After November: George Packer

Writing in The New Yorker, which by definition means a liberal perspective, George Packer has a long piece with some interesting passages (“Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt: The Democrats lost the white working class. The Republicans exploited them. Can Clinton win them back?”).

Packer’s focus is on the White Working Class (WCC), but first he needs to humanize this abstraction, doing so by profiling one Mark Frisbie:

Americans like Mark Frisbie have no foundation to stand on; they’re unorganized, unheard, unspoken for. They sink alone. The institutions of a healthy democracy—government, corporation, school, bank, union, church, civic group, media organization—feel remote and false, geared for the benefit of those who run them. And no institution is guiltier of this abandonment than the political parties.

Of the failure of globalism’s cheerleaders:

Earlier this year, an economist named Branko Milanović published a book called “Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization.” It’s a progress report on the “system” that Friedman heralded. Milanović analyzes global economic data from the past quarter century and concludes that the world has become more equal—poor countries catching up with rich ones—but that Western democracies have become less equal. Globalization’s biggest winners are the new Asian middle and upper classes, and the one-per-centers of the West: these groups have almost doubled their real incomes since the late eighties. The biggest losers are the American and European working and middle classes—until very recently, their incomes hardly budged.

Of Super Zips, where most liberal elites have their abodes:

The moral superiority of élites comes cheap. Recently, Murray has done demographic research on “Super Zips”—the Zip Codes of the most privileged residents of New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. “Super Zips are integrated in only one way—Asians,” he said. “Blacks and Latinos are about as scarce in the Super Zips as they were in the nineteen-fifties.” Multiethnic America, with its tensions and resentments, poses no problem for élites, who can buy their way out. “This translates into a whole variety of liberal positions”—Murray mentioned being pro-immigration and anti-school choice—“in which the élite has not borne any of the costs.”

Of how HRC has gotten herself held hostage by her genuflection to the Coalition of the Fringes, and what the fallout of this might entail in further alienating the WWC:

If racial injustice is considered to be monolithic and unchanging—omitting the context of individual actions, white and black—the political response tends to be equally rigid: genuflection or rejection. Clinton’s constituency surely includes many voters who would welcome a nuanced discussion of race—one that addresses, for example, both drug-sentencing reform and urban crime. But identity politics breaks down the distinction between an idea and the person articulating it, so that before speaking up one has to ask: Does my identity give me the right to say this? Could my identity be the focus of a Twitter backlash? This atmosphere makes honest conversation very hard, and gives a demagogue like Trump the aura of being a truthteller. The “authenticity” that his followers so admire is factually wrong and morally repulsive. But when people of good will are afraid to air legitimate arguments the illegitimate kind gains power.

I recently spoke with the social scientist Glenn Loury, who teaches at Brown University. As he sees it, if race becomes an irreducible category in politics, rather than being incorporated into universal claims of justice, it’s a weapon that can be picked up and used by anyone. “Better watch out,” he said. “I don’t know how you live by the identity-politics sword and don’t die by it.” Its logic lumps everyone—including soon-to-be-minority whites—into an interest group. One person’s nationalism intensifies tribal feelings in others, in what feels like a zero-sum game. “I really don’t know how you ask white people not to be white in the world we’re creating,” Loury said. “How are there not white interests in a world where there are these other interests?”

Of the Burnhamesque eclipsing of a Left/Right schema towards an Up/Down schema:

In this way, red states and blue states—the color-coding scheme enshrined by the networks on the night of the 2000 Presidential election—continued to define the country’s polarization into mutually hateful camps.

The inadequacy of this picture became clear to me in Obama’s first term. During the Great Recession, I visited many hard-hit small towns, exurbs, rural areas, and old industrial cities, and kept meeting Americans who didn’t match the red-blue scheme. They might be white Southern country people, but they hated corporations and big-box stores as well as the federal government. They might have a law practice, but that didn’t stop them from entertaining apocalyptic visions of armed citizens turning to political violence. They followed the Tea Party, but, in their hostility toward big banks, they sounded a little like Occupy Wall Street, or vice versa. They were loose molecules unattached to party hierarchies—more individualistic than the Democrats, more antibusiness than the Republicans. What united them was a distrust of distant leaders and institutions. They believed that the game was rigged for the powerful and the connected, and that they and their children were screwed.

The left-versus-right division wasn’t entirely mistaken, but one could draw a new chart that explained things differently and perhaps more accurately: up versus down. Looked at this way, the élites on each side of the partisan divide have more in common with one another than they do with voters down below.

Of the Trump Train as part-and-parcel of what his happening across Europe:

The Trump phenomenon, which has onlookers in Europe and elsewhere agog at the latest American folly, isn’t really exceptional at all. American politics in 2016 has taken a big step toward politics in the rest of the world. The ebbing tide of the white working and middle classes in America joins its counterpart in Great Britain, the Brexit vote; Marine Le Pen’s Front National, in France; and the Alternative für Deutschland party, which has begun to threaten Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition in Germany. To Russians, Trump sounds like his role model, President Vladimir Putin; to Indians, Trump echoes the Hindu nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even the radical nostalgia of Islamists around the Muslim world bears more than a passing resemblance to the longing of Trump supporters for an America purified and restored to an imagined glory. One way or another, they all represent a reaction against modernity, with its ceaseless anxiety and churn.

Of the risks elitist contempt towards the WWC brings:

At the same time, it isn’t possible to wait around for demography to turn millions of disenchanted Americans into relics and expect to live in a decent country. This election has told us that many Americans feel their way of life is disappearing. Perhaps their lament is futile—the world is inexorably becoming Thomas Friedman’s. Perhaps their nostalgia is misguided—multicultural America is more free and equal than the republic of Hamilton and Jefferson. Perhaps their feeling is immoral, implying ugly biases. But it shouldn’t be dismissed. If nearly half of your compatriots feel deeply at odds with the drift of things, it’s a matter of self-interest to try to understand why. Nationalism is a force that élites always underestimate—that’s been a lesson of the year’s seismic political events, here and in Europe. It can be turned to good or ill, but it never completely goes away. It’s as real and abiding as an attachment to family or to home. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” Trump declared in his convention speech. In his hands, nationalism is a loaded gun, aimed not just at foreigners but also at Americans who don’t make the cut. But people are not wrong to want to live in cohesive communities, to ask new arrivals to become part of the melting pot, and to crave a degree of stability in a moral order based on values other than just diversity and efficiency. A world of heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars isn’t the true and only Heaven.

From the piece’s concluding paragraph:

As [Hillary Clinton] ended our conversation in the hotel basement—she had to get to the evening’s fund-raiser—I asked how she could hope to prevail as President. She talked about reminding voters of “results,” and of repeating a “consistent story.” Then, as if she found her own words inadequate, she leaned forward and her voice grew intense. “If we don’t get this right, what we’re seeing with Trump now will just be the beginning,” she said. “Because when people feel that their government has failed them and the economy isn’t working for them, they are ripe for the kind of populist nationalist appeals that we’re hearing from Trump.”

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