Political Polarization’s Geographic Roots Run Deep

The divide between urban and rural voters is growing everywhere: from New York City to farm towns.
A barn is painted with an image of the Statue of Liberty and a U.S. flag in Mt. Vernon, Iowa
The political divide between rural and urban voters is wide and getting wider. | Reuters/Jim Young

Red state, blue state. Conservative, progressive. Small government, big government. Among all the familiar fault lines in American politics, says Jonathan Rodden, Stanford professor of political science, the one with the deepest implications is the stark, growing divide between rural and urban voters.

“We’re at a moment of extreme geographic sectionalism,” Rodden told a group of students as part of the Moving Forward After Political Confrontation series at Stanford Graduate School of Business, spearheaded by Saumitra Jha, a professor of political economy. “The question about political polarization in the United States, the question about where we are, what’s happening in the United States after this last election, is all about geography.”

Rodden says his research on geographic polarization shows a striking correlation between population density and voting behavior that grows stronger with each passing election. In short, he says, Democrats are becoming an exclusively urban party.

“Whether it has to do with income, or whether it has to do with race, or whether it has to do with economic decline, it is the case that there is a very pronounced spatial organization of the electorate of the United States,” Rodden says.

“As you go from the center of cities out through the suburbs and into rural areas, you traverse in a linear fashion from Democratic to Republican places.”

He also says that this correlation between population density and Democratic voting persists no matter the size of the municipality. “It’s true of the states, it’s true of the counties, and, most important, it’s true at the level of precincts,” Rodden says.

The correlation between population density and Democratic voting persists no matter the size of the municipality.

It’s not just that a densely populated state like New York tends to vote Democratic, or that densely populated counties do. Even small towns are far more Democratic than their surrounding rural areas. And tightly packed suburbs vote more Democratic than suburbs with more widely spaced homes do. And the trend has accelerated across the country in recent years.

Rodden says that this battle pitting a set of urban interests against a set of rural interests didn’t happen overnight and isn’t unique to American politics. However, the severity of the problem is. This, he argues, largely stems from the fact that American politics is dominated by only two parties and features a geographic system of representation. As long as this geographic polarization continues and Democrats remain an urban party, he says, they will continue to be dramatically underrepresented in legislative bodies.

Creatively drawn districts that benefit Republican majorities aren’t the main culprits, Rodden says. Rather, the simple fact that districts are drawn at all disadvantages Democrats.

“When you draw winner-take-all districts, it ends up overrepresenting Republicans,” Rodden says. “This is something that we often blame on gerrymandering, but it’s only strengthened and furthered by gerrymandering. We end up with a lot of bias against Democrats purely because of this spatial arrangement of politics.”

Rodden says the election of Donald Trump as president is just one manifestation of the divide between urban and rural voters. “This is going to be a new fault line in politics in lots of places,’’ he says. “European politics is increasingly going to be a battle between urban, young intellectuals, greens, people who support the European Union — and a rural coalition that wants to pull out of the European Union.” The question becomes what can be done about it?

In the United States, it would be possible to draw more competitive districts. But that would require a redistricting process that prioritized parity, Rodden says. “We certainly don’t have anything like that.”

Beyond that, the polarization of urban and rural interests could be diminished in a system with more parties, or one that doesn’t rely on geographic representation. “Proportional representation can have the impact of reducing this geographic cleavage that emerges so naturally in a place like the United States,” Rodden says.

“There is nothing about population density that automatically generates this kind of cleavage. There are lots of places that have cities and suburbs and rural areas — and suburbanization is not just an American phenomenon,” he says. “But single-member-district, majoritarian systems that produce two parties that hate each other — that’s the worst of all worlds.”

https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/political-polarizations-geographic-roots-run-deep

One of eight people in US is food insecure

New report documents pervasive hunger in America

By Shelley Connor
6 May 2017

A report released by Feeding America on May 4 reveals that one out of every eight people, and one out of every six children, did not consistently have access to food in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. While there has been an overall decline over the past several years in food insecurity rates, hunger and poverty levels have not declined to pre-recession levels, the report states.

