritocratic upper-middle classes—leaving the needs of the white working class to no one to respond to.
Oh! Yes, the Republicans have responded—but not with an economic product. They have responded to the psychology of the white working class that sees itself as having lost its status as having defined American. The white working class was psychologically supported, not only though solid economic jobs, but also with identification with the greatness of America. I’m great because America is great.
But now, America is more and more depicted as a mélange of whites and non-whites, in which white workers are just one more of America’s mélange of social groups. Loss of economic status (a secure, well-paying job) has been accompanied by loss of prestigious identification. And Obama, a black president, becomes the notorious symbol of this loss—explaining some of the vehement opposition to him—and anything he does, even when trying to compromise with the Republicans.
The Republicans have responded to this by their campaign of the loss of America’s power and prestige in the world and the loss of American morality at home—even before Trump—corralling the white vote for itself.
But, till Trump, the Republicans have not been able to improve things for the white working class—it only continued to play on the theme of resentment for loss of status.
Thus, they were open for someone who plays much more clearly and openly on these resentment themes.
So we have the angry populism that the Republicans were promoting—more clearly and angrily presented by Trump—he’s got the product and the white working class are buying.
Do the Democrats have an alternative? Hillary and Bernie both offer more concrete economic products, but is the white working class even looking at them?
Certainly some are—though many have long been in the Republican fold, seeing the Democrats as the friends of the minorities and sweatshop foreigners, as well as of elite upper-middle class types. So they are not listening.
A great challenge would be for Hillary (maybe riding on Bill’s charisma) to get them to listen again.
And Bernie—in his clear dedication to the workers—if he can get them to listen.
This is important, to go back to our beginning. Both producers in our political market place have neglected—failed to respond to– a major part of our society. And, given the easier ability for social groups to disrupt and threaten—not just the social elites, but everyone else—it is important to provide a product that will meet their own needs, while being compatible with the needs of all others in society.
Alternatively, they can be led by a demagogue—either to continuing ineffectual venting of anger (which the Republicans have been leading them on to do for years), or, more dangerously, to much more disruptive social action.