Do you respect the working poor? Prove it. How do we know you’re not snickering at them behind your sleeves?
This is a confusing time on the Right. As Trumpism threatens to derail the entire conservative movement, accusations have been flying. Some of them sound eerily familiar. Critics of Trumpism are angrily accused of “punching down.” (Translation: Check your privilege.) Trump’s boorishness (mirrored in many of his supporters) is defended because Trump voters feel no respect. In other words: how can we expect people to be civil when they’re feeling so micro-aggressed?
We are told that Trump voters are going to war against the oppressive fist of political correctness. That sounds great, but let’s not kid ourselves. Trumpites are using exactly the same sorts of shaming and intimidation tactics they supposedly despise in the Left, and this attack has swiftly disarmed many conservatives.
There’s a silver lining, though. Having watched this disease sweep through the progressive Left, we can learn some lessons about how to handle these tremors more prudently.
Lessons from the Left
Here’s something we know from watching Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and other (left-leaning) populist movements. When a group of people feels both disadvantaged and disrespected, their problems generally reflect a complex mixture of external disadvantage and internal dysfunction.
Impoverished black neighborhoods have suffered historically from inadequate policing, poor schools, and a lack of economic opportunity. Now they are coping with rampant criminality and widespread social dysfunction. Millennials were lovingly nourished on their parents’ fairy-castle dreams of a secure yet opportunity-rich world. Now the foundations of that world are crumbling just as millennials inherit it, so understandably, they’re a little cranky.
Are these groups culpably neglected, or do they just need to pull themselves together? Truthfully, it’s probably some of each. Black Americans and the young have been disadvantaged in meaningful ways. But behind the mask of righteous indignation, we’ll also find a lot of shame and insecurity. They know they aren’t exactly a picture of grace and fortitude.
Nobody Wants to Accept Blame
Populist groups tailor their narratives to emphasize where they’ve been wronged. This is just human nature; most of us would rather see ourselves as victims than rejects. The exploited can at least aspire to the righteous wrath of Spartacus. Buggy-makers simply have to square their shoulders and accept the cruel vicissitudes of fate. Thus, populists try to present themselves as underappreciated. They’re important, but just not getting their share.
The Trumpites fit this mold pretty well. Working-class apologists like David Frum have done their best to paint the immigration issue as genuinely front and center to the problems of middle-class America, and others like Charles Murray and Michael Brendan Dougherty have leaned heavily on objectionable attitudes (“too much sneering!”) to justify working-class rage.
There’s some truth to these. But honestly, how psychologically healthy can Trumpites be if they are so intensely fixated on what wealthy Georgetown-dwellers think of them? That can’t be the whole story, and it’s not.
As with other struggling demographics, working-class whites suffer heavily from natural economic developments, and from internal dysfunction (especially addiction and family breakdown). Exploitation (by any remotely plausible definition) probably takes a pretty distant third. Why do they care so much about the opinions of “the elite”? Most likely, they feel like they’re being kicked when they’re already down.
Immigration is for Trumpites what criminal justice or “the 1 percent” were to these other populist movements. It’s not a non-issue; low-skill immigration really has created wage pressure for at least some workers. It can also be culturally destabilizing, and in an age of radical Islam, worrying about national security is not foolish.
Nevertheless, immigration isn’t objectively important enough to explain Trump’s rise. Outsourcing is a much greater cause of economic instability, and automation is the biggest threat of all. Working-class whites are mostly the victims of creative destruction, not culpable neglect. They’re the Oklahoma dust-bowl farmers, not Spartacus.
What Is the American Dream?
The brutal reality is that Americans feel entitled to a standard of living low-skill labor now cannot earn. This is absolutely crippling to the material prospects and self-respect of many Americans, so we’re feeling some pressure to tailor our policies to conceal it. Protectionist policies (such as Trump promises) would introduce market distortions as a kind of life-support system for industries that would otherwise die; curbing immigration prevents foreigners from coming here to work for a lower standard of living than what Americans expect. Both strategies endeavor to make low-skill jobs more remunerative for Americans than what the market alone would allow.
