Hillary Clinton hasn’t taken questions from the press since December 4. Of course, if she did that she might have to answer some hard questions, such as why did we just discover 64 more emails with classified information in her unsecure private email, bringing the total of mishandled classified emails to at least 1,730? Or why is a CIA officer serving a three-year sentence for a lesser crime?
Then again, I don’t blame Hillary Clinton for dodging the press. After all, she seems to have no problem getting away with it, especially since there’s no shortage of media outlets willing to grant her fluffy interviews designed to portray her in the most flattering light possible, such as this Facebook Q&A moderated by the online publication The Grio.
Feel free to dig in and marvel at the sub-Barbara Walters tenor of the whole thing, but I was particularly interested in the following exchange. It is a near-perfect encapsulation of the car crash between insidious American cultural trends and liberal politics, masquerading as a self-serving, Oprah-inflected “wisdom”:
Secretary Clinton, what advice would you give to your younger self in college that you didn’t know then?
You never know what’s going to happen in life. Get the best education you can, learn as much as you can about the world around you, and take opportunities as they come. And most of all, do what you love. Don’t take a job just for money – take a job because it’s meaningful. Find time for family. Find time for relationships. All of that adds up to a life that can provide a lot of satisfaction.
One of my favorite lines is, ‘I’ve loved and been loved. All the rest is background music.’ I never would have understood what that meant when I was in college. -H
While this reads like so much Hallmark pablum we take for granted, if you think about it, it’s hard not to be offended by this Forest Gumpery. Seriously, did she just say “don’t take a job just for the money”? Is that why Clinton and her husband spent a decade giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $300,000 and a favor to be named later? Or struck million-dollar deals with shady post-Soviet oligarchs with terrible human rights records?
Open Disdain for Work Sparks Anger
But if there’s another piece of advice here that absolutely disqualifies Clinton for the presidency, it’s “do what you love.” The truth is, that is simply not an option for most people. When it’s 39 degrees and raining in February, do you think the guy who picks up your trash is staring at your acrid, bacteria-laden refuse at 6 a.m. and saying, “Thank God, I love what I do”?
Indeed, it is precisely this cultural disconnect about the value of work that explains why there’s an open revolt in both parties and the future seems so uncertain.
If any one issue defines this election, it’s economic stagnation. Many Trump supporters in the GOP feel left behind by the twenty-first-century economy. They’re angry about it, because our “follow your bliss” culture doesn’t begin to appreciate coal miners or people who work in brake disc factories, even as it obsessively venerates empty celebrity and people like social media executives and hedge fund managers who are filthy rich in spite of the fact their contributions to society aren’t very tangible. Combine that with the self-loathing these guys feel from, say, being laid off and having to fake a fibromyagia diagnosis so they can collect disability and feed their families, and you have tremendous resentment.
Trump was not only canny enough to speak to this, but he still remains arguably the only candidate to forthrightly talk about issues such as immigration that are feeding this anxiety, even if he speaks about them with great ignorance. It’s regrettable in many ways, but it’s also not a mystery why 30 percent of Republicans are lining up to support a lunatic who has (allegedly) made a lot of money and wields considerable influence despite now being despised by our cultural betters.
Progressives’ Failed No-Work Utopia
The odd thing is that people are voting for Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly for kind of the same reason as Trump supporters, in that they don’t want larger economic issues forcing them to change their culture or lifestyle. However, the motivations of Sanders supporters are much less sympathetic. Millennials and many other progressive types now feeling the Bern seem to have been sold a bill of goods about how we live in post-scarcity techno-utopia. They can’t understand why they can’t “do what they love” without financial realities being such a killjoy.
A few years ago, in an article on the cultural obsession with Portland, Oregon, I took a look at this socioeconomic phenomenon in detail. Essentially, the state’s high taxes played a big role in driving a huge number of medium-sized and even national enterprises out of Oregon or out of business altogether. Portland’s celebrated “artisanal economy” is basically a result of overeducated hipsters who want to live in Oregon because the cost of living is relatively cheap and it’s beautiful, but there are no traditional jobs with opportunities for advancement.
So they’re all starting craft businesses and restaurants. When you have one food truck for every 1,000 people, as Portland does, that is a result of desperation, not necessarily the kind of enterprise and initiative you want to celebrate. Despite all this, everyone romanticizes this state of affairs when the reality is that bad blue-state governance means Portland is slowly moving from a functional city to a cultural theme park for rich people.
Many Portlanders like their lives that don’t contribute much, and if they could just get free health care—the governor who created the failed Oregon Health Plan and screwed up the state’s Obamacare exchange to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars was just run out of office on corruption charges in his fourth term—and erase their absurd college debt, they could afford the harissa-spiced Bloody Marys at the trendy new brunch spot and slide by selling colorful hemp guitar straps on Etsy without having to make any difficult or unselfish choices.
This Portlandia phenomenon isn’t unique to Oregon. You see the same discontent in trendy urban areas across the country in places such as San Francisco, Silver Lake, Brooklyn, and so on.
Speaking of Brooklyn, the location of Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters is more than a little symbolic here. In 2008, when she was still the presumptive favorite and faced with progressive, youthful insurgency, Clinton rallied around defending the Democratic white working class’s bitter clinger constituency. This time around, it’s obvious she’s bound and determined not to make that mistake again and wants to co-opt the enthusiasm of Sanders’s campaign more than repudiate it.
