The passion and reach of what has come to be called incorrectly the “populist movement” has political columnists speculating and advancing theories, but none have really come up with a satisfying answer. I see three patterns emerging: the first is economic, the second is cultural, and the third is political.
In the US real income for the middle class has been flat for 30 years. Although a person may have received pay raises and seen his income appear to rise over those 30 years, the buying power of the dollars shrunk at the same time completely cancelling out the gains. Before the housing bubble burst, people saw the value of their home increase, and believed they were getting richer, but that too was an illusion.
The second pattern is social, and very delicate to talk about. Americans have been proud to think of themselves as a melting pot of cultures. Successive waves of European immigrants arrived and were assimilated. Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans worked to blend in. In my generation I have many friends whose parents were immigrants and were discouraged from speaking their parents native language because their parents considered it an advantage to speak American English with no accent. Part of embracing the American opportunity was to act and be Americanized.
Of course there are notable exceptions. Hassidic Jews, Mennonites, Amish and other religious minorities have preserved customs of dress and lifestyles from another era and country. They are few and are fully accepted. Across America there are other racial ethnicities that often cluster in neighborhoods and preserve their culture. Sikhs, Muslims, Vietnamese, Chinese often gather preserving their cultures through neighborhood stores and restaurants that cater to their “old world” tastes and preferences. African Americans, long segregated by either law or prejudice, also have distinct speech patterns and culture that distinguish them as a sub-culture.
In recent years many Americans, especially progressives, have acknowledged that “white privilege” operates to give unequal advantage to those who are white and fully assimilated in the social and economic networks of the white middle class. White privilege conflicts with the fundamental American principle of equal opportunity – no minority should enjoy an advantage because of ethnicity, any more than they should suffer discrimination.
There is a long unexamined assumption that others would assimilate and embrace the Judeo-Christian, white, middle class culture. But the white middle class is actually now faced with blending itself into the melting pot as our nation goes forward in its diversity.
To really get what this is about consider the article below which describes the crisis of national identity being faced by Denmark. Like us Denmark is a democracy where the majority rules. What happens when an influx of immigrants is perceived to be overwhelming the native Danish culture and traditions?
Here in the US, there is a similar tension that finds expression in celebrating Donald Trump’s disregard for political correctness.
The third pattern is political as evidenced by the support for Sen. Bernie Sanders and also for Donald Trump at the opposite end of the conservative – progressive spectrum. It’s a rebellion against career politicians and the anti-populist relationship between moneyed commercial entities and individuals. Democracy is under siege and the attackers are embedded in the very institutions sworn to defend it.
These three patterns, economic stagnation, social melding, and political elitism, fuel the passions that divide us in the 2016 election campaign. For many Americans there is a seething rage that has burned a long, long time. They don’t understand how each pattern developed, most could not even articulate what the patterns are, but they hold the political establishment responsible. The career politicians, the Washington elite, seem to defend and perpetuate it.
Donald Trump, an outsider, promotes himself as the only one who can fix it. The seething rage his followers feel is blind to his utter lack of experience, knowledge, integrity, and even honesty. They ignore all evidence of his turpitude because he “tells it like it is.” And Trump amplifies that sentiment proclaiming himself their voice.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, could not be any more completely an insider. She has become the symbol of the political status quo – a lightning rod for “populist” rage.
She won’t easily change that meme. She dedicated herself to a life of public service in college and her career choices have all been stepping stones. She hasn’t shied away from controversy and she fights tirelessly to achieve her goals. She has championed many great causes and accomplished much good.
She has also made enemies and been the target of withering partisan conservative attacks in recent years. The GOP has spent hundreds of millions of both taxpayer and partisan money to destroy her and failed. She’s battle scarred but undaunted.
Neither Trump nor Clinton can totally fix it and unify America. Trump has no prospect whatever. If he wins, career politicians on both sides of the aisle will constrain him and in his ignorance an avalanche of domestic and foreign crises will inundate him. The lack of foresight and poor judgment that led to his colossal bankruptcies will be disastrous in the White House.
Clinton has at least some chance of making progress with unification. She knows all the players in Washington, and her time as Secretary of State has given her the necessary relationships worldwide to steer the ship of state. (It’s no surprise that our foreign enemies support her opponent!)
Fury is not blind. It’s similar in passion to rage, but it is focused on an objective. We see fury in a mother bear protecting her cub from danger. Fury dissipates when its object is dispatched. An enraged child may destroy his own toys and injure himself. Hillary’s challenge will be to convert the seething rage of the “populists” into a fury that can be channeled for constructive change in Washington.
The Democratic convention was inspiring and perfectly staged. It presented a grand vision for America and called us to be “stronger together.” By contrast the GOP convention presented a succession of speakers the evoked fear and hate and called for circling the wagons. Both conventions had an fiery undercurrent of revolution.
Revolutions driven by rage destroy the established order without a plan for the new order. Like the riots in Plainfield, Newark and LA years ago, they leave the community in ruins after an orgy of violence and fire. From the ashes something monstrous and repressive usually arises.
A revolution fueled by fury and directed with vision doesn’t wreck and burn the community. Fury is not wild and blind. Once the old order threat is dispatched, fury dissipates and nurture prevails.
In the weeks of campaigning ahead Hillary Clinton will prevail if she can keep and amplify the vision articulated at the convention converting blind rage to focused fury.