In the last couple posts (here and here), we established this general framework: our country is being artificially split into two warring factions, mainly due to our electoral machinery (winner-take-all) and the partisan media that feasts on the resulting confrontational style of politics. As economic conditions on the ground deteriorate for regular people, narrative theodicies arise to explain why things are so screwed up, and who is to blame. These stories, which I described as Dreams Dashed (the conservative variant) and Dreams Derailed (liberal version), have several common characteristics: they are emotionally charged, with compelling heroes and villains; they are both anti-establishment, albeit with different interpretations of who actually makes up the elite; they have built-in excuses for inertia, because total victory over a dehumanized Other is necessary to fulfill their vast and ideologically pure goals; and finally, at bottom, both stories are economic, offering explanations for the pecuniary collapse of the American Dream.
How can we break this logjam? What could possibly reduce the intensity of this Divided America battleground, so that we might approach our fellow citizens with respect and dignity, instead of shouting past each other and walling ourselves into enclaves of like-mindedness?
The popular approach to this impasse is the appeal for a sensible return to “The Middle.” In this interpretation, both sides have become too ‘extreme,’ and the antidote is the common sense of regular, hard-working folks. If we could just get some more ‘moderates’ into the government, then we could right the ship. And not surprisingly, the popular refrain for this return to The Middle is economic: “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
The problem here is that the economic status of labor value has fundamentally changed over the last few decades, and that change is permanent (more on that later). There is no magical job-creating elixir sloshing around in the hallowed Middle. This is the very reason that our conservative and liberal stories have had to become more intense and combative through time. The agreed-upon economic status quo has absolutely stalled in creating ‘full employment,’ even while the overall financial condition of The Establishment is just fine.
The election of Donald Trump and the efforts of Steve Bannon to topple traditional Republicans are perfect illustrations of the emptiness of the wisdom of The Middle. They are now waging, on separate fronts, scorched-earth campaigns not only to destroy everything even remotely left of center, but to also blow up the establishment GOP structure as well. As many have noted, traditional Republicans are now reaping what they have sown, as their intensifying anti-government rhetoric has come home to roost.
But as we have noted on this blog, this intensification of rhetoric is not exclusive to conservatives. Indeed, our political duopoly and companion partisan media must, by necessity, become more combative through time, because economic conditions on the ground continue to erode. People cannot be placated forever with the same old stories. As they become more desperate, their need for scapegoats intensifies, and the bleats for a return to the happy Middle become more quaint and more faint.
So what to do? The first step is to recognize the nature of stories, and how they relate to economic conditions. There is a temptation, especially as we have been looking at the Conservative and Liberal narratives for the last couple posts, to think that the psychological persuasiveness of stories for individuals and communities translates to historical and social causation. Ideas can only do so much heavy lifting. As historical materialism suggests, economic conditions on the ground (how we work, where we live, how we physically move around, how we make things, the arrangements surrounding property, etc.) always constrain and condition the range of possible ideational responses. (Say what you will about Marx’s fanciful historical predictions and political proclivities, his observations on basic social and historical causation are still spot on.)
What that means for our task here is that we should resist the urge to simply create a new narrative as an alternative to the ones that now drive the Divided America battles. We can’t just storytell our way to a better situation. Instead, we should jump directly into our current economic realities, and craft some immediate solutions to the most pressing problems. Once that is under way, then maybe some better stories can grow out of the improved conditions on the ground.