The placards carried by protesters in New York and other cities in the wake of this week’s U.S. elections noted that the shock winner, Donald Trump, was homophobic, xenophobic and sexist – which is probably true. The President-Elect is not, you’d have to say, a New Man. But low-paid workers and the unemployed, many of whom share Trump’s Life on Mars outlook, would retort that he’s also against uncontrolled Immigration, against trade deals and environmental restrictions that cost Americans jobs, and for taxing big corporations that keep their profits offshore. Blue-collar workers are neither saints nor scholars. Also, they are not economists. But they know how dismal their lives have become in the last 25 years.
“Liberals” in the higher reaches of America – the ones who fund and dominate the Democratic party – cherish memories of the New Deal and the Great Society much as Britain’s Labour Party hearkens back to its foundation of the welfare state. Today, though, in terms of what can be achieved, the concentration is increasingly on social issues, generally to do with sexuality, race and a woman’s right to choose. Support for these makes their advocates feel good about themselves without adding greatly to the deficit. When they look at the costs, in every sense, of health care reform, they tell themselves, never again. Raising taxes, in the manner of Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, has become, even for Democrats, an acquired anathema, to be entertained only in the privacy of their own heads.
Typically, liberals, once they have settled down to raise a family and advanced in their career, want improved public schools for the less fortunate, but send their own kids private. As far as jobs and money are concerned, they want to hold on to what they’ve got. They may criticise the greed of banks and mega-corporations, but they don’t expect anything much to change. Nor, in any serious way, do they lobby for change. Sure, they wish the poor and disadvantaged well, but not at their expense. If pressed, they will say that it’s up to individuals, no matter their birth or circumstances, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – something most of them never had to do.
A majority of the leading liberals in America grew up in roomy apartments or leafy suburbs. Many attended private school and university, got help from their parents to buy an apartment and pay off their college debt and in due course sent their own children down the same route. Members of Congress are, as it happens, twice as likely as non-politicians to give their sons and daughters the benefit of a private eduation. The embrace of privilege applies as much to African-Americans (think of the gilded lives of black superstars) and Latinos, as it does to the traditional upper class. New Money and Old Money quickly go hand in hand. The investment portfolios of the 1 per centers all the way down to the merely prosperous 10 per centers, are in excellent fettle, in part due to the generous incentives of the tax system and the loopholes legally exploited, Trump-style, by artful accountants. At the top end, charitable “giving,” often directed at museums and other cultural institutions, is both competitive and a useful write-off against tax.
Wealthy liberals will often echo such street sentiments as Black Lives Matter while employing black nannies for a pittance to take their kids to school. They are the ones who make donations to soup kitchens at Thanksgiving while they head off to their out-of-town retreats. They mean well. They’re not racist, or sexist or xenophobic. But what they expect in exchange for their support for good causes is to be left alone to enjoy their lives away from neighbourhoods with, like, you know …issues.
The trouble is, the position of the party faithful a couple of rungs down the ladder – the ones who in the 1960s and ’70s would have owned their own homes and maybe run a second car – is fast becoming acute. Just as in the Mafia there are godfathers, capos and “soldiers,” so in Tammany Hall there have always been the big bosses, local representatives and useful idiots. What in past years bound the different strands together was a social contract, based on the understanding that economic security and gradual upward mobility was the natural condition of the American Dream.
That understanding has now gone. The new economy is overwhelmingly divided between those at the top and those at the bottom. There are more multi-billionaires and billionaires in America than in China, India, Russia and Germany combined. The 1 per centers (in fact 0.01 per centers), are serviced by an army of highly-paid professionals and their families, all doing well out of the knowledge economy. A long way down, meanwhile, millions of “middle-class” suburbanites – the in-betweeners whose families have voted Democrat for generations – are hurting, and their pain is getting worse with each passing year. They have dropped down the social ladder when they had expected to rise. Instead of the promotion or union negotiations that would steadily have improved their lot, the best they can hope for these days is a pay-off at 50 or a letter from the bank telling them they have survived long enough to pay off their mortgage. Hardest hit of all are those whose factories have relocated to China or Mexico, with little hope of recovery, or whose once “guaranteed” jobs as firefighters, police officers or construction workers have been “stolen” by immigrants.
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As President, Hillary Clinton would probably have worked hard for these people, including immigrants. Sadly for her, not enough voters truly believed it. Whatever her intentions, the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State seemed to represent not the answer, but more of the same: Obama in a pant suit. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that to ordinary white “folks” the Clintons, with their mansions, their six-figure speaking fees, their Foundation and their daughter in her $10m Upper East Side apartment have ended up like the pigs in the final chapter of Animal Farm.
Cue Bernie Sanders. Cue Donald Trump. Cue a journey into the unknown.