Are Working Class Gripes Real, Or Exaggerated?

Are Working Class Gripes Real, Or Exaggerated?

If you just look in economic terms, America’s bottom third has it better than 99 percent of people in world history. They’ve still got legitimate grievances.
Joy Pullmann
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If you just look at things in terms of economic and physical prosperity, the working-class outrage Donald Trump represents makes absolutely no sense. Things have never been better for America’s bottom third. If looked at in economic terms, they’re easily the global 1 percent now, not to mention by far the historical 1 percent.

Ancient emperors would have killed to have the medical facilities available today to illegal immigrants in the United States—and anyone else, for that matter—at no cost to them. The hot showers I enjoy each morning cost me something between two and three minutes of working time. Just about anybody can have a hot shower nowadays, even homeless people (shelters are everywhere); but practically nobody could 100 years ago. A century ago, one in ten U.S. children died before their first birthday. Now, almost no children do.

Economist Mark Perry has a regular blog feature showing how many more and better time-saving, drudgery reducing, and personal enjoyment devices—such as washing machines, iPhones, and cars—we can buy now for far less of our disposable incomes. Heck, the fact that we plebeians have disposable incomes at all is itself a historical miracle. Fifty years ago, it was not possible for any random person to hit up McDonald’s or Starbucks to “treat yo self.” Now, we can and do treat ourselves constantly, even if we’re not the ancient Roman Emperor Nero (he had to send runners up to mountaintops to gather snow to make flavored slushies for his parties).

“From 1952 to 2000, real income per person in the U.S. rose from $16,000 to $50,000,” the Wall Street Journal’s Bill McGurn notes. Brookings Institution researchers recently found there’s statistically just about no chance a person will be in poverty if he or she takes three simple steps: graduate high school, marry before making babies, and work full-time.

Everything Is Amazing and No One Is Happy

All this amazing combined with the veritable sea of pitchforks seeking American aristocrats’ throats has me thinking along with one of Louis C.K.’s most famous complaints.

What’s the matter with everyone? Why don’t they just enjoy their bread and circuses and stop whining already? Because we’re Americans.

A historically American attitude may be summed up in one my children adopt sometimes: “You ain’t the boss of me.” Thomas Jefferson put it far more eloquently, of course: “all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

‘The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.’

Part of the American social compact, that agreement we have with each other about how we are going to conduct our common affairs, is of government by consent of the governed. Americans rule themselves, and cede only part of the ruling business to representatives we choose, who govern a limited set of common, not individual, affairs. That’s supposed to be the deal, anyway, but it’s now a broken deal. When government does things many millions of Americans have not consented to, and inserts itself into what should be private, individual decisions, it breaks its part of our social compact. We feel betrayed; and we are.

Last year, Angela Codevilla explained Donald Trump’s popularity this way: “most Americans distrust, fear, are sick and tired of, the elected, appointed, and bureaucratic officials who rule over us, as well as their cronies in the corporate, media, and academic world…our ruling class has succeeded in ruling not by reason or persuasion, never mind integrity, but by occupying society’s commanding heights, by imposing itself and its ever-changing appetites on the rest of us. It has coopted or intimidated potential opponents by denying the legitimacy of opposition. Donald Trump, haplessness and clownishness notwithstanding, has shown how easily this regime may be threatened just by refusing to be intimidated.”

Friday, Peggy Noonan approached this point from a different angle: “The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully. The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created.”

The Elites Hate the Things that Make People Happy

Here’s how what the ruling class has to do with my initial observations about how great Americans have it. We may be more materially comfortable than any society on earth or in history. But we are nowhere more spiritually comfortable, or socially comfortable. In fact, it’s very easy to see we are more existentially in angst, if anything.

We may be more materially comfortable than any society on earth or in history. But we are nowhere more spiritually comfortable.

The culture wars didn’t go anywhere. The losing side has internalized them, and it’s gone to seed and borne bitter, bitter fruit. We have been vanquished, and not in a fair fight. What’s more, the victors are not at all gracious.

Consider the utter triumphalism this last summer when the Obergefell decision came out and smeared as bigotry the position of approximately half the country. The White House festooned itself with rainbows, for pete’s sake, while many Americans found themselves in deep mourning. That’s extremely unseemly, to say the least. Newspapers announced they would no longer publish opinions out of line with the five justices’ decision, even though the orthodox form of the religion seven in ten Americans profess opposes that decision.

While our material success is astonishing, the continued culture wars conservatives have been losing show America’s also-unique social successes are disintegrating. Charles Murray’s recent “Coming Apart” now appears to have been an early autopsy of the American republic based on four major sources of human satisfaction that the American founding unleashed yet our country’s leaders have degraded for nigh on a century now: religion, marriage, hard work, and honesty. All of these limit and channel our desires, which is a non-negotiable characteristic of a free people.

In rejecting these core human needs and institutions, the elites have broken faith with the people. They have deprived them of the very character necessary to handle disappointment, and the mental resilience to choose the proper leaders based on sound reasoning, not emotion.

Unstable Homes Mean Social Contagions

I will focus on marriage for sake of example; Mark Hemingway recently dissected how elites have dissolved the American work ethic; just about any person can explain how elites have attacked religion; and politicians have made an utter mockery of honesty. (Murray’s book contains far more detail, too, of course.)

The breakdown of the family is also my leading explanation for many major problems of our workforce, especially in the poor and working class: employers cannot find quality employees, and their problems are mostly about soft skills like showing up on time and passing drug tests. Lack of these same soft skills is the primary barrier to workers learning new hard skills in apprenticeships or certificate programs. Those soft skills are things functioning families cultivate in young people, and that broken families destroy.

