I just came across an excellent post by Matt Bruenig that, through an empathetic portrait of a poor man who supported Trump and Cruz, skilfully brought together the reasons why economic inequality must be at the centre of progressive politics.
Bruenig came across Eric Harwood on Twitter, when the latter spoke about feeling abandoned by the American safety net. Harwood had worked his whole life, but developed a serious physical disability. He was reaching the time limit of all available welfare programs and despaired about looming homelessness. He could not understand how despite having done all the right things – been a hardworking, loyal American – he could be thrown out on the scrap heap. There are millions of stories like this. It’s part of an extraordinary trend in the USA where life expectancy for middle aged whites is decreasing, mostly due to suicide, alcohol and drugs.
I recommend you read Bruenig‘s post in full, but here’s an except:
When asked what his main issues are, he talked at length about the bank bailout. In his view, the bailout was an incredible mistake. The money that went to the banks should have been given out to the people more generally, who then could have used it to pay off their loans (and thus save the banks) and to pump up demand more generally. He explained further that the bank bailout is just one part of a broader problem with the way the government spends money. Specifically, he thinks it spends too much money on foreign aid, refugees, and immigrants, when it should be spending it on struggling veterans, seniors, needy children, and those who cannot work. He also confirmed that he is, at least in some respects, a social conservative and that he believes abortion is murder. In the 2016 campaign, he says he wants a Trump and Cruz ticket and he doesn’t care who leads it.
Altogether, Harwood struck me as a basically kind and decent man. He’s been economically wrecked by so many of the trends that have hit working-class people in the country over the last few decades. He lost his home in the Great Recession. He has had lower-paying work for much of his life. And now he has a work-limiting disability that may soon cause him to become, in effect, homeless. He has experienced his latest setback as an abandonment of him by society and government institutions: he contributed in the labor force for 31 years and yet he can’t get the social benefits he is justly owed.
His concern about foreign aid, immigrants, and refugees, though misguided in my opinion, has a very clear connection to his economic situation. Put bluntly, he wonders why his country can somehow help these people while he drowns. In the grand scheme of things, the reality is that the US does not spend that much of its GDP on foreign aid, refugees, and immigrants. The reason there are so many poor veterans, elderly, children, and disabled (the four populations Harwood kept bringing up) is not because the government doesn’t have the means to help these groups. It just chooses not to for various ideological reasons. This is something I know because I spend most of my waking hours studying the shape of government spending and the US welfare state. But you could certainly see how someone like Eric Harwood might think otherwise.
The erosion of the American safety net has undoubtedly contributed to the populist right-wing backlash. Impoverished people, lacking education and access to the political system, are looking for simple answers to their woes. And they have rich, successful people who will confidently tell them who to blame. A growing immiserated under-class is a perfect storm for an reactionary backlash. That’s why economic protections are so vital to a socially progressive and free society. Social liberals should think about embracing a pro-equality economic agenda, if they aren’t already.
There are other compelling reasons for rebuilding fragile social protections. For a social democrat, of course, the restoration of the safety net is simply a moral principle. But for a rational capitalist, it is also an economic imperative. If we open up economy – embrace disruption – members of our community are exposed to more risk, even as there is a greater return to the economy as a whole. The rational response to such risk is good insurance. But instead of increasing social protections, most countries – the USA in particular – have weakened them. It’s no surprise, then, that we have a popular backlash against openness that threatens to undermine international trade and immigration.
Whatever you think of Bernie Sanders, you must admit his message is cutting through. His rhetoric is powerful because it redirects working class anger onto bankers, elites and greedy politicians. His punchy slogans give the afflicted a story with which they can make sense of their suffering. This is why he has a vastly larger political coalition – not just students, but also truck drivers – than the warm-lettuce lefties before him.
There is no agility without security. Morally, economically and politically: the case is overwhelming that frank discussion about class, inequality and the social compact must be the centerpiece of a successful centre-left agenda.