Friday, October 21, 2016

There's Got to Be a Morning After

It is a sobering thought that, whatever the outcome on November 8, on the morning of November 9 we will yet be a nation in which Donald J. Trump has held the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. That fact alone will pose challenges for our country moving forward, and will continue to derail our political system unless citizens and political leaders rally to the cause of changing course. Even if our electoral process never again produces another Donald J. Trump, our institutions will progressively erode and eventually collapse unless we confront and redress cultural and social problems that Trumpism has exposed, created, or exacerbated.

The social problems exposed by the Trump phenomenon are fatally perilous and extraordinarily daunting. Though much (perhaps most) of Trump's support has derived from partisan inertia (in other words, many of the voters casting their ballot for Trump would have done so for any GOP candidate), and some of it is rooted in various forms of bias (racism, sexism, xenophobia), Trumpism would never have achieved the degree of traction it did if Trump himself had not spoken powerfully and appealingly to a core constituency of dispossessed and disenfranchised voters. The people of areas like the "Rust Belt," where globalization and automation destroyed the job market, and rural Appalachia, where already excruciating poverty was intensified by the Great Recession and the sequester; have been utterly failed by both government and the private sector. Though much of the country is slowly recovering from the disruption of 2008, many regions are in the grips of a steady decline that extends back decades, and that in the wake of the Great Recession has become a cripplingly vicious cycle of destruction and despair.

For these voters, many of whom are entering the political process for the first time in this election cycle, a vote for Donald Trump makes pellucid sense as a vote against a system by which they feel betrayed. Unless we can make our institutions work for everyone, the strife and damage produced by these tragic conditions will continue to undermine the foundations of the system in unpredictable but assuredly dramatic ways. Robust policy measures must be adopted so that economic vigor may be restored to or instilled in chronically impoverished communities. Some of the policies that are likely to be high on the Democratic Party's agenda, such as a rise in the minimum wage or expanded access to higher education, would constitute a move in the right direction.

But both parties would be unwise to ignore international trade and immigration as factors contributing to the woes of the working class, however vexed the discourse on these issues has become in the age of Trump. With complete sensitivity to the rejection of racism and xenophobia, all policies and regulations in these domains should be assessed for their impact on real wages. For example, it would be acceptable to either regularize the status of undocumented workers so that they may demand higher pay (a policy that would be especially effective in tandem with a raise in the minimum wage), or to impose harsh and consistently enforced penalties on employers that hire the undocumented (obviously, both of these policies could, perhaps should, be adopted at once), but it would be madness to assume that the electorate will tolerate an indefinite persistence of the status quo.

If moving to redress current conditions were our only worry, our circumstances would be critically dire. But the situation is exacerbated by impending developments certain to make all of these issues worse. Existing and developing technology will continue to drive globalization and automation in ways that will be difficult or impossible to counter with legislative measures. Take, for example, the automated cars currently being pilot-tested on the streets of Pittsburgh. If and when such vehicles go into mass-production and utilization, what will become of the 10 million Americans that are currently employed in some capacity as drivers? This kind of dislocation is not going to be manageable by a piecemeal programmatic approach. We are going to have to imagine and establish new organs and forms of government service and entertain radical changes in our social contract in order to meet these challenges. A cabinet-level Department of Employment Transition or a new social welfare system such as a Universal Basic Income (or both) will have to be instituted to forestall crisis.

As serious as the social problems exposed by Trump's candidacy are, they can at least be engaged through concrete government policies. In this sense, the cultural problems exposed or exacerbated by Trumpism are perhaps even more challenging. Trump has trivialized and vulgarized our national politics in a way that is corrosive of the civic spirit necessary to the persistence of our system. His attacks on the credibility of basic institutions such as the judiciary or the electoral process undermine faith in democracy. Unfortunately, Trump is only the worst and most recent malefactor in a process that has been ongoing for many years. Trump could not have trivialized our politics to the degree that he has unless we had all been complicit in trivializing our culture more generally before he ever hit the campaign trail. It was no accident that a reality TV star should rise to prominence in our celebrity-obsessed era, or that a huckster and sensationalist should command hundreds of hours of free air time in a media culture driven by commercialism and the inerrant demand of the audience to be entertained. Even beyond the general shallowness and laziness of our recent intellectual habits, the persistent march of the discourse into further and further recesses of postmodern irony has laid the groundwork for Trump's rise. No one should be shocked when an electorate that gets most of its news from comedians (from both Coulter and Limbaugh on the right or Stewart and Maher on the left) is easily persuaded that basic guarantees like the First Amendment are laughably disposable.

Even more distressing than the damage done by trivialization and vulgarization to the austerity of our institutions is the impact they have had on our values. The reduction of serious issues to partisan and politicized rhetorical contests has debased the impact of crucial ideals. The logical tools to counter the real threat that Trumpism poses to racial equality were blunted by the hyperbolic rhetoric leveled at past candidates such as John McCain or Mitt Romney. The urgent struggle to counter the vile misogyny embodied by Donald Trump himself is impeded by past partisan efforts to deflect criticism from the misogyny of Bill Clinton. Unless political leaders on all parts of the spectrum are willing to draw a line and publicly defend basic principles, even if they conflict with partisan interests, the debasement of our political life (and the accompanying decay of our institutions) will continue long after November 8.

Exactly what can be done systemically to set our culture on a new course is an exquisitely difficult question. I personally feel that the "low hanging fruit" in our condition of cultural vulnerability is the generally prevailing state of civic ignorance. The statistical number of Americans who don't know how many branches of government there are, or the name of the current Vice President, is shockingly high. If we could persuade people to learn more, they might think more, and if they thought more, they might take the principles and ideals at the heart of our system more seriously. I wrote previously about a policy proposal that might engage this problem, providing monetary incentives for students to learn more in order to earn federal college tuition assistance.

Whether or not we were to adopt such a program as I propose, one thing is certain. This election has done real and lasting damage to the fabric of our Republic, and as happy as we will all be to see it resolved on November 8, our cause for relief will be slight. The harm that has been done will have to be repaired, and the approaching challenges will have to be faced. The real work of fixing what has gone wrong begins the morning of November 9, and is sure to continue for some time to come.