Why Are Americans So Passive?
From the first breaths of life to the last, our lives are being stolen out from under us. From infant care and early education to Social Security and Medicare, the dominant economic ideology is demanding more lifelong sacrifices from the vulnerable to appease the gods of wealth.
Middle-class wages are stagnant. Unemployment is stalled at record levels. College education is leading to debt servitude and job insecurity. Millions of unemployed Americans have essentially been abandoned by their government. Poverty is soaring. Bankers break the law with impunity, are bailed out, and go on breaking the law, richer than they were before.
And yet, bizarrely, the only Americans who seem to be seething with anger are the beneficiaries of this economic injustice – the wealthiest and most privileged among us. But those who are suffering seem strangely passive.
As long as they stay that way, there will be no movement to repair these injustices. And the more these injustices are allowed to persist, the harder it will be to end them.
Where the hell is the outrage? And how can we start some?
John and Paul
Paul Krugman ruminated about inflation-free unemployment the other day, and he was feeling pretty grim. Krugman is frustrated that clear prescriptions for this kind of economy – prescriptions born in John Maynard Keynes’ day – aren’t being followed. What John proposed then, Paul’s proposing now.
But he’s not optimistic. “We can probably have high unemployment and stable prices in Europe and America for a very long time,” writes Krugman, “and all the wise heads will insist that it’s all structural, and nothing can be done until the public accepts drastic cuts in the safety net.”
One source for Krugman’s pessimism is the extensive political science research showing that “the level of unemployment matters hardly at all for elections; all that matters is the rate of change in the months leading up to the election.”
Krugman concludes that “high unemployment could become accepted as the new normal,” and worries that we’ll come to accept “a more or less permanent depression” as the norm – adding that “we could suffer endless, gratuitous suffering, yet the political and policy elite would feel no need to change its ways.”
Quiet in the streets
He’s right. A number of studies have linked political participation with economic conditions, typically with results like those Krugman describes. But that doesn’t explain why Brazilians took to the streets in such large numbers recently.
A majority of Brazilians believe that their economy’s improving, according to a recent Pew survey. 59 percent of Brazilians rate their economy positively and 74 percent say their personal financial situation is good. By contrast, the same organization’s most recent US polling showed that only 46 percent of Americans said they believe the economy’s getting better, while 50 percent think it’s getting worse.
The polling says that Brazilian political unrest is driven by a divergence in goals and priorities between political leaders and the population, triggered by poor public services, bus fare increases, and the cost of hosting the World Cup.
A similar divergence of priorities exists in this country. Washington’s been focused on deficit reduction, while the public wants more job creation and economic growth. But Americans are quiescent.
US voter turnout is extremely low when compared to other developed nations, even though we rank among the highest in terms of income inequality. And other forms of political expression are also under-used. The Occupy movement was originally very popular, for example, but most people were easily persuaded to abandon it and return to a state of quiet desperation.
Wealth inequity and other economic injustices are the product of deliberate policy choices – in taxation, Social Security, health care, financial regulation, education, and a number of other policy areas. So why aren’t Americans taking action?
The “change” theories Krugman mentioned don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, it’s not true that the lives of the majority are frozen in an ugly stasis. Conditions continue to become objectively worse for the great majority of Americans. But these ongoing changes – in actual wages, in employment, in social mobility and wealth equity – have received very little media attention or meaningful political debate.
It’s not that things aren’t changing. It’s that people don’t know they’re changing. And without that knowledge the public becomes a canary in a coalmine, only aware of its declining oxygen supply when it keels over and dies.
It’s an almost classic state of alienation, in which people may be acutely aware of their own increasing difficulties (although sometimes they can be numb to that as well) but experience them in a state of isolation. That turns the anger inward, leading to crippling reactions like guilt and despair. And repeated individual failures – failures made increasingly likely in a skewed system – lead to a sense of learned helplessness.
The Radical Rich
Interestingly, the “change = political pressure” theory helps explain the rage of the “radical rich” who – despite their almost unprecedented lives of wealth and privilege – are articulating an anger which seems at first to be inexplicable. But they, unlike the vast majority, are experiencing perceptible (if minor) changes.
No current policy proposals would substantially affect their historic levels of wealth and privilege. But some Democratic policies would slightly discommode the ultra-wealthy, and conservative forces have been shrewd enough to trumpet that fact far and wide in a tone of barely suppressed hysteria.
