America’s Aimless Anger
Note: This piece is in response to this CNN money piece and the general media coverage of the 2016 election that I have experienced.
Media coverage of the Trump campaign has repeated the message over and over: working class whites are mad as hell. They are turning to Donald Trump because they have lost all faith in the federal government. On one hand, they think the government does too much: too much regulation, too much infringement on personal liberties, too much taxation. On the other hand, they think the government doesn’t do enough: to protect jobs, to provide assistance to working class people, to make it possible to live a modest life in America. In Trump, they have found a mouthpiece for their vitriol, an outsider who promises to hear the concerns of those who feel like they have been forgotten. Many don’t even particularly believe in large portions of Trump’s message or believe he is competent enough to do the job — But their level of frustration has reached a boiling point where they wouldn’t mind watching him burn down the whole system because they don’t feel like it works for them at a fundamental level anyway.
They aren’t wrong, and I say that as a liberal who believes that government has a strong role to play in assuring the well being of its citizens. The white working class, and indeed the working class as a whole, has been left behind in America. Whites are just reacting now because they are comparatively new to the experience of complete disenfranchisement that the minority working class has long been accustomed to. America has a real, long, difficult history with race barriers, but today there is perhaps no barrier more impactful than that which exists between those who have a 4-year college degree and those who do not. The bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma: without one, many are simply excluded from earning a wage that can support a family or even maintain baseline self-sufficiency. Jobs that don’t require a degree (manufacturing, labor, service, etc.) have been disappearing in America for some time now, and presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle campaign on nebulous promises to “bring jobs back”. These promises are hollow; the office of the president has little to no power to create jobs, and certainly lacks the power to bring the large scale manufacturing back to America that brought what many view as a golden age. Trump can’t do it, Clinton can’t do it, no candidate from any political party anyone can conceive of can do it. It’s never going to happen. Globalization is here to stay and America must adapt.
The unfortunate reaction of many who have seen their jobs outsourced to developing nations or experienced perceived or real job competition from immigrants is to reach for the predictable, easy answer: an insular, angry brand of nationalism that wants to withdraw from the wider world. This, in its purest essence, is the Trump campaign. It is the junk food of answers; a ruthlessly engineered solution that targets our most basic impulses but lacks substance, won’t make us healthy, and will destroy us in time. This solution tells us to point the blame at immigrants, at those of different races, at the wealthy, at the government — but never at ourselves. It improves nothing because it does not ask us to change, but to fruitlessly combat that which we cannot change. Instead of misdirected fast-food anger, America needs a new diet. And not just a diet you go on for a couple months (or say, a presidential term) and then slip back into your old ways — A real, lifelong commitment to a new way of life. A re-evaluation of what we can do as citizens to succeed, and what we can ask of our government to help us achieve success.
As a nation, we need to come to terms with the fact our current system of requiring a 4-year degree to live is simply not compatible with having a functioning, sustainable economy. We stand at the crossroads of two conflicting realities: globalization is here to stay (that is, working class jobs are not coming back), but not all citizen’s aptitudes or desires are in alignment with white collar work (and there aren’t enough positions for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here). The plight of the blue collar worker is real, and white collar workers need to realize that our very existence exacerbates those problems. Those of us in the tech industry in particular work every day to automate processes and eliminate the need for human labor. In the near future cars will drive themselves (just look at Uber quickly trying to replace their human drivers with a fleet of automated cars) and positions such as restaurant servers and bank tellers will be increasingly replaced by computer interfaces. The squeeze on working class jobs is only going to get worse.
So what do we do with the displaced populace that used to occupy these positions? Even from a purely self-serving standpoint, we can’t afford to continue to leave them out in the cold unless we want riots and the election of destructive politicians (I’m looking at you, Mr. Trump). We have to approach this problem with compassion and understand that the current system not only fails to provide a large portion of the populace with income, but fails to provide a path to self-sufficiency and purpose that is at the core of what our culture values. It is that culture that needs to change. We need to stop immediately judging the unemployed as lazy. We need to stop heavily discriminating against those with employment gaps in the job hiring process. We need to stop valuing blue and white collar work at vastly different levels and provide a living wage for all. Perhaps most of all, we need to re-evaluate the role of work in society. Futurists once dreamed of a world where humans didn’t have to work, where automation allowed humanity to live lives of leisure. That automation is arriving, and our culture needs to change to reflect it. We must do away with the idea that all of us must maintain full time employment in order to survive, because each technological advancement chips away at the hours necessary to complete a task and the need for a 40 hour work week, sometimes removing the need for human involvement entirely. The island of employment is shrinking and we need to start building boats before we tear each other apart competing for diminishing space.
It is time to consider a guaranteed minimum income. It is time to consider a “second new deal” to transport laborers to where they are needed and repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. It is time to move the national conversation away from finger pointing and misplaced vitriol. The post WW2 halcyon days aren’t coming back (if they ever truly existed), and everyday Americans must come to accept that our culture and expectations need to drastically change to meet a challenging future.