Four Years Early?

George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948. It wasn’t a prediction, really; more of a convenience reich 8just to flip the numbers around. Robert Reich wrote Aftershock: The New Economy & America’s Future in 2011 and in it, he imagined a boiling over of populist fervor in 2020. He might be right. He often is. On the other hand, as I look at Speaker Paul Ryan’s call to arms, I wonder if Reich might not be four years late.

Here is Reich’s scenario.

November 3, 2020. The newly formed Independence Party pulls enough votes away from both the Republican and Democratic candidates to give its own candidate, Margaret Jones, a plurality of votes, an electoral college victory, and the presidency. A significant number of Independence Party members have also taken seats away from Democrats and Republicans in Congress. [1]

On the night of November 3, President-elect Jones gives a victory speech. Her tone is defiant.

My fellow Americans: You have voted to reclaim America. Voted to take it back from big government, big business, and big finance. To take it back from the politicians who would rob us of our freedoms, from foreigners who rob us of our jobs, from the rich who have no loyalty to this nation, and from immigrants who live off our hard work. (Wild applause.) We are reclaiming America from the elites who have rigged the system to their benefit, from the money manipulators on Wall Street and the greed masters in corporate executive suites, from the influence peddlers and pork peddlers in Washington—from all the privileged and the powerful who have conspired against us. (Wild applause and cheers.) They will no longer sell Americans out to global money and pad their nests by taking away our jobs and livelihoods! (Wild applause, cheers.) This is our nation, now! (Wild applause and cheers that continue to build.) A nation of good jobs and good wages for anyone willing to work hard! Our nation! America for Americans! (Thunderous applause.)

reich 3There are eight sentences here, nearly all of them dripping with paranoia.  Richard J. Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” first as an article in Harpers’s Magazine, then as a collection of essays with that title. Hofstadter justified the use of “paranoid” by specifying “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” which characterizes some political movements. [2]. You can argue that there are public policy goals valued by the right and not the left, in American politics, and vice versa, but “paranoid” is not about policy goals. It is about ways of thinking, prominent among which are “us” versus “them.”

Reich identifies a few trends that sound just as clear today as they did when he wrote them five years ago. These conditions, taken together, are, he says, “toxic.”

“Americans might be able to accept a high rate of unemployment coupled with lower wages,” he says (Chapter 3). [3]

“We are likely,” he continues, “ to accommodate absolute as well as relative losses in our standard of living for a long stretch of time. (Chapter 4).

“We might abide even wider inequality.” (Chapter 5)

And he concluded, “But when all of these are added to a perception that the economic game is rigged—that no matter how hard we try we cannot get ahead because those with great wealth and power will block our way— the combination may very well be toxic.” That’s the first paragraph of Chapter 6. The title of Chapter 7 is “The Politics of Anger.”

The conditions Reich identifies are undeniably there, with the exception of the last one. It reich 2is not widely agreed that the game is rigged. [4] And if it were, there would be very little agreement on how it is rigged, on whose behalf it is rigged, and what might be done about it.

In a way, that’s even worse. Terms like those that President-elect Jones uses, “us” and “them,” really don’t require agreement on who is being referred to. Those who are furious about immigrants and “pork peddlars” can vote happily beside those who are furious about “money manipulators” and “greed masters.” All are THEM. A government elected by such incompatible angers could not govern, of course, but such a government could continue to be elected so long as the angers are generalized and potent.

This brings us to Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan is conservative. He is not paranoid. On the other hand, how close to the us v. them worldview does he dare to go before a spiraling radicalization takes over?

The New York Times’ David Herszenhorn reported on December 4 that Speaker Ryan said, “Our No. 1 goal for the next year is to put together a complete alternative to the left’s agenda.” Ryan imagines a “them” which is not the government and not the Democratic party, but “the left.” He believes that “the left” has an agenda and he would like to see a point for point alternative from…well…from “the right,” I guess. [5] Ryan puts “the government” on one side and “the people” on the other.

Not that the Speaker doesn’t have policy goals. He wants to overhaul the tax code.reich 7 Everybody likes that as a general proposition; it is the specific provisions that hurt. He wants to support American manufacturers; to strengthen the military, especially against the threat of the Islamic State; and to repeal Obamacare.

So here’s where we are. The combination of economic forces has been abrasive to middle class hopes for more than 40 years now. Things are getting worse and they are going to go on getting worse. Economic inequality in the U. S. has reached levels we saw last in 1929, just as the Great Depression broke. The political fight of today could be—eventually—about what to do about it. [6]. But what to do about it seems, in the present paranoid climate, a little abstract; a little brain driven. Before we get there, and possibly instead of getting there at all, there is the question of who is to blame. US v. THEM is the lineup we need for the politics of blame.

This would be like the little NFL dramas that occur when offensive and defensive lines collide before the ball is snapped. The O line points to the D line; the D line points to the O line. It’s predictable; it’s theater; it’s funny. But in the NFL, there are referees who will decide who is at fault and will assess the proper penalty. There is no chance that the fans can be so offended by the refs’ decisions that they will vote them out at put in “our own guys.” The NFL doesn’t work that way because they need to keep their fan base and that requires at least the presumption of fairness. The U. S. needs to keep its fan base too and a Left v. Right battle of Armageddon in 2016 is not going to do that job.

And if it doesn’t get done in 2016, Margaret Jones awaits in 2020.

[1] Not that Reich is opposed to having fun with the scenario. The Republican candidate that year is George P. Bush. The Democratic candidate is Chelsea Clinton.
[2] See a very interesting current look at the same phenomenon by Neil H. Buchanan posted on on May 21 of this year.
[3] Reich numbers the chapters separately in Part I, Part II, which begins on page 77 of the Vintage paperback, and Part III. All the chapter numbers I cite here are in Part II.
[4] According to Gallup, Americans asked in 1998 whether there was “plenty of opportunity to get ahead in America today” said that there is. 81% thought so. By 2011, that percentage was down to 57%. The most recent poll on that question (2103) only 52% said yes.
[5] Ryan is no more “the right” than Obama is “the left,” but this is the side-choosing season and the Speaker would like to see competing lineups.
[6] All of Reich’s Part III is about his proposals for what we should do about it. Secretary Reich is a wonk.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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