There are non-ridiculous reasons to support this effort. We should not adopt the nativist credo that only Americans matter, but we should acknowledge that we have obligations to our compatriots that don’t apply to everyone. Societies are built first and foremost of men, not of markets. A person who has not earned his standard of living in strict market terms may nonetheless deserve it in light of other social contributions: raising a family, serving in the military, teaching Sunday School, and so forth. People are more than their marketable skills, and citizenship does mean something.
There may also be a sense in which we inherit some level of legitimate entitlement from our forbears. Perhaps your grandparents fought honorably in the World Wars. Maybe more-distant ancestors helped build the railroad and settle the West. They made sacrifices to build a better future for their descendants. That’s us. Isn’t the American Dream, on some level, the legacy our ancestors laboriously bequeathed to us?
The ‘Just Show Up’ American Dream
It is, but we live in unsettled times. We need to consider closely what our social contract really entails. What is the American Dream? To some people, it is a kind of “freedom to,” which entitles us to pursue happiness without undue restriction. Others fixate more on securities and material goods, presuming that anyone willing to work and fulfill basic demands of good citizenship should reasonably be able to afford his two-bedroom house, picket-fenced yard, a decent education for his children, and security in retirement.
Dougherty makes a plug for this latter understanding here, when he calls for “a political economy in which any family that has one hard-worker in it will surely live a decent and secure life.” This seems like a reasonably good description of what I call the “Just Show Up” American Dream.
In “Just Show Up” America, everyone is promised a decent and secure life. You needn’t distinguish yourself in any respect to claim it. Just show up, keep your nose clean, and do what you’re told. Stay in school, don’t do drugs, punch the clock, and follow the law. Here are the keys to your ticky-tacky house.
We shouldn’t deny the real positives of the “Just Show Up” vision. It’s not crazy to favor a society in which good-faith effort guarantees at least some baseline of material stability. Still, we need to ask some critical questions about what this “Just Show Up” ethic implies for our society.
Protecting the Dignity of the Working Man
History is full of honest men and women who have waded through staggering amounts of drudgery for the sake of God and family. Calloused hands and bent backs have accomplished amazing things over time, and knowing this, we have a natural and just impulse to honor the laborer, who enriches society through his honest toil. Men especially tend to need that respect. Most men in most periods have proven their respectability by protecting their families, and by working.
The notion that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7) runs all through Judeo-Christian social thought, and we still feel the justice of it today. We want to be able to say: the man who is willing to work will eat. His children will eat. He will be a respected citizen, capable of living in a decent way.
There is another, less noble benefit to the Just Show Up society, which probably explains its appeal among the well-to-do. When the worker has security, everyone else feels freer to enjoy whatever good things may come their way. If we’re confident that nobody is suffering overmuch, we can get on with the rather pleasant business of enjoying our excess. Elite liberals have for a long time now been purchasing their libertine moral views just by voting “appropriately” and paying their taxes.
In a way, the Just Show Up society lets us all off the hook. It allows for a delightfully undemanding form of social consciousness, because we mostly assume that anyone truly in need must have failed to show up.
The Perils of ‘Too Small To Fail’
The worker is indeed worthy of his hire. It’s unclear what that means, though, when nobody is hiring. Our forebears have secured us a world in which bent backs and calloused hands aren’t needed in such large numbers. They would probably have regarded this as a wonderful gift, and in some ways it is. It poses certain challenges, though, for the Just Show Up American Dream.
Protectionist policies are a fairly poor solution to falling wages, and not just because they violate Republican free-market pieties. Trump promises to negotiate with China to “bring back our jobs” but, as usual, he is demagoguing. Jobs aren’t hostages. There are limits to what we can do to “bring them back,” and distorting markets to keep dying industries alive is mostly just a way of kicking the can down the road.
Given the rate at which markets and machines are developing, we probably can’t kick it very far. Meanwhile, by hindering natural economic development, we’re likely to intensify the pain when automation catches up to us.