The children of the sexual revolution do not grow up in environments conducive to controlling one’s temper or lusts.

Marriage, that source of deep life satisfaction for humans since time began, is definitely on the rocks; and our social leaders have helped steer it there. They started by preaching “free love,” which has morphed into “force your neighbors to pay for your birth control, get it on whether you’re able to provide any resulting children the stable marriage they deserve, and, when that moral hazard inevitably produces more fatherless children, taxpayers can also provide your groceries, rent, health care, and childcare. Oh, and by the way, this will encourage men to shirk their families and social duties because it sidelines their unique contributions.”

Now Trumpism is becoming a social contagion; people are angry when they wouldn’t be in normal circumstances, partly because so many now have grown and are growing up in homes where the children got the raw end of the emotional deal because mom and dad were divorced or never married. The children of the sexual revolution do not grow up in environments conducive to controlling one’s temper or lusts. Elite policies subsidize dysfunction, which generates resentment, both among the people who escape the subsidized dysfunction yet have to pay for its consequences and among the subsidized people, who feel the “bigotry of low expectations.”

Murray has concluded that it’s time for the elites to begin preaching what they practice, namely marital commitment and pre-marriage sexual restraint. The people whose families and life prospects the elites have hectored into self-destruction through sexual license, aversion to commitment, addictions, self-indulgence, and other vices no one can truly afford have concluded, instead, that it’s time to wreak revenge.

It may not be the noble course of action, but it’s hard to blame them. Or, if there is blame to go around, it deserves to be heaped on the heads of the aggressors here, not their victims, even if the victims are now adding their own to their exploiters’ sins. They have sown the wind, and we’re all reaping the whirlwind.

Donald Trump Is the Elite’s Caricature of His Voters

One ghastly feature of this whole business is that America’s glittering aristocracy seems to be not ashamed and apologetic but reveling in the social destruction they’ve helped create. Insanely enough, Trump is just one more thing the elites are foisting upon the little people. In their desperation, they are celebrating yet another monster from the same family that has been gleefully consuming American society.

Trump epitomizes the worst of what the elites think the rest of us are: crazy, racist jackasses. The problem is, Trump really is a jackass.

Mollie Hemingway (whom I’m proud to call a colleague) has shown time and time again how the big media players that champion the very imperial government Trump supporters hate also play Trump up so scandalously it’s practically an orgy.

I think it’s because Trump epitomizes the worst of what the elites think the rest of us are: crazy, racist jackasses. The problem is, Trump really is a jackass (I’m not convinced he’s a racist or crazy). The Trump supporters I know, on the contrary, are some of the most hard-working, clean-nosed people I’ve ever met. They’ve quietly paid their dues, and the dues for ever so many welfare bums and corporate suck-ups, and gotten nothing in return but contempt. The contrast between them and their man is the main reason I’m repeatedly confused about why these two are on the same train.

I can only attribute it to something I learned riding horses. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I know horses are kind of like a luxury yacht, but mine hung out in the cow pasture on the family farm and I got her free from an uncle’s ex-wife. She had a benign cancerous growth we never treated because we didn’t have the money. My farmer dad was always griping about how that pony ate so much and contributed nothing, but I was really lucky to have every little girl’s dream even if I embarrassed my hayseed self next to the Lexus-level horses and their expensively trained riders at the county fair.

When an Abused Horse Doesn’t Trust Its Rider

Anyway, horses do something when they’ve had enough. It’s called “taking the bit in their mouth.” That’s when a horse manages to get the bit in its back teeth and clamps down so it can’t feel the rider’s direction. It usually signals the horse is about to buck you off or tear back to the barn so fast you’ll be lucky to not end up with a broken neck.

What the abused populace needs right now is some space. They need government to get out of their sore spots.

Once they get going, your only hope of living through the experience is hanging on tight or bailing into any soft grass. No matter what you say or do, that horse is not listening. That’s why wise riders pay attention to the horse to prevent her from ever getting to that point. Cranky ponies go back in the barn for a rest.

Now, I was patient with my cantankerous pony. She had what they call “a hard mouth” because her previous owners had yanked on it and yanked on it and yanked on it. That really hurts. It’s cruel and abusive. So, in compassion, I worked with her.

I rode her without a bit until she would let me touch her nose without yanking her head away. Then I gently rubbed her mouth and nose, and fed her treats whenever she’d let me close to her sore spot. She softened. Eventually, I was able to put a bit in her, because I’d taught her she didn’t have to be afraid. She could trust me. Since it was hard-won, I was careful to respect that trust, and to not react in anger when she pulled back and got nervous about her mouth. I gave her space, and time.

It doesn’t seem that we can expect that sort of thing from our ruling class. What the abused populace needs right now is some space. They need government to get out of their sore spots. Noonan thinks this is not likely (as always, read her whole essay), and I agree: “we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens. And a country really can’t continue this way…Now is seems the attitude of the top half is: You’re on your own. Get with the program, little racist. Social philosophers are always saying the underclass must re-moralize. Maybe it is the overclass that must re-moralize.”

It may be too late. Instead of a patient, gentle rider who backs off from a spooked horse and gives her some space, we’ve got overlords who think they’re the “favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride.” Riders who act like that get unceremoniously bucked off. And not just them. Anyone who comes after, no matter how well-meaning. Once spooked, twice shy.

That means it may be the end of the ride for our republic. If gentling is to happen, it will take a long, long time; and it will be fought by the current would-be riders.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of The Federalist, an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute, and author of the forthcoming "The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids," from Encounter Books.
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