Moreover, the gap between income and the money needed to buy adequate food for the millions of people classified as food insecure is growing. And the existing government food programs, increasingly starved of funding, are scandalously inadequate to meet the immense social need.

The report is a further exposure of the government/media narrative that the US has recovered from the Great Recession and, as former President Barack Obama said at the end of 2015, “things are pretty great in America.” Obama, of course, was speaking for his real constituency—Wall Street and the wealthy, who monopolized an even greater share of the national wealth thanks to his right-wing policies.

Donald Trump is taking off where Obama left off, plundering the economy and enriching the financial aristocracy even more shamelessly. With profits, stock prices and the personal fortunes of the rich at record levels, the ongoing hunger crisis stands as an unanswerable indictment of the capitalist system.

Using United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, Feeding America, a nonprofit that operates food banks, mapped food insecurity throughout each county and congressional district in the United States. The compiled statistics offer a sobering insight into the living standards of large sections of working class and lower-middle class Americans:

* In 2009, the year after the Wall Street crash, some 50 million US residents were food insecure. While that number fell to 42 million in 2015, the budget shortfall for food insecure individuals averaged $527 a year. This represents an increase of 13 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 2008.

* Children are more vulnerable to hunger than the general population. On average, 21 percent of children across all US counties are food insecure, compared to 14 percent of the general population. Some 41 percent of the children in Issaquena County, Mississippi are food insecure, and in 14 counties, over 100,000 children cannot expect consistent meals.

* Twenty six percent of food insecure individuals nationwide are unlikely to qualify for government nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, better known as food stamps), Women Infants and Children (WIC) and free or reduced-price school meals. In 76 US counties, the majority of food insecure individuals are likely to be ineligible for government assistance. In Douglas County, Colorado, near Denver, about two-thirds of the county’s 28,280 food insecure individuals are unlikely to qualify for government nutrition aid.

One in four food insecure individuals report that they applied for government assistance and were denied.

This is no mystery given that in many states a family of four has to earn less than $31,980 a year to qualify for food stamps. In other words, the family has to be living in the most dire poverty.

* Millions of people with jobs are living in hunger. Some 57 percent of food insecure people earn more than the (absurdly low) federal poverty level.

* Eighty-nine percent of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are located in the South.

* Rural counties make up 63 percent of all US counties, but account for 76 percent of the counties facing the highest rates of food insecurity.

However, while urban counties have lower rates of food insecurity, many have huge numbers of people living with hunger. Los Angeles County has a relatively “low” rate of food insecurity at 12 percent, but it is home to 1.2 million food insecure individuals, including 480,000 children. The counties with the highest number of food insecure people are New York, Los Angeles, Harris (Houston), Cook (Chicago), Maricopa (Phoenix), Dallas, San Diego, Wayne (Detroit), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Philadelphia.

Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America, characterized the report as “grim news.” She continued: “It is disheartening to realize that millions of hardworking, low-income Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to feed themselves and their families at a time that our economy is showing many signs of improvement…”

Widespread and entrenched hunger in the richest country in the world is not the result of cosmic forces or an act of God. It is the product of deliberate policies carried out by both parties, acting in the interests of the ruling corporate-financial elite. The SNAP program was cut repeatedly under the Obama administration, including the $8.7 billion reduction Obama signed into law in February of 2104, stripping more than 500,000 people of food stamp benefits.

One day after Feeding America issued its report, Trump signed into law a bipartisan budget measure extending funding of the federal government through the end of the 2017 fiscal year, September 30, which includes a further $2.4 billion cut in food stamps. The same measure allocates an additional $15 billion for the military over the next five months plus $1.5 billion more to further militarize the United States’ southern border. The Democrats hailed the measure as a victory for the people and defeat for Trump.

The $16.5 billion combined allocation for war abroad and the war on immigrants at home would go a long way in covering what Feeding America calls the annual “food budget shortfall” for America’s food insecure population—estimated at $22.3 billion.

If that full amount were deducted from the net worth ($81 billion) of America’s richest billionaire, Bill Gates, the computer mogul would still be left with nearly $60 billion. Speculator George Soros, the 19th richest American, could cover the hunger deficit and still have a cool $3 billion to spare.

