Looking back at my working career, it is obvious to me that I was extremely fortunate to spend my entire career at a manufacturing company, and even more fortunate that I did not have an interruption in service where I was without a job. There were multiple times during my working career where I thought that I was going to draw the short stick, where I awaited in my office (yes, an actual office with a door that could be shut) for a phone call that would start the process of separation from my employer. I never received that call. And thus was able to retire at an early age with a significant pension and retirement savings.
What that means is that I never experienced the personal economy that so many folks have suffered with over the past 4 decades. I was never forced to raid my retirement savings in an attempt to stay afloat. I was never required to work in the service economy at a starvation wage rate. Since I did not have these types of experiences, it is difficult for me to understand the pent-up anger that was released in the 2016 Presidential election. I am on the plus side of the economic divide.
This economic divide is the key driver in the divisiveness that permeates our society now. Looking back over my working career, I had the good fortune to be one of the haves in locations surrounded by multitudes of have-nots. I spent 10 years in Memphis from the mid 1970’s to 1985. That city was an island of relative prosperity encircled by a sea of dire poverty. Drive 30 miles south of Memphis into the Mississippi delta, you would find at that time ditches with raw sewage flowing around plank shacks dating from sharecropper days. I moved from there to Charleston West Virginia, where if you drive up into any given holler you still see ramshackle mobile homes surrounded by the detritus of lives ill spent.
Up until the economic turmoil surrounding the 2008-2009 recession, the growing economic divide had not resulted in overt divisiveness. Sure, you had Rush Limbaugh and similar talk radio messiahs proclaiming their particular and peculiar form of gospel. But it was a fringe group that paid obeisance to these prophets of the airwaves. Then came the “Great Recession”. And in its wake came the election of, gasp, a half-black man who had apparently never paid his dues in the private sector or in the military. Followed swiftly by the interventions of an activist government that took measures never considered in the Constitution, all in the hope of preventing the economy from totally seizing up.
So those who were not part of the haves, those who lost their jobs, those who were foreclosed upon by uncaring corporate megaliths, those who were forced to accept extended unemployment, and perhaps food stamps, and other government handouts meant to prevent starvation, those who lost everything saw that the perpetrators of the economic crisis were bailed out and made whole. Banks were merged with brokerage houses, and big banks swallowed regional mortgage providers, and slowly, the lubrication provided kept the gears of the economy from seizing up. The measures taken did work. As bad as the events of 2008-2009 were, students of history understand that it could have been a whole lot worse. However, those who caused the problems did not pay the price. There were no perp walks due to the financial crisis.
But for those who were on the losing end of the equation, what they saw was a lack of consequences for those who were guilty of the hubris that led to the financial crisis. They looked beyond their own circumstances where they received sustenance, to the unfairness of the social order. They realized that their own economic life had trended down over a long time, and this last disaster removed all remaining safety margin that had kept their lives from spiraling out of control. Now they realized that the deck was stacked against them, and that no one was on their side. This new black president? Well, according to the media that inveighed against him, no one was really sure he was even a citizen. Mother – dead. Father – a Kenyan Muslim who had communistic roots. He actually lived in Indonesia as a child. No way he could ever be one of us.
Barack Obama was in a no-win situation. He could not relate to the pain of the ordinary people, like Bill Clinton could, because the ordinary people could not see him as having validity. In fact, the chief denouncer of Obama’s legitimacy was a dilettante from New York who had a very spotted career as a developer of real estate and casinos, and a claim to enduring fame from his reality TV series. Donald Trump made it permissible to expound racist memes while maintaining a veneer of civility. His crusade to invalidate Obama finally failed with the release of a birth certificate, but to those who were invested in the beliefs of Trump, they never accepted the President’s legitimacy.
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Those words that are part of our consciousness now come into play as we see the results of the long game. The economic disruption that hit in the late 1920’s enabled the populist and fascist regimes of the 1930’s to take power. This led inevitably to the conflicts of the late 1930’s and then World War II. What I have seen in the rise of the nationalists across the globe – whether it be Donald Trump, or Marine LePen, or the forces for Brexit, or for the Dutch nationalism movement, it has accentuated the divisiveness that now infests our global society. We must find a way to tackle the divisiveness that infests our political discourse. The way to do that is to tackle the economic divide within our societies. How to tackle that? That is a topic for another discussion.