Monday, February 29, 2016

Explaining Sanders and Trump

Surprisingly, Sanders and Trump have many things in common (discounting ideological differences). Perhaps the most important is that they both touch a raw nerve in the electorate, namely that the American dream, that is the opportunity for upward mobility, is slipping away. Here is some of the essay in The Guardian by Michael Sandel, a political philosopher and professor at Harvard (see his Wiki entry here).

The unexpected resonance of the Sanders and Trump campaigns does not represent a decisive turning of American voters towards the left or towards the right. It represents a populist protest against a neoliberal economic order embraced by the establishment wings of both parties, which bestows lavish rewards upon those at the top and makes life precarious for everyone else.

The rise of Sanders and Trump is less about ideology than about anxiety that the American Dream is slipping away. This is what Sanders means when he says that the system is rigged against ordinary Americans. And this is what Trump means when he says that America doesn’t win any more. Both give expression to a widespread sense that Americans are losing control of the forces that govern their lives.

The American Dream has never been about reducing inequalities of income and wealth. It has been about enabling people to rise and giving one’s children the chance to rise even further. This is why Americans have traditionally worried less about inequality than Europeans do. We may have greater disparities of income and wealth than do the welfare states of Europe, we would tell ourselves, but here, we are not consigned to the class of our birth. Mobility, not equality, is the measure of our freedom. In recent decades, however, this comforting self-image has begun to ring hollow. The long-standing faith that those who “work hard and play by the rules” will get ahead no longer fits the lived experience of working-class and middle-class Americans. The growing inequality of recent decades has not been offset by opportunities to rise. To the contrary, it has brought a hardening of economic mobility.

The US has less mobility than most major European countries. Forty-two per cent of American men born in the bottom fifth of the income scale remain stuck there as adults (compared with 25% in Denmark and 30% in Britain). Only 8% of American men rise from the bottom fifth to the top. Studies of mobility from one generation to the next tell a similar story. Class mobility is greater in Denmark, Norway, Canada, Sweden, Germany and France than in the US. The American Dream is alive and well and living in Denmark.

If the promise of upward mobility is no longer a realistic way to contend with inequalities of income and wealth, Americans may need to reconsider the place of equality in the American Dream. Whether this populist moment will prompt such rethinking remains to be seen.

When upward mobility stops, you settle into a rigid caste system in which poor begets poor and their lot declines generationally, fueled by policies that reward those already at the top of the economic ladder. So you could think of Sanders and Trump as the vanguard of the pitchforks. The pitchforks are not inevitable but we need more equitable policies and the political will to implement them.

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