Fear and Loathing in America
By Tom Gutowski | Nov. 23, 2019
Upraised middle fingers have replaced civil debate. Many people think those whose political opinions differ from their own are morons, and they aren’t shy about saying so. What’s going on?
There used to be liberal and conservative Democrats, and liberal and conservative Republicans. No more; we’ve sorted ourselves into one party that leans left and another that leans right. And we’ve sorted ourselves geographically, too. In 2016, 80 percent of U.S. counties went for one presidential candidate over the other by 20 points or more.
That makes gerrymandering — drawing up Congressional districts to be reliably Democrat or Republican — very effective. Politicians representing gerrymandered districts know that to get re-elected they have to play to their left- or right-leaning base. Low voter turnout also plays a part. When turnout is low and elections are close, you can win by generating enough outrage to get more of your own folks to the polls. In neither situation is there much incentive to appeal to moderates.
Now add in cable TV and the internet. In the old days, news anchors on the big three networks pursued high ratings by being nonpartisan and trustworthy; whatever our political leanings, we all started with the same facts. Nowadays, news anchors, commentators, and bloggers get attention by stoking partisan outrage. And this gets amplified by social media, which provides the personal distance that facilitates bad behavior, like angry drivers flipping off people they don’t know.
This presents a huge political opportunity. Over the past several decades the Republican Party has been working diligently to reduce taxes on the wealthy, an endeavor at which they’ve been incredibly successful. The long term result of several rounds of massive tax cuts for the rich has been a soaring deficit and debt, the deterioration of our infrastructure, and extreme economic inequality. While the rich have gotten spectacularly richer, wages have been mostly flat, and the GOP is considering cutting Social Security and Medicare. The trickle-down effect never happened.
How do Republicans sell an economic program that focuses more on helping the rich than on helping average voters? By scapegoating and disinformation. GOP leadership, lately with the help of Russian trolls, has convinced their base that they’re defending America from attack by undocumented immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, “fake news” sources, and evil liberals, and that those who disagree — including war heroes, registered Republicans, lifelong civil servants, and even Trump appointees — are lying scum.
This should not blind us to the fact that Trump supporters do have legitimate complaints. They’re right to feel ill served and condescended to by the establishment. There’s seemingly no accountability for elites. Multiple institutions hid child molesters. The NFL hid a huge brain damage problem. Bond rating agencies hid the risk in collateralized mortgage obligations; when the bottom fell out, big banks got bailed out, but homeowners were left twisting in the wind. Drug companies double and triple their prices. Corporations move jobs overseas, or put workers on part time to avoid providing health insurance. CEOs get huge bonuses even when they run their companies into the ground. Meanwhile, family farms go bankrupt and no one seems to care. And the Midwest is insultingly referred to as “flyover country.” The question, of course, is who’s really to blame for this mess, and who can fix it.
Unfortunately, the Trump experiment failed. Instead of a plain spoken, can-do, incorruptible white knight, we got a vulgar reality TV entertainer who uses his office to enrich his family, rejects science, runs an incompetent administration, kowtows to Putin, destroys markets with fruitless trade wars, and abuses his power, and whose only legislative accomplishment so far is passing yet another tax cut for the rich. Even his supporters are growing tired of the tweeting and the drama.
What’s to be done? Clearly we need to address the economic issues that underlay the alienation that gave us Trump. Reduce drug prices. Raise the minimum wage. Create jobs by repairing the infrastructure. End the trade wars. Find a way to cover everyone with health insurance. Reduce the cost of college. Raise taxes on the very wealthy. Create a job training program for displaced workers. And so on. Democratic presidential candidates are talking about these kinds of things; one hopes Republican leaders will soon begin to, as well. It would also help if Mitch McConnell would let the 100+ bills that have been passed in the House — and that are sitting on his desk — come up for debate in the Senate.
And there are structural changes, such as ending gerrymandering, getting big money out of politics, creating a national holiday for voting, and protecting the electoral process that may lead to a less extreme, more solutions-oriented politics.
At the individual level we need to reject disinformation and artificially amped-up divisiveness. That means digging for facts: getting news from multiple reliable sources, reading beyond the headlines, and fact-checking our own beliefs. It also means not needlessly vilifying people with whom we disagree. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when politicians, pundits and trolls tell us to believe the worst about each other, we simply refused to take the bait?
Tom Gutowski earned degrees in economics and history before entering the insurance industry, from which he retired a few years ago.