A throwaway line by a well-meaning journalist reveals the gulf in understanding between the political / media establishment and the struggling Americans who are not just drawn but actively pushed into the arms of Donald Trump
On his live blog of Night 3 of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Andrew Sullivan notes:
Rick Scott is up first. He’s informing us that the U.S. economy isn’t growing. That’s not true.
Yeah, okay. One point to Hillary Clinton, I guess. Except that for millions of Americans, the economy may as well not be growing. For millions of Americans, the economy is utterly stagnant – or at least the end of the labour market which they occupy is stagnant.
One of the reasons that so many people are enraged by the political class – and willing to give Donald Trump the time of day – is the airy way which their entirely legitimate concerns are dismissed by the elite.
There is a howl of pain emanating from the squeezed American lower middle and working classes – a cry that the economy is not working for them, not making it possible for them to achieve the American dream. But what is the establishment’s response? Too often, their response is simply to sniff that the dumb idiots have their facts wrong, that the economy is actually growing very nicely (for artisan bread makers and graphic designers and people working in the professional service sector), and that the dumb hicks should just shut up and stop complaining.
We see exactly the same thing with immigration. As Tucker Carlson wrote so memorably (and accurately) back in January:
On immigration policy, party elders were caught completely by surprise. Even canny operators like Ted Cruz didn’t appreciate the depth of voter anger on the subject. And why would they? If you live in an affluent ZIP code, it’s hard to see a downside to mass low-wage immigration. Your kids don’t go to public school. You don’t take the bus or use the emergency room for health care. No immigrant is competing for your job. (The day Hondurans start getting hired as green energy lobbyists is the day my neighbors become nativists.) Plus, you get cheap servants, and get to feel welcoming and virtuous while paying them less per hour than your kids make at a summer job on Nantucket. It’s all good.
And the scary thing is that it is the so-called “compassionate” liberals and progressive conservatives most likely to hold these dismissive views of the concerns of the squeezed middle and working classes. It is the people who make such a sanctimonious show of supposedly caring about equality that happily bank the many gifts that Obama’s economic recovery has bestowed upon them while looking with disgust and contempt at the complaints of their fellow Americans who are being left behind.
If that is how the elite really want to continue behaving then fine – it is their prerogative. But they cannot feign surprise and dismay when struggling Americans then lose faith in their leadership and their policy prescriptions, and go looking for something, anything else.
As it happens, I don’t think for a moment that Andrew Sullivan is indifferent to the suffering of America’s struggling working poor. He is a blogging hero of mine, and someone whom I respect enormously. But he is also very much part of the media elite and lives a life very far removed from those who struggle and live paycheck to paycheck. One can understand his instinctive irritation on hearing Rick Scott falsely state that America’s economy is not growing under President Obama.
But what we need now from the establishment is an enormous effort to find empathy for those Americans who have not seen an economic recovery since 2008, no matter what the top line GDP figures say. When hard-working people are hurting and living precariously at a time of their lives when they had been raised to believe they should be enjoying the fruits of the American dream, it is not enough to summarily dismiss their concerns, even – perhaps especially – when they are poorly or angrily articulated.
The Republican Party has already failed to learn this lesson of empathy and humility. Donald Trump is their punishment. The American Left and non-aligned conservatives and libertarians can scarcely afford to make the same mistake.
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Thanks for this informative post. From an economic perspective, the bottom sections of the income distribution in the US have seen stagnation in their wages since the 1970s and this is surely a cause of the disaffection with globalization. There may be some movement between these sections and ‘classes’, but for a large number, the American Dream has proved a chimera. The decline in manufacturing employment and the rise of low and high-paying service sector jobs has dramatically raised income inequality leaving decent, middle-income jobs increasingly scarce, but a real solution to these trends may be hard to find and even harder to put into practice by politicians. The rise of populism and the rejection of free trade and globalization is increasingly widespread across the Western World. But I can’t see Trump as a solution to any of this.
This “gulf in understanding” has arisen in America, Britain and elsewhere in Europe so to explain it we need to look for a change in political practice and culture that has occurred in all these places at roughly the same time. The most obvious candidate is the evolution of mass media politics.
In the 20th century the mass media took on an ever greater role in political campaigning. Politicians recognised that the media could reach a far wider audience than they could ever speak to in person. They recognised the increasing dominance of television in popular culture and wanted to use that power for their own ends. They also realised that staging events for the media would give them more control over how they were perceived.
Therefore political campaigning became more and more about media appearances. Politicians began to forget the older methods of campaigning or never really learnt them in the first place. They began to see their own party’s supporters as a risk to be managed, in case they went “off message” and disrupted the media campaign. So they tried to curtail the influence of ordinary party members as much as possible and began to shy away from unscripted interactions with the public. Consequently membership of political parties and public involvement in politics dropped precipitously.
These trends were taken to their logical conclusion by the Blair and Clinton campaigns of the 1990s in which mass media dominance was seen as the only thing that mattered. It was a form of politics in which the public were treated as blank slates on which the media would imprint a message rather than as participants in the political process. But the media are fickle and constantly in search of novelty, so the price of controlling the headlines was to abandon any long-term policy goals in favour of short-term expedients that gave the media whatever they wanted that day. This in turn created an unhealthily close relationship between the media and the politicians, and a complacent assumption that public opinion could always be controlled.
It also favoured candidates who had no attachment to anything outside the world of politics and the media because people who are grounded in “the real world” do not believe that you can manufacture reality to order. To consistently believe that spin defines reality one must either be utterly cynical or highly susceptible to magical thinking, and both those traits create politicians who are unconcerned about the consequences of their actions. The cynics don’t care and the magical thinkers only see what they want to see.
The result was the development of a media-political bubble in which journalists and politicians spent all their time reacting to each other rather than looking outwards to the wider society. The tactics of manipulation inevitably bred contempt for the people who were being manipulated, making it easy to dismiss their concerns as unimportant.
The effectiveness of this type of politics was always bound to decline once the public realised how the spin machine worked. But the decline was turned into a collapse by the rapid growth in popularity of the internet. Suddenly there were too many media outlets to control. Anybody with an idea could tell it to the world and anybody else could respond. Experts could communicate directly to the public about their specialist field and point out errors and misrepresentations in the media. The shallowness and ignorance of many opinion columnists was ruthlessly exposed.
At the same time, all the problems created by years of short-term expedients became too serious to ignore. The endless spin destroyed trust in the honesty of the political class and their willing tools in the media. The policy failures exposed them as irresponsible, self-serving and frequently deluded.
But there is reason to be optimistic. The Blair / Clinton / Cameron politics of illusion depended on a mass media cultural hegemony that no longer exists. Like the last steam engines, they represented the most advanced development of a type that was about to become obsolete. The “heir to Blair” has been shunted into a siding. So we are currently experiencing the end of this anomalous era and the slow and difficult reversion of politics back to something more normal.
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Thank you Andrew for a most insightful comment. That was a real essay! But a very useful and perceptive one – I think you distilled the trend very well indeed, though obviously there are a some exceptional politicians who have resisted this trend to a greater or lesser degree. I particularly like your steam train analogy. Hopefully the coming era of the MagLev politician is kinder to us!