Strangers in Their Own Land (part 3)

June 22, 2018

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The rise of Donald Trump

Near the end of her book, Arlie Hochschild comments on the Trump phenomenon, observing that “the scene had been set for Trump’s rise, like kindling before a match is lit.” He appealed to the deep feelings of Tea Party conservatives in Louisiana–feelings of economic anxiety, cultural marginalization, and demographic decline. They felt that America was no longer the country of hard-working white Christians, secure in their economic achievements and traditional morality, but that Trump could somehow restore that America.

Trump is an “emotions candidate” who generates strong emotional responses but offers little in the way of specific policy proposals. He appeals only partly to economic self-interest, and largely to “emotional self-interest–a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land.”

Right-wing regimes elsewhere are tapping into similar feelings, coming to power in Russia, Hungary and Poland, and gaining support in France, Germany and United Kingdom.

The liberal challenge

All this poses a huge challenge for liberal democracy in general and political liberals in particular.

Liberals have their own deep story, one that places high value on the “creatively designed, hard-won public sphere.” We created it to provide benefits that the private sphere does not provide, such as protection of our common environment. From a liberal standpoint, “marauders” are out to destroy the public sphere and convert its resources into sources of private profit.

Liberals can be passionate about their commitments too, which raises the question of whether today’s political battles are anything more than a clash of emotions. Hochschild doesn’t address the question of whether liberals have become as susceptible to propaganda and oblivious to facts and rational arguments as Trump enthusiasts and Fox News viewers have. I personally don’t think so. Historically, the left has succumbed to radical utopianism and violence at times, but I see little of that in the U.S. today.

Hochschild recommends several things for liberals to do:

  • Stand up for our democratic institutions, such as the independent judiciary and the free press
  • Address the legitimate concerns of people who feel that social change is leaving them behind
  • Cross the empathy divide, get to know people different from ourselves and stop disparaging them so much

With regard to the second point, Democrats need to be clear on what they have to offer the entire working class, without regard to race. They need to ask white men to stop worrying so much about the blacks or women trying to get ahead, and worry more about the proliferating robots, whom Hochschild calls the real line-cutters. They need to focus on what government can do to strengthen our economy by preparing our workers for the jobs that will remain once the routine work has been automated.

At one point, Hochschild says that if she could write a letter to her conservative friends, one thing she would tell them is to take a look at Norway. That country uses its wealth to improve the health, education and well-being of its citizens across the board. That’s different from focusing benefits on the poor alone, which tends to stigmatize recipients and incur the wrath of taxpayers. Both Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything and George Lakey’s Viking Economics stress the advantages of the Nordic approach. Of course, advocates of universal benefits must be prepared to argue with economic conservatives who claim that tax cuts are good for the economy but spending increases are bad.

I remain hopeful that the culture wars may subside as younger generations grow up more accustomed to new realities such as globalization, ethnic diversity, women’s equality and gay rights. Then maybe we can get on with the business of formulating economic policies that work for more people. And voters can get back to supporting candidates whose realistic proposals can actually help them instead of just channeling their anger.

In the end, Hochschild concludes, “I feel great admiration for the people I’ve met on the other side of the empathy wall. And while my vote will surely differ from theirs, I wish them well.” In a similar vein I would say that I respect the feelings of extreme conservatives, but I cannot be too swayed by them. Angry, mournful nostalgia is not a sound basis for public policy, any more than enthusiastic utopianism would be.