The D and R Conventions

They are over now. At least for me. For the last two nights, I have watched a bunch of very capable Democrats giving really terrific speeches. If it were just for the pleasure of living in the world their words create, I would listen to people like Clinton (either one), Biden, Kaine, and Obama for hour after hour. But when the evening was over, I was discouraged.

Let me pause for just a moment to establish my credentials. I’m not new to politics. I remember the Truman v. Dewey campaign of 1948 although it would be too much to say that I understood what was at stake. I have taught political science for most of my life, including courses in parties and elections. I talked my way into managing a campaign on the basis of those courses in parties and elections. That was how I learned that studying campaigns and running campaigns are completely different jobs. I served as a legislative assistant in the Oregon House of Representatives. I have been part of many campaigns for many offices in Oregon. I’m not new to any of this.

I know, particularly, as the fictional Mr. Dooley said in 1895, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” [1] That’s not what bothered me.

cons 1As I tried to find a way to say what it was about the two conventions that bothered me, I made my way back to 1895 again. That’s when H. G. Wells’ well-known science fiction work, The Time Machine was published. As nearly everyone knows—I’m sure there is a Classic Comic version of this famous story—the Time Traveler goes far into our future, to a time when there are only two species: the Eloi and the Morlocks. Here’s a piece about their relationship from the Wikipedia article on Morlocks, but you can see it all in the picture.

the Morlocks are the working class who had to work underground so that the rich upper class could live in luxury.

The Morlocks do all the work, in other words, and are dark and strong. And they use the Eloi as their food source. They harvest them as needed, very like the Cowslip warren in Watership Down, where all the rabbits have plentiful food and safety from predators and no one talks about the fact that the farmer who feeds them takes a rabbit with a snare whenever he needs a meal.

Let me pause again, briefly, to reassure you that I am not saying that the Democrats are Eloi or live in the Cowslip Warren nor are the Trump Republicans Morlocks. But what I do want to say is that the experience of watching the one convention, then the other, put me in mind of differences as stark as those. The Republican convention was dark and angry. The Democratic convention was light and hopeful. These are tones, not policy positions.

I began to listen in the Democratic rhetoric for any awareness of the issues that make the Republicans—at least the pro-Trump Republicans—angry. I couldn’t hear it at all.  Do they not know what issues are riling the village folk?  Is it in their interest to pretend they hadn’t heard?  That’s not going to make anyone less angry.

The Real Issue

Here’s an idea about what is going on in the world. Indulge me just a little. It may help explain why neither party is talking about it.

cons 2The production and distribution of goods and services are being globalized. American manufacturers want to find customers for their products and as a global middle class continues to develop and grow, they are finding them. Not the American middle class, but still, a customer is a customer. A global labor market is also taking shape. This pool of “laborers” includes blue color and white collar; it includes jobs in production, sales, and services—including some very demanding services, like architecture and engineering. The need for workers—reduced as it is by robotics—is still quite large, but there is no need for these to be American workers.

The result of these trends is that whole segments of American society—right where the American middle class used to be—have been hollowed out and are now, for all practical purposes, Third World countries. [3] Consumer purchasing power in this segment is going down and has been going down for a long time. It’s going to continue to decline. The prospects for reversing this trend are scarcely imaginable. These conditions are the prescription the major economic powers of the world have written to treat whatever disease they might have imagined they had. The political parties in the United States can do virtually nothing about it except to bluster. They bluster in different keys, but it is all bluster.

That’s what, it seems to me, is going on in the world.

Proxy Villains

When you look at it from the standpoint of the party strategists, it makes no sense at all to identify an enemy you can’t defeat. So neither party does that. What they do is to take the anger that radical globalization has produced and to choose a proxy villain. Trump rages about American power in the world. [3] Hillary rages on about companies that get tax breaks and use foreign labor forces. Donald is openly admiring of Vladimir [4] Putin. Hillary is going to “stand up to China.”

These are proxy villains. No one has any idea what to do about the source of our economic distress which, for the purposes of this essay, is also the source of our cultural distress. I know that’s too simple, but it’s all I can handle in just one short essay.

cons 3What would help? OK, I’m not going to call it socialism. I’m not going to call it anything at all. But here’s what needs to happen. If American businesses are going to go to the least expensive labor markets and if they are going to sell their products to a rapidly emerging global middle class, then we might as well admit that the cost to our own middle class—the late great American middle class—is going to be catastrophic. [5] The pain these policies cause makes they angry.  The pain needs to be mitigated. That is something governments actually can do and they should.  They can’t fix the problem, but they can make it hurt less.

Since I launched without much thought into medical metaphors, I will call this arrangement “palliative care.” The world’s economic system, with the eager participation of the American economic system, is not going to deal with the terrible problem of “low labor costs.” But in the political arena, “low labor costs” are better called “intractable poverty” and the collection of diseases that hopeless poverty produces. Richard Ball published an article in 1968 that used the term “analgesic subculture,” a pain-killing culture. An aspirin culture. [6] He was talking about the persistently poor areas of the Appalachians. This culture—the practices adopted by these people, both poor and hopeless—did nothing to solve their problems, but they did make everything hurt less. Making it hurt less is all I heard at the conventions. Presidential aspirants make it hurt less.

A Solution

Now that growing sectors of the American population are in a condition remarkably like the one Ball described, it is time for the government to intervene actively in ways that make it hurt less. I’m thinking of good food, good housing, good medical care, and good education. You can add whichever others you would like.

A society like that might be poor, relative to the good old days—you know, when America was great?—but it would not be frantic. It would not be hopeless. It would not be three jobs and daycare and families ground to nothing by the frictions of economic striving. The basic needs would be met by the same government that gave free rein to the corporations. It would be paid for by the whole citizenry, including the rich. With a little modesty in foreign policy, we would find it affordable.

And if everything worked out well, we could watch political conventions run by parties who seemed to be looking at the same world. That’s not what we have now. Politicians could point to policies that actually “treat” problems—some by eliminating them, others by making them hurt less—instead of spending their public time burning each other in effigy.

[1] The point of the bean-bag metaphor is that you can throw this object at people and hit them squarely and not hurt them. People actually do get hurt by what gets thrown around in politics, especially the machine style politics of Chicago, which was what Mr. Dooley had in mind.
[2] “Third World countries” was invented in the 1950s as a way to refer to the “uncommitted” nations of the world, mostly in the southern hemisphere. The West was the “first world.” It was out taxonomy, after all, so we got to be first. The “Communist world,” whoever that included at the time (remember Yugoslavia?) and everyone else was “the Third World.” In current use, it mostly means “non-industrialized,” or, more broadly, poor and hopeless.
[3] The Roman emperor, Caligula, had a Trumpian foreign policy, “Oderint dum metuant.” It is normally translated, “Let them hate [us], so long as they fear [us].” I refreshed my memory of this quotation by looking it up online in the Merrian-Webster dictionary. My eye was caught by a picture at the top of the page, and when I looked up to see it, I noticed that it was a picture of Donald Trump. It took a second, then a third look to establish that both Hillary and Donald had their pictures at the top of that page. I’d call that a visual prejudice.
[4] The name means, “the lord of the east.” I think that stands as an ironic comment now that Putin is moving west.
[5] It is worse when the distribution of income is so radically unequal (and the distribution of wealth even worse), but redistributing the income of the rich would be only symbolic. Worth doing, because it eliminates a distraction, but it is just a symbol.
[6]’Richard Ball, ‘A Poverty Case: the Analgesic Subculture of the Southern Appalachians’, American Sociological Review, 33 (1968), 885.

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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