Instead of racing for inadequate fixes, it may be time to consider the deeper social consequences of the Just Show Up ethic. How has it affected our sensibilities over the course of generations? When a young person knows from childhood that a broad safety net (both entitlement programs and labor laws) is spread just a few inches below his toes, it may affect his moral development.
This problem is especially acute for those who don’t anticipate rosy professional prospects. Young men are motivated by challenge, and by a sense of honor. A processed and pre-packaged manhood doesn’t offer much of either, so boys tend to reject it as not much worth having.
Conservatives have long criticized the welfare state for incentivizing divorce and non-marital childbearing. When the government offers a paycheck in place of a man, neither sex feels as much need either for marriage or sexual discipline. This is a familiar point, and one Trumpites also tend to recognize. The dignity of work is important to Trump’s supporters.
But Participation Trophies Are Demoralizing
Isn’t it possible, though, for the bigotry of low expectations to sully work itself? What happens when even the back-breaking labor becomes a kind of patronizing gift from a benevolent state?
One likely consequence is that more and more men will reject that “gift,” willingly making the short drop to the waiting safety net. But another is that the people who do work low-end jobs are likely to feel (and be!) less valued by society, despite the fact that they are working. No matter how we push the pieces around, the fact remains that buggy-makers don’t get much respect.
The critical point here is not that people at the bottom are moochers. In some sense they are, but so is virtually everyone else in today’s society, with the worst by far being those who are too big to fail, not those who are too small. (Think of beneficiaries of cronyism, and the entrepreneurs, bankers, and investors who claim the rewards of their successful ventures while passing the failures on to the taxpayers.)
Too-small-to-fail is more demoralizing, however. Most people can recognize a participation trophy when they see one. Knowing that more-privileged Americans started out ahead and enjoyed wider margins for failure along the way just feeds the resentment. It’s infuriating to feel that no one even expected you to be capable of much more than showing up.
Is Trumpism really all about “disrespect”? Or is that just the mask that insecurity wears when making its desperate bid for relevance? Everyone wants to be valued within society, but there’s no substitute for the kind of respect one gets from making real contributions. It’s not enough to present people with artificially-created jobs and to slap them on the back for just showing up.
Moving the Economy Forward
Just Show Up societies try to prevent people from slipping through the cracks. What happens when Just Show Up-ism becomes the crack? There are no easy answers to these problems, but a few things can be said.
First, we shouldn’t feed the Trumpites’ exploitation narrative. That’s not to say that we should defensively reject any and all criticisms of movement conservatism. There are things we can do to diminish unfair structural advantages, thus helping more people compete.
In a more recent column, Dougherty steps back a little from his hyperbolic accusations, and gestures in the direction of possibly effective policy suggestions. It’s pretty weak as an argument for the claim that conservatives are to blame for Trumpism’s very existence. Nevertheless, we should welcome any and all efforts to move the conversation to a more productive plane.
To that end, we should think more about how best to regenerate community life, marriage, and stable family structures. Throughout history, faith and family have been primary sources of meaning in the lives of most ordinary people. As these decline, candidates like Trump are better able to get a foothold.
Finally, we need to think seriously about meaningful work, and what sorts of jobs might provide it. To that end, we might ask ourselves: what really needs to be done in America today? How can we generate jobs and markets that would help fill existing needs?
As one example, I’ve argued in the past that many American cities need larger police forces. That’s honorable work (and manly!) that goes well beyond just showing up. Or what could we do to beautify American cities? They aren’t the world’s loveliest by any stretch.
Then there are the enormous numbers of Americans who are lonely, and living in dirty houses, and eating heavily processed food. If automation brought down our cost of living, could we expand the market for chefs, gardeners, cleaners, and companions of various sorts? Reading to the elderly or cooking nutritious meals sounds more rewarding than many industrial jobs.
There is plenty of work to be done, and there are people who want to work. It seems like both problems should be soluble, but our Just Show Up ethic may be getting in the way. Can we re-envision our social contract in a way that’s more responsive to contemporary needs? If so, perhaps the American Dream can be saved after all.
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