What Comes Next?

I think of this as the poisoned election, one in which Americans with utterly different views of history and of the future are afraid that the other side will so poison our politics as to threaten what they value most in their way of life. The question is whether that will lead to a downward spiral in which sporadic physical conflicts become general and recently purchased guns are used frequently, or we begin a healing process that unites us once again. This blog is about how our country came apart and what it might take to put it back together.

I have a vivid memory of the day when, a senior at Brown, I made my way down College Hill to listen to Jack Kennedy campaigning for president in downtown Providence. He was challenging all of us to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country.  Kennedy was elected president that fall and the next year, Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, came out, appealing to the nation’s conscience to do something about the appalling poverty in the Appalachian Mountain country. The residents there, mostly poor Whites, made a very dangerous and precarious living mining the coal that fueled the nation’s electric generating plants. The nation, shocked at the conditions under which Americans were living in the modern age, responded to Kennedy in part by choosing public service as a career and many would go on to see what they could do to abolish poverty in America.

Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country (JFK)That was the same Jack Kennedy who would send “advisors” to Vietnam in ever larger numbers to bolster the French there. The French were fighting to save what was left of their colonial empire. Kennedy thought he was fending off a Communist takeover of Southeast Asia. When the French fought their last battle and lost, it became our war. Most of the young people who served were volunteers. Many were from Appalachian coal country. In their minds, they were the worthy successors to the “Greatest Generation,” who had fought for freedom against the Nazis and the other Axis powers.

In time, young university students at U.C. Berkeley and many other institutions took another view of the war as an immoral assault on a developing country. They saw the U.S. as defending a corrupt, amoral regime interested only in its own power and survival. After American troops massacred the women and children of the village of Mei Lei, the students turned against not just the war but the troops who were fighting it. Many of these troops were the very people who had grown up in poverty in the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia and had fanned out to Ohio and other parts of the industrial Midwest.

It is not hard to imagine the feelings of those troops. They had taken great pride in their service to their country and the service that their fathers had rendered before them. They had been lauded for that service by officials at the highest reaches of our government and celebrated in decades of war movies. Now they were reviled as baby killers.

But the worst was yet to come for them. When they came home from the war, the global economy was going through a sea change. The jobs on which they had come to depend were evaporating, sent to Asia and Latin America or taken by automated machinery. As the years went by, no one in power seemed interested in their plight or willing to help. By the end of the century, a proud and independent people was on its knees. Years later, we would have an American president who would call them “suckers” for serving their country, and himself smart for avoiding the wars they had fought in.

But there was another, parallel, story through the second half of the 20th century, a story that Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were also deeply involved in, but Martin Luther King, Jr. and other key members of the American civil rights movement were at its center. King held up the nation’s founding documents as a shining goal, but pointed out that a century after the Civil War, Black Americans were still segregated and discriminated against, the legacy of a failed Reconstruction that had never really ended.

King could have urged his followers to take up arms, but he had a better idea. He shamed White Americans into action by staging marches that exposed the brutality of the segregationist regime for all to see on television. Lyndon Johnson was then able to pass historic civil rights legislation intended to desegregate our schools, make sure that Black Americans could vote in elections at every level of government, guarantee that Black Americans had the same right to public services as White Americans and make sure that they could buy homes wherever they wished.

Many liberal White Americans assumed that, if these laws were implemented, King’s vision would be realized. Many decided to take up Jack Kennedy’s call to public service to participate in the civil rights revolution and the anti-poverty programs of the U.S. government.

But, almost 20 years into the 21st century, much of the progress we thought we had made in the second half of the 20th century was revealed to be an illusion. The schools are nearly as desegregated as they were before Brown vs. Board of Education. Schools for Black Americans are not only segregated from schools for White Americans, but they are overwhelmingly schools for very low-income children and the combination of racial isolation and poverty is having devastating effects on student performance. Voter suppression is on the rise. Housing segregation is very real. Health statistics for Black Americans are comparable to the health statistics for people in very poor countries. Most visibly, Black Americans, even those who are not poor and do not live in very low-income communities, live in a world in which they feel that that law enforcement officers in many communities view them as the enemy, not people they are sworn to protect. The coronavirus pandemic has made all of this worse, from health statistics to rates of poverty to job prospects in a world in which low-skill and semi-skilled jobs are drying up. They are still strangers in their own country.

Where we have gotten to is a place in which both Black Americans and poorly educated White Americans are in very tough places. Black Americans have reason to have felt like strangers in their own country for four hundred years. For poorly educated White Americans, that is a relatively new phenomenon, beginning, as I said, with the Vietnam War.

And now I will get to the point. The tribe I have left out of this account is well-educated American Whites like me. We have, through all of this, done quite well for ourselves. Our incomes have steadily climbed even as the incomes of almost everyone else have been in steady and sometimes steep decline. 

That is only the beginning. Well-educated White Americans, like me and like many readers of this blog, use our wealth to buy homes in communities in which other wealthy people live, assuring our children get great schools with great teachers at rates of taxation well below the relatively high tax rates paid by poor families living among other poor families for much less effective schools. Once our children have graduated from these excellent schools, we use the fine education we have purchased for them, the opportunities we have provided them to fill in their resume with items of interest to admissions officers at exclusive universities, our legacy privileges at those exclusive universities and the gifts the richest of us are able to make to those universities to get our own kids into the top universities. Then, almost there, we use our personal networks to get our kids onto one of the fast tracks to the top jobs. When our kids grow up, they increasingly marry spouses who share their university background and their social standing, closing off yet another door for those not so lucky. When we die, the laws we got passed allow us to pass our accumulated wealth onto our kids and their progeny.