If you’re a gun owner, object to being forced to bake a wedding cake, or a traditionally Democratic voter who still holds same decidedly unprogressive opinions that Clinton herself held five minutes ago, her 2016 campaign is likely to respond to your concerns with blog post festooned with Taylor Swift GIFs explaining why you’re the anti-Christ.
Reclaiming the Protestant Work Ethic
So here’s my rather immodest proposal for making America great again. We need a sea change in our attitudes toward work. Those of us who have easy jobs, let alone ones we love, better damn well remain grateful for the opportunities we have. And all of us, especially our elected representatives, ought to start showing one hell of a lot more appreciation and support for those among us who do the hard work necessary to provide the services and produce the goods that make America a safe, secure, and comfortable place.
That this needs to be said is damning indictment of how debased American culture has become. (Mike Rowe is just about the lone significant cultural voice in America screaming into the void about the value of work.) Not that long ago, we were celebrated for our “Protestant work ethic,” although, as with a lot of theological concepts, most Americans no longer have any frame of reference for what that means.
Although often associated with Calvinism, it is was first rooted in Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation, which posits that we serve God by accepting our callings and employing our God-given abilities to do the work that needs to be done. Not because we get to do what we love, but because we do what needs to be done out of love for others.
One does not need to even believe in God to see that an economic order that arises from a culture where naked self-interest is tempered by expressions of respect and gratitude for those who willingly accept responsibility to take care of others is preferable to every man for himself. It’s also vastly better than the other extreme of socialism, where the fruits of our individual labor are disproportionately seized and redistributed without regard to our families and the community members we care about most and are best positioned to take care of.
The Rich Radicalize Politics
Early Americans, both because of their religious dedication and the necessity of conquering the frontier, ensured that valuing work was deeply embedded in our culture. Proto-libertarian thinker Frank Chodorov described the salutary effects of this on American politics in his 1962 essay, “The Radical Rich”:
There was a time, in these United States, when a candidate for public office could qualify with the electorate only by fixing his birthplace in or near the ‘log cabin.’ He may have acquired a competence, or even a fortune, since then, but it was in the tradition that he must have been born of poor parents and made his way up the ladder by sheer ability, self-reliance, and perseverance in the face of hardship. In short, he had to be ‘self made’ The so-called Protestant Ethic then prevalent held that man was a sturdy and responsible individual, responsible to himself, his society, and his God. Anybody who could not measure up to that standard could not qualify for public office or even popular respect.
Chodorov’s essay further notes that early American scions of great wealth—the Rockefellers, et al.—would have been anathema to the voting public should they have decided to enter politics. Ironically, it was first Teddy Roosevelt and later his cousin FDR, that supposed champion of the common man, who made the waters safe for rich dilettantes to enter politics; so much so that John D. Rockefeller’s great-grandson just retired from spending 30 years in the Senate.
Still, it was not that long ago that this perception that politicians should be self-made still held to a powerful degree. Indeed, I seem to remember a president who got elected by portraying himself as a bootstrapper from a small town in Arkansas named “Hope.” More than two decades later, the Clintons have pushed the envelope way beyond whether it’s merely acceptable for the rich to enter politics.
Now We Normalize Corruption
Getting rich off political influence isn’t new, but the Clintons—with their land deals, cattle futures, and palms being greased by Wall Street and foreign oligarchs—have made it acceptable to do so publicly. In this respect, the Clintons aren’t self-made at all. In fact, the way they exchange power for money is much more analogous to the corrupt Catholics who insisted that God’s forgiveness required indulgences that caused Luther to spell out the doctrine of vocation and gave rise to the Protestant work ethic in the first place.
They’re hardly the only examples of this these days. The media and much of the public yawned when it was revealed that a corrupt Chicago developer largely paid for Obama’s million-dollar home. For his part, Donald J. Trump has hoovered up working-class support by repeatedly and disingenuously claiming he is self-made. The reality is that he inherited millions from his father decades ago, and he routinely lies about how rich he is (likely because he’s both a narcissist and not a great businessman). He’s gone bankrupt multiple times, and would be a lot richer if he’d just stuck his money in an index fund instead of slapping his name on hideous buildings.
Oh, and Trump’s about to end up on trial for defrauding people with a super-shady for-profit education scheme. What do you want to bet that some of the people defrauded were workers squeezed out of the new economy and looking for affordable education opportunities to change or reclaim their careers? That is to say, the very people whose interests Trump is now claiming he would champion as president.
The key to the Protestant work ethic—and by extension America’s success—was that it strongly encouraged wealth creation at the same time it valued certain kinds of wealth creation over others. In nineteenth-century America, you could still get rich by being a robber baron or wielding your influence in Tammany Hall, but that came with no guarantee you would be respected or liked. Voters were especially loath to grant the wealthy the power to run the entire country, let alone let them use the levers of power to dramatically undercut the values of ordinary self-reliant, hardworking Americans.
It seems as if twenty-first-century America has lost the capability to make value distinctions about economic success. Like so many other issues that divide the country, the accumulation of wealth is too often a Manichean issue. Either it’s entirely self-justifying or all significant gains are unfairly viewed as the result of exploitation. The good news is that principled conservatives and principled progressives are finally starting to find points of agreement on the damage that crony capitalism has been doing to this country.
The bad news, however, is that enough of the country is still locked into one of these delusions that we’re staring down the barrel of a Clinton-Trump election. When the common thread of your life is chasing power and money—as it is for so many politicians these days—“do what you love” is a repugnant ambition. It sure seems like Trump and Clinton are enjoying their jobs way too much these days.