The wealthy have already seen a cultural change, as the Occupy movement led to previously-unheard public criticisms of their riches and political influence. That helps explain today’s seemingly paradoxical political situation, in which the beleaguered majority accepts the injustices heaped upon them while coddled and ultra-wealthy Americans erupt in fury.
The media has failed to tell the story of our broken economy. The two-party system is failing, too, as corporate forces complete their corruption of the GOP and seize an ever-increasing chunk of the Democratic Party.
That’s one of the reasons why voter turnout may not be the best indicator of political awareness. Even pronounced financial hardship won’t result in increased turnout or participation in electoral politics if neither party is clearly articulating the majority’s needs or actively fighting for its interests.
Many politicians and pundits have also embraced the “structural unemployment” argument which says people have the wrong skills for the economy of today and tomorrow. But they told us the same in the 1960s, the 1970s …
In fact, they’ve said it for the last fifty years.
And yet technology jobs were down in last week’s jobs report. “Structural unemployment” is another way of telling you it’s your fault if you don’t have a job. It’s a lie.
The Exploiters Within
Even worse, decades of “Pimp My Ride”/”Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” acculturation have idealized the wealthy and have left the majority with a subliminal message: If you’re struggling economically, it’s your fault.
The leftist Brazilian educator Paolo Freire spoke of “internalizing the oppressor consciousness”: internalizing the values of those who colonize, rule, and exploit you, accepting their distorted, Matrix-like view of the world as an objective reality.
This can lead to agony, as well as continued exploitation. When I first began writing about illegal foreclosures in 2009 and 2010 – before bank fraud became common knowledge – I began receiving dozens of emails from bank victims saying, in essence, “I thought it was my fault” and “I thought I was the only one.” Some of them had contemplated suicide, which is the tragic end point of an “oppressor consciousness” within.
(I published some of those emails, with permission, in a piece called “Letters From Foreclosure Hell.”)
Books and films like The Pursuit of Happyness have delivered the message that anyone who’s struggling economically hasn’t been brave enough, bold enough, or smart enough, while movements like the Tea Party have mocked underwater homeowners and other victims of Wall Street fraud and predation.
(That movement was born in a “spontaneous” demonstration at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange led by financial snake-oil salesman Rick Santelli, in which pampered and taxpayer-rescued traders mocked Wall Street homeowner/victims as “Losers! Losers!”)
The last two Democratic Presidents have tried to have it both ways, exalting, deregulating, and pampering the wealthy while speaking the language of justice. That has weakened the Democratic “brand” and undermined public confidence in government, while failing to resolve our underlying economic problems. The rhetoric of “consensus” and “compromise” contributed to the decades-long rise in inequality.
As Paolo Friere said: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
So what do we do?
1. Expand our avenues of political expression: First, we need to remind ourselves that electoral politics is not the only productive avenue for political activism –that we need strong and independent voices and movements.
2. Refuse to let politicians use social issues to exploit us economically: We also need to reject the exploitation and manipulation of progressive values by corporatist politicians who use social issues like gay marriage and reproductive rights exactly the way Republicans do – to manipulate their own base into ignoring their own economic interests. Politicians who don’t take a stand on economic issues should be rejected, up and down the ticket.
3. Explain what is changing – and contrast what is with what should be: We need to do a better job of explaining what’s happening, so that we can make people aware of the harmful changes taking place all around them.
And it’s not just about “change”: It’s also about contrast – between economic conditions as they are, and conditions as they should be and could be, if we can find the political will.
4. Expand the vocabulary of the possible: The “learned helplessness” outlook says “the rich and powerful always win; we don’t stand a chance.” History tells us otherwise. From the American Revolution to the breaking up of the railroads, from Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting to FDR’s New Deal, from Ike’s Social Security and labor union expansion to LBJ’s Great Society victories, we need to remind ourselves of what we’ve accomplished under similar conditions.
5. Tell stories: And we need to tell stories – human stories. That’s why Tuesday night’s Bill Moyers special on PBS is so important. “Two American Families” tells the story of a white family and an African-American family in Milwaukee over two decades. Their stories bring home, in a personal way, the agony that has accompanied the destruction of middle-class jobs – a destruction that only happened because politicians made conscious policy decisions.
To explain, to provoke, to inspire, to tell stories is to begin the process of political change. As Paolo Friere said, “To speak a true word is to transform the