This country was founded in large measure to build a new kind of polity in which status was not inherited but earned. With a rank of 27 in social mobility in a recent report from the World Economic Forum, we are well on our way to building a new kind of society in which status is inherited, not earned.

Our so-called meritocracy is no such thing. Not one of these gates to the good life are available either to poor Blacks or poor Whites. We, the well-educated and well-heeled, live in the society in which the income divide between the richest and worst off is greater than in any other wealthy country.

The American income divide between the richest and the worst off is greater than in any other wealthy country.But that is not news, nor is it the end of the story. The worst part is not the income division. It is the combination of the income division with a barely concealed contempt for what many well-educated White Americans perceive as the lower classes, made worse by a certain fake solicitousness for them, or at least some of them. I mentioned the return to racial segregation for Black Americans above. But it is matched by a degree of social class segregation for both Blacks and Whites that is no less corrosive.

Corrosive is the right word. For poorly educated Whites, the transition from poor but valued members of the American community to the status of people presumed to be contemptible, bigoted, unemployable non-contributors has been agonizing. For Black people, the realization that, after all these years, they are still second-class citizens viewed by law enforcement as the enemy to be kept down rather than the citizens they are sworn to protect is scorching.

Contempt is a strong word, but one that I think is justified. Hillary Clinton referred to poor White Americans in the rust belt as the “deplorables.” When Franklin Roosevelt put his first administration together, he filled it with highly educated people who came to government to rescue poor people from crushing poverty. The Democratic party was the party of the working class, but the people who ran the Federal government were typically members of the upper class who were willing to wage war on their own class to bring social and economic justice for working class people. They were reviled by their class as traitors, though historians typically credit them with saving American capitalism.

Not this time. Not now. This time, the highly educated professional class watched in silence as the factories of the Midwest and the coal mines of the Appalachians closed down. Prominent American politicians and policy analysts advocate charter schools for inner city students that they would never dream of sending their own children to. Advocates for what they advertise as education reform never suggest that the state assume all the costs of financing local schools and distribute the money to fund them not on the basis of local property wealth but the cost of educating all children to a high standard. That’s because, if we did that, the value of their homes would fall and their kids would have to go to school with kids they thought would be less motivated, kids who might disrupt their classes in schools their own children attended. The professors at our best universities who write scholarly papers on equity don’t seem to be particularly interested in having inner city kids go to the suburban schools their children go to, though Raj Chetty’s work makes it clear that that would be the most effective reform of all. A friend who is a plumber recently told me he cannot get competent help because, he says, young people don’t want to be plumbers because it is such a low status occupation. This in a state and community where many are poor and unemployed. In Franklin Roosevelt’s day, there was no shame in being a plumber and tradesmen were respected members of and contributors to the community.

White liberals or, if you prefer, progressives, like myself, would be perfectly happy to live in a fairer, more equitable world if it does not cost us anything we care about. I include in that local control of our schools, favored treatment for our children in college admissions, zoning rules that make it impossible for working class people to live in our cities and much else that stands in the way of a fairer, more equitable society.

It is precisely that situation that Donald Trump exploited to become president. It turned out that Whites who had over the years been thoroughly alienated by the behavior of the elites were ready to turn to anyone who promised them respect and support. He was able to overcome a whole field of primary opponents who were doing the usual in American politics: trying to appeal to everyone. He took the less-educated Whites who had been abandoned by the Democrats and the other primary candidates divided the rest of the Republican voters.

Yes, there are racists among the less-educated Whites and there are those on the left who see the uneducated Whites as a permanent enemy that must be soundly defeated. Both think of this as a war that must be won and won completely, whatever it takes. But there were many in the industrial Midwest who voted for Barack Obama and then Trump, and many who held their nose when voting for Trump.

Three books come to mind here. Robert Putnam’s Our Kids makes the point that the ties that bind us together by race, income and social status in our communities have been fraying to the point that our sense of obligation to each other, even our compassion for and understanding of each other, is disappearing. George Packer’s The Unwinding traces the stories of a number of working class Americans, both Black and White, men and women, from every section of the country, as globalization and automation ripped their world apart. He showed us people who, though they live in different worlds, are in the same boat, pushed this way and that by the same forces into a very bad place, and then left to fend for themselves. Eviction, by Matthew Desmond, paints a very close-in picture of a community being destroyed by the same forces, the people of both genders and all races and ethnic backgrounds caught in the vice of their failing economy, reliant mainly on each other in a community of the left-behind.

Taken together, these books show there is far more that binds us together than pulls us apart.  Though it may benefit some to set us against each other with fear and hate, our best hope is to once again find our common humanity. To make that happen, I believe highly educated, mostly White, well-to-do Americans will have to look into our souls and ask ourselves not what someone else will have to give up to get there but what we will have to give up to get there. We need to recognize and acknowledge the role we have played and continue to play in creating the problems we see in our society. 

If Biden wins and progressives see this as an opportunity to overwhelm the other side, we should be prepared for a long, debilitating civil war, waged with or without guns. If we see it as an opportunity to heal these divisions, to find and encourage the best in each of us, to understand each other’s legitimate aspirations and find ways to build not only an economy that works for everyone but a society in which all are honored, then we will stand a good chance of realizing a dream shared by Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and Barbara Jordan.