What’s Going On?
What’s Going On?, asked Marvin Gaye in his great R and B song of that title in 1972.
We’re still asking, aren’t we? At present, we’re asking how 74 million people voted for Donald Trump and a significant percentage of those voters, as well as Republican party leaders, can be buying into Trump’s “Stop-The-Steal” delusion? We’re asking what in the world people in that camp can be thinking when they talk about Trump imposing martial law and being engaged in a fight to the death to overturn the 2020 election?
It is, to be sure, baffling, but way more than that — scary.
I’ve been reading the new book by the political philosopher, Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? I’ve been a fan of Sandel’s for several decades now. In this book he — for my money — does get at what’s going on.
The conventional explanations for Trumpism (and similar movements elsewhere) have been that it is either about race or the economics. According to the theory # 1, the wave which Trump rode to election in 2016 and is still trying to surf, is mostly, about race and xenophobia. It is all about the anxiety of white people about losing their majority and power. Undoubtedly, there is something to that for many in Trump’s base.
The second popular answer to the Marvin Gaye question as regards Trumpism is that it is all about economics, loss of jobs and economic stagnation as a global digital economy replaces an older extractive economy. Again, when you look at how prosperity concentrates in certain areas while others fade into non-being, there’s something to this analysis also.
Which is it, race or economics? That has been the debate as people have tried to fathom the support for a guy like Trump, who now that he is cornered and wounded, is still — maybe more — dangerous.
I quote from Sandel’s opening chapter, “Winners and Losers.”
“These are dangerous times for democracy. The danger can be seen in rising xenophobia and growing public support for autocratic figures who test the limits of democratic norms. These trends are troubling in themselves. Equally alarming is the fact that mainstream parties and politicians display little understanding of the discontent that is roiling politics around the world. (italics added)
“Some denounce the upsurge of populist nationalism as little more than a racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. Others see it mainly in economic terms, as a protest against job losses brought about by global trade and new technologies.
“But it is a mistake to see only bigotry in populist protest, or to view it only as an economic complaint. Like the triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered. It was also a rebuke for a technocratic approach to politics that is tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and culture have left them behind.
“The hard reality is that Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer. A similar predicament afflicts European democracies. Before they can hope to win back public support, these parties must rethink their mission and purpose. To do so, they should learn from the populist protest that has displaced them — not be replicating its xenophobia and strident nationalism — but by taking seriously the legitimate grievances with which these ugly sentiments are entangled.”
Sandel argues that neither the race nor economics get to the heart of it — in part because they often see these populist movements primarily through a moralistic lens and damn the adherents as miscreants and deplorables. (And, yes, some fit that bill — although the right doesn’t have a corner on those categories).
“These grievances,” continues Sandel, “are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.”
Sandel argues that the dominant socio-political-theology of a global, technical culture is meritocratic. In its malign form a meritocratic ethic boils down to this: those who succeed and prosper are due their success and status on account their own efforts, smarts and virtue, while those who are less successful and prosperous have no one to blame but themselves. Hence, The Tyranny of Merit.
There is nothing new about the philosophy that the winners deserve their wealth and power, while the losers are due their disgrace and marginalization. Such a world-view has been with us always. One might argue that Jesus’ entire life and ministry were a protest against such self-congratulatory forms of religion and life.
In America, merit’s tyranny was kept within livable bounds by the religious and moral idea of grace, i.e. we aren’t just the result of our hard work and virtue, we are receivers of gifts and graces undeserved. “There but for the grace of God go I.” And the harder edges of a meritocracy were hedged, as well, by a sense of shared citizenship, of being in this together, as Americans. Both have been eroded over the past four decades, leaving us with a harsh dog-eat-dog social Darwinism.
Sandel’s diagnosis is neither left nor right, neither Democrat nor Republican. It transcends the usual camps and tribes, going deeper. Which is one reason why it seems to me a better answer to the question, “What’s Going On?”
Many are now beside themselves about the 2020 election and Trump’s efforts to overturn it. I agree. As noted in an earlier piece, the guy isn’t just wrong. He’s evil.
But how do we begin to fathom what’s really going on? And can the mainstream parties and politicians come to a better understanding and response — else we find ourselves repeating the mistakes of the past in a new Biden administration?
Sandel points us in the right direction when he writes, “Before [mainstream political parties and leaders] can hope to win back public support, these parties must rethink their mission and purpose. To do so, they should learn from the populist protest that has displaced them — not be replicating its xenophobia and strident nationalism — but by taking seriously the legitimate grievances with which these ugly sentiments are entangled.”