The Ordinary Man Strikes Back
It may take years for some people to get over what happened to them in high school. They were not athletes. They held no class offices. They were not considered one of the smart ones and they were not among the socially sophisticated who had nice clothes and nicer complexions. When they graduated twenty years ago or so, nobody paid much attention to them. They were just there. They got out of school, found some kind of job, met somebody, and got married. And, still no one is paying any attention to them. They are still just there. They know that something is wrong. There are people out there taking advantage of them. Now after all these years, with the 2016 election campaign, it may seem like revenge time.
During the period since those people were in high school, the economic world has changed. It has become far more interconnected, and, to hear economic elites speak, more rational. Those who can produce things more cheaply are, and they should be, producing goods for others in economies that are more advanced. A few people in those economies can take advantage of their ability to hire expertness in the new digital interconnectedness to make vast profits. One unspoken truth about this new digitalized economy is that it needs relatively fewer employees. The major benefits of the new economy will be concentrated in only a small number of highly capable and highly sophisticated people who tend to be concentrated in well off suburbs. In the country outside, there are some benefits for ordinary wage earners because they can buy consumer goods more cheaply. But, even the delivery of those consumer items requires fewer workers and does not provide employment at much above the minimum wage. Our former graduates can reasonably feel that they are stuck at the bottom. Somehow, they have been cheated.
We live in a world of constant change because of advances in technology. Many jobs would have been lost even if manufacturing had not been exported at all. To counter the disruptive effects of technological change, in a more rational world, a democratically elected government would work to see that benefits were more evenly spread and that those areas most negatively effected would be cushioned as much as possible. What happened here instead was that the Republicans in Congress, in the 1990’s led by Newt Gingrich, decided that the way to gain a congressional majority would be to obstruct virtually any new governmental action at all. They were remarkably successful. So the role that government could have played in helping its workers adjust was lost.
During that same period since people, now in their forties, were in high school, society has changed in a variety of ways. One is that we have increasingly become a society enveloped in entertainment. With the help of modern technology, and the decline of formal religion, many people have come to believe that the purpose of life is to be entertained. That is particularly true for the young, but for many older persons too. America’s youth want jobs so that they can buy more electronic entertainment. Think about your local teenager seldom seen without a cell phone. Even the cell phone has become just another platform to deliver entertainment.
Through most of our recent history, primary voters would never have voted for someone like Donald Trump. Why a Donald Trump now? With entertainment so omnipresent, campaigns, for many, will be experienced as just another form of entertainment. We have heard voters supporting Donald Trump say that we need someone to shake things up, to make something new happen, something exciting, a change. The truth is that what people in government do from day to day is not very exciting, not very entertaining. So, for people who have come to need constant entertainment, Donald Trump is the perfect candidate. He will make things happen, make government exciting again.
Modern entertainment is designed to create sensation in its listeners, to make it seem like something is happening, when nothing is. To do that there needs to be very little real content. How many people will remember the content of the current offerings of Beyonce, or any of the others, two months from now? A year? How many, a year from now, will be discussing the significance of the truths in Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice? That is the point! In entertainment, real world content doesn’t matter. We go for the special effects, for the sensation. So, we should not be surprised that for an unfortunate number of voters, content in the political campaigns doesn’t matter either. It doesn’t matter to them that Donald Trump won’t do what he says he will do. What does matter is that Donald Trump makes the campaign exciting, fun, entertaining! He talks like us!
For too many of those people who graduated twenty years ago life seems to have no upward arc. They feel locked in boring low paying jobs. They need someone to blame and far off illegal immigrants become a target. They vaguely imagine dark forces somewhere causing their problems. In the meantime, they rely on entertainment to distract them simply because it is available, and, it gives them something to talk about. So, when a forceful, entertaining candidate comes along who promises to make everything right, it is not surprising that they respond. Finally, after all those years, they will have their day. Things will come right. Unfortunately, a candidate capable of an almost content free campaign could be a disaster in office. And, all the dreams of salvation through excitement, may well end up producing only the kind of prolonged stagnation that will make content free entertainment, all the more, the only alternative,