I’m thinking on the work of two writers, both of whom lay blame for the rise of authoritarian extremism in America on economic decline rather than bigotry alone.
Umair Haque – Medium:
The great gift of accepting that racism has a material factor which can cause it to explode — stagnation — is that then we can do something about it. Then and only then. If we moralize, we can’t, remember? When we accept that bigotry and hatred are unleashed by despair and frustration, in every human heart — not just “theirs”, but even in ours, should we be so unlucky — then and only then can we begin to act to prevent it, mitigate it, stop it.
Bigotry, Haque claims, is the moral cause of extremism, lit by the match of stagnation (and the ever-present fear of change, I’d add). He makes financial economy and racism co-equal, leading lock-step to authoritarian extremism.
Who couldn’t agree? A slow or stalled economy gives way to “me first,” and in a mixed ethnicity culture such as America’s, that becomes “us first.” In our present political distress, “America first.”
Thank you so much for giving voice to our baser instincts, Mr. Trump.
Assigning stagnation to the roll of instigator means we should also see racism in most or all of the towns blighted by the close of factories and other manufacturing facilities. We should see isolated pockets of minority communities, trapped by the too-high cost of joining other neighborhoods. And we do.
Yet there’s little evidence of greater bigotry and racial conflict in those communities than, say, functional economic centers like New York, Chicago, and Houston. There’s little evidence that the communities that supported automobile manufacturing in the north and cattle herding and exchange in Texas and Oklahoma harbor more racism than, say, leftist communities such as Berkeley, Boston, and Atlanta.
Remember that, as Michael Gerson phrased it for George H. W. Bush, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” flowed like honey from the best-intentioned liberal enclaves. There’s not a little benefit to be had from being the only hand up for struggling minority Americans.
Bigotry is a child of many fathers. Anyone can find reason to throw shade at black, immigrant, Muslim, atheist (add your group here) Americans, and have, and continue to do so when it’s convenient or expedient.
Economics has kept many a minority man and woman down. “You can’t work here” greeted those emerging from the Jim Crow South last century. It’s not the only cause of racial and ethnic hatred.
Often, bigotry is simply a fear of people who don’t look like us, bow to other gods, speak with an accent. How many families were denied access to housing in neighborhoods where they weren’t welcome? These were people who could afford the cost of living in these places, and those denying them entry weren’t suffering economic depression themselves.
Haque’s thesis is a partial explanation of why we are where we are in 2017 America.
Spend time reading through Chris Arnade’s work about the underclass – those out of work, undereducated and without much hope of improvement – to see the seeds of stagnation and hopelessness. Arnade’s trigger, like Haque’s, is economic.
Those who value education, knowledge, employment and are willing to move and earn a college degree (the “front row kids”) are politically pitted against those who value hometowns and well-paying lifelong jobs, the kind available with a high school diploma (the “back row kids”). A bigotry emerges among those who valued the move, the work, the career, looking back and down upon those who stayed behind. (The Guardian):
America has changed fundamentally over the last 35 years, and I saw and heard the impact of those changes. America had finally started upending a longstanding and ugly racial hierarchy, removing legal barriers that had made the playing field anything but level. For this, minorities overwhelmingly supported the new system, despite still suffering economically and socially more than white Americans.
Yet we replaced that system with one based on schooling, building a playing field that was tilted dramatically towards anyone with the “right” education. The jobs requiring muscle decreased (many going overseas) while the jobs requiring school increased. Compounding the pain from this, we started giving the winners a much larger share of the profits.
Arnade’s underclass isn’t a racial or ethnic group per se, but those stuck in communities our economy has forgotten. Facing stagnation, these communities turned out for Mr. Trump.
But generations of Americans have picked up and moved in search of better than they could find in their home town. What happened in America after the 1990s? How many of the successful, “front row kids” actually had advanced degrees, vs. a simple willingness to move, to act, to do whatever was necessary to succeed? How many had the singular motivator of a parent’s firm prod?
In short, if America isn’t working for people in a community, what happened to voting with your feet?
I get the argument. I don’t get the not doing something about it for oneself.
Name every form of hatred you’ve seen or read of in the ascendance of the extreme Mr. Trump.
Bigotry, avoiding rental of his New York City properties to blacks in the 1970s.
Misogyny, claiming to unpenalized sexual assault of women: “grab them by the pussy.”
Xenophobia, his executive order blocking immigrants from entry to the United States as he promised during his 2016 campaign.
Add in narcissism, his insatiable need for adulation and success.
According to Arnade, those living in communities “left behind” by off-shoring of jobs in the 1980s and 1990s, and the rise of automation in the workplace in the 2000s and beyond found themselves in a dead end. Little opportunity at home, and apparently little effort to move where there was.
Behold, the sparks of extremism in America.
I have a hard time buying into the full thesis, though.
How many actually listened and acted, rather than scoffed, when candidates Clinton and Gore campaigned on retraining the American workforce? How many followed through?
In short, how do we delineate between economic stagnation and intellectual stagnation, and how much credit should we assign willingness and action to better oneself?
We can begin at first principles. A bigot stuck in dead end America, or living it up in a penthouse, is still a bigot. Putting others down to feel better about oneself is a losing game. Living through hard times need not make you hate your fellows, even if they’re doing better than you. There is no denying the economic and cultural violence done to people of color in the centuries before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and after.
My tentative take for now is that we’re seeing two long-run effects: of institutionalized racism and oppression, an unacknowledged history of America that’s always been right in front of us, and of stagnated minds and effort in a generation or two of Americans who’ve found their champion in a man besieged by personality disorder and enabled by opportunists.
America is not blameless, not its people, its politics, nor its polity. Scratch the bottom of the barrel and there’s more there than the weight of the rest of the culture bearing down on it. There’s inertia, there’s intellectual laziness evolved into distrust of intellect, there’s what Asimov famously remarked on:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”
No it isn’t, and those who believe it is are reaping what they sowed by believing it so. They will be the first to feel the sting of Mr. Trump’s ignorance.
I don’t have the full answer, yet. I’m thinking on it, reading, working my way to something. Economics and racism igniting authoritarianism makes some sense. Not all.
We’ll find it; we always do. May it not come too late. Cultures and governance do have their limits.
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