Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Class Envy and Trump's Role in What Comes Next

Part of the American Dream, at least starting at the beginning of the last century, is predicated upon the hope that each of us might attain a four-year college degree. Three quarters of a century ago, college was standard procedure only for those with elite financial means. Both of my mother’s parents, small-town Southerners raised lower-middle class, were told from a very young age that they too might matriculate someday.  They anticipated college with the eagerness of small children on Christmas morning, alongside the resulting climb up the class ladder and greater income they were sure would follow. It was the most profound collective disappointment of their lives that the Great Depression wiped out every penny of their college fund.

My grandfather had a habit of asking me, as a young boy, whether or not certain Presidents had achieved a college degree. I was interested in history and political science, even then. Often I guessed right. Sometimes I guessed wrongly.

Lying on his deathbed, his body ravaged by cancer, my grandfather asked me one final time. Did Harry Truman go to college? I wagered a tentative guess. Yes, I said, pensively. No, he replied, sadly. He did not.

The 2016 race has been dissected in a million different ways by now. We’ll be talking about compelling and entirely plausible reasons why it ended the way it did for at least the next two years. In my rough estimation, frustrated working class people handed this election to Donald Trump. But he has a tall order on his plate, a now empty lunch-pail of American voters, much like the former factory worker clamoring for happier days where, said entirely without irony, America can be great again.

Can President-Elect Trump really put the genie back in the bottle? For decades pundits and news reports informed us that we were quickly moving from an industrial-based economy to the service/information economy that becomes more and more of a force with every passing day. I am unconvinced in the success of Trump’s approach to this extremely complex problem, but do not enjoy seeing people in pain and anger. I am eager for something different, but I’m genuinely afraid of what “something different” is really going to look like for the next four years.

We’ve never really drawn up a sharp distinction in the United States about precisely how our jobs and career paths should be structured. Should we adopt a strict system of tracking similar to the UK? In their approach, early in life, every British citizen is directed towards either a university education or a career in trade. Systems of examinations are used to make individual determinations.

The approach has its detractors, those who feel that it locks in people unfairly. They argue that some individuals are late bloomers, who might change their minds and wish to reverse course. Furthermore, those who disagree adamantly believe that everyone ought to have full freedom of how they choose to make their living. These are valid points, but they lead to a much greater issue we have skirted over for decades.

Does every American need a college degree? A PBS report from two years ago claims that 40% of every citizen in the United States has received at least a bachelor’s. And yet, one would think that having reached this benchmark to success, it would be far easier to attain stable, lasting employment. Even these so-called elites find themselves routinely disenchanted and demoralized, realizing that the expensive degree they hold in their hands means far less than they ever dreamed. And it goes without saying that they are often stuck with thousands of dollars in student loan debt that they will often carry with them into middle age and even beyond. Society says we all ought to have a degree, as do well-meaning parents and high school guidance counselors, but is it finally time to question that assumption and others like it?

But we must also consider, somewhat more heavily, the non-college, working class, often rural-dwellers who effectively flipped this election. What were their motivations? Racism has proven to be alive in well in this campaign, yes, but I would make a case that a more profound impact drove Trump turnout: class envy. American identity is contradictory, as I suppose is true for every country. One is supposed to receive higher education to raise oneself up in station, a step up the ladder. It’s drilled into us from a very young age. Then we begin to recognize that there are social distinctions in life. With time, we learn that we fit into one of them and don’t fit into others.

As I began, a college education and upward mobility is a basic tenet of the American dream, but it often sets a standard that cannot be lived up to no matter how hard a person works and saves. Or, for that matter, borrows. It’s difficult to overemphasize the amount of jealousy and resentment that led many to reject Hillary Clinton wholesale this cycle. This election wasn’t rigged. It is possible for anyone to be President, but to be President, you have to bill yourself as part soothing salve for grievous wrong while ginning up natural prejudices based on economic inequality and simple tribalism. This has been the strategy of both parties over the years.    

If Donald Trump somehow succeeds in returning manufacturing jobs to this country, we will need to reverse course as a nation. It will be not just acceptable, but necessary to work a blue-collar job where having a college degree might be necessary, or might be utterly superfluous. The automobile plant that returns to the United States, in this hypothetical scenario, probably needs four months to train its employees for work specific only to its organization, not four years spent elsewhere learning how to binge drink.

My father’s parents were career textile mill workers. They had, at best, an eighth grade education between the two of them. Dad wanted more for himself, and due to his own hard work, he raised myself and my two sisters in a pretty typical middle-class suburb. Returning to his working class roots was never an option he ever entertained. One summer in the middle of college he worked at the mill, found it totally distasteful to every ounce of his being, and resolved to never return. He got out, and though he experienced some guilt about the people he left behind, he found life much better away from having next to nothing.

I’m not sure that sort of upward trajectory in American society exists anymore. How do we inform Americans that it’s okay to not be highly educated? Being highly educated is as much mindset as it fact. How do we encourage citizens to live in small towns without access to excellent medical care, unable to pick from a multitude of choices to best spend their money, among many other metrics, and be generally okay with what to many would be a step back, not a step forward? I recall a song popular one hundred years ago during World War I. "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)

Trump’s America is going to either thrive or fail dismally based on a concept that is very foreign to American ears. It is called class solidarity. Class solidarity by its very definition is antithetical to the American Dream. It asks for single-minded devotion and a sense of common purpose, one not constantly distracted by demands of self-interest alone, the possibility of making greater income for oneself. The United States has had pockets of this sort of thinking when unions were much stronger. I am not sure we can kill off this desire for greater individual social mobility and turn millions of Americans into happy warriors.

This election has proven that almost anything is possible. But unless Trump can deliver on the promises he has made, now validated by somewhat less half the electorate, his tenure will be a complete waste of four years. Americans do need unity, but it needs to be communal unity, not an expedient unity for the short term, always hungering for the next rung up the proverbial ladder. When fathers and mothers aspire for their offspring to work alongside them at Trump Steel and Rail Corporation™, not the promise of a rise in class status, then these lofty promises might conceivably work. But I’m not holding my breath.

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