With the British electorate’s dramatic and unexpected decision to pull out of the European Union, The New York Times reports that “the same yawning gap between the elite and mass opinion is fueling a populist backlash” all across Europe and the United States.
Here at home, election season is upon us and widespread frustration with conventional party politics has been the motivating force behind both the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns. The Trump appeal, as with the “Brexit” revolt, has much to do with resentment toward migrants and refugees.
Meanwhile, across the aisle, we must recognize that the Democratic Party, in particular, has lost touch with its traditional working-class base, and we of the “liberal elite” must take some responsibility for having compromised our values and, in the months ahead, for putting us back on course.
Liberals, some would say, simply feel guilty for being dealt a privileged hand. No, liberals today don’t operate out of guilt for lifestyle choices and professed political views that may seem inconsistent … but we are falling out of touch.
I live in a beautiful home in a virtually all-white upscale neighborhood of like-minded (liberal) academics and professionals. We comprise a community of legal aid lawyers, social workers, professors, public school teachers, homeless advocates, reproductive rights counselors, health care policy reformers, reentry (from prison or jail) supporters, public defenders, psychologists helping a financially-strapped and emotionally-stressed clientele, doctors serving those on the street without insurance and resources, socially conscious judges and a host of dedicated public servants.
We support all the right causes, e.g. a $15 minimum wage, Black Lives Matter and a clean environment. And yet, with the end of each workday, we return to our comfortable zip code; the working class and the poor do not live in our neighborhood.
Although our political leanings have been all about bringing moderation and justice to a capitalist system, we’ve been co-opted into lifestyles that perpetuate and aggravate a class-based society. Our young children, so much of whose time is spent at home or in the neighborhood, are being raised largely in a segregated world.
Two Americas. Out of sight, out of mind. All across our nation, gated communities serve as Trumpian walls. Sadly, we have rendered ourselves ineffectual in addressing these obscene class divisions — the “income inequality” mantra that has become so popular in political speeches and so absent in political action. Yes, we need to walk the walk.
As embarrassing, offensive and dangerous as he may be, Don “Make-America-White/Male-Again” Trump is not solely to blame. He simply says out loud what Republicans have believed for at least a generation; meanwhile, Bill Clinton and the Democrats ignored their traditional middle-class base and chose shareholders over jobholders, Wall Street over Main Street. With the fraternity of investment bankers running through a revolving door with the Obama administration, it’s no surprise that we’ve traded labor unions for corporate profits and replaced organized labor with temps and independent contractors.
The success or failure of our public schools — and the hopes and dreams of our students — is largely pre-determined by the socio-economic class of the parent body in the surrounding neighborhood. And now we have charters and privatization undermining our teachers’ unions and a public education system that was once envied around the globe. Rather than embarking on a single-payer health system, we’ve saved seats at the table for insurers and Big Pharma.
Libertarians, including so many of the white male entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, see little need for the kind of social safety net so common in most every other industrialized nation. And the “shared economy” to which we once aspired has come to mean Airbnb and Uber.
In short, we’re living in a segregated society. The American Dream of upward mobility into a large and welcoming middle class is fading fast for those who struggle so desperately. To update James Carville’s advice to Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992, now “it’s the [class-based] economy, stupid.”
Many of us whose political lives blasted off in the 1960s have lost the pathway toward the kind of world we set out to create. With a gimlet eye, we see our expectations diminished and, in moments of harsher self-assessment, a legacy betrayed.
As we encourage one another in our retirement years with renewed energy around the issues that have inspired our lives, let’s acknowledge that we’ve fallen out of touch — not out of breath, not out of guilt, just out of touch — and commit ourselves to reconnecting across class lines (and with the politically-aroused Millennials) as we move our generation’s agenda forward. For starters, how about some low-income, subsidized housing in our finest neighborhoods? Let’s talk: email@example.com.
— Michael Rooke-Ley