A social system that condemns millions to hunger in order to sustain the meaningless and corrupt lifestyles of a new aristocracy is doomed. It deserves to perish.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/05/06/hung-m06.html

America Is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People

BOOKS
A new book reveals that the U.S. is becoming two distinct countries, with separate economies, politics and opportunities.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

You’ve probably heard the news that the celebrated post-WW II beating heart of America known as the middle class has gone from “burdened,” to “squeezed” to “dying.” But you might have heard less about what exactly is emerging in its place.

In a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, draws a portrait of the new reality in a way that is frighteningly, indelibly clear: America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations and fates.

Two roads diverged

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

The two sectors, notes Temin, have entirely distinct financial systems, residential situations and educational opportunities. Quite different things happen when they get sick or when they interact with the law. They move independently of each other. Only one path exists by which the citizens of the low-wage country can enter the affluent one, and that path is fraught with obstacles. Most have no way out.

The richest large economy in the world, says Temin, is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. We have entered a phase of regression and one of the easiest ways to see it is in our infrastructure: our roads and bridges look more like those in Thailand or Venezuela than the Netherlands or Japan. But it goes far deeper than that, which is why Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality has progressed in the United States. The model is the work of West Indian economist W. Arthur Lewis, the only person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize in economics. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U.S.

The result is profoundly disturbing.

In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration: check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.

In the developing countries Lewis studied, people try to move from the low-wage sector to the affluent sector by transplanting from rural areas to the city to get a job. Occasionally it works; often it doesn’t. Temin says that today in the U.S., the ticket out is education, which is difficult for two reasons: you have to spend money over a long period of time, and the FTE sector is making those expenditures more and more costly by defunding public schools and making policies that increase student debt burdens.

Getting a good education, Temin observes, isn’t just about a college degree. It has to begin in early childhood, and you need parents who can afford to spend time and resources all along the long journey. If you aspire to college and your family can’t make transfers of money to you on the way, well, good luck to you. Even with a diploma, you will likely find that high-paying jobs come from networks of peers and relatives. Social capital, as well as economic capital, is critical, but because of America’s long history of racism and the obstacles it has created for accumulating both kinds of capital, black graduates often can only find jobs in education, social work, and government instead of higher-paying professional jobs like technology or finance— something most white people are not really aware of. Women are also held back by a long history of sexism and the burdens — made increasingly heavy — of making greater contributions to the unpaid care economy and lack of access to crucial healthcare.

How did we get this way?

What happened to America’s middle class, which rose triumphantly in the post-World War II years, buoyed by the GI bill, the victories of labor unions and programs that gave the great mass of workers and their families health and pension benefits that provided security?

The dual economy didn’t happen overnight, says Temin. The story started just a couple of years after the ’67 Summer of Love. Around 1970, the productivity of workers began to get divided from their wages. Corporate attorney and later Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell galvanized the business community to lobby vigorously for its interests. Johnson’s war on poverty was replaced by Nixon’s war on drugs, which sectioned off many members of the low-wage sector, disproportionately black, into prisons. Politicians increasingly influenced by the FTE sector turned from public-spirited universalism to free-market individualism. As money-driven politics accelerated (a phenomenon explained by the Investment Theory of Politics), leaders of the FTE sector became increasingly emboldened to ignore the needs of members of the low-wage sector, or even to actively work against them.

America’s underlying racism has a continuing distorting impact. A majority of the low-wage sector is white, with blacks and Latinos making up the other part, but politicians learned to talk as if the low-wage sector is mostly black because it allowed them to appeal to racial prejudice, which is useful in maintaining support for the structure of the dual economy — and hurting everyone in the low-wage sector. Temin notes that “the desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks has motivated policies against all members of the low-wage sector.”

Temin points out that the presidential race of 2016 both revealed and amplified the anger of the low-wage sector at this increasing imbalance. Low-wage whites who had been largely invisible in public policy until recently came out of their quiet despair to be heard. Unfortunately, present trends are not only continuing, but also accelerating their problems, freezing the dual economy into place.

What can we do?

We’ve been digging ourselves into a hole for over 40 years, but Temin says we know how to stop digging. If we spent more on domestic rather than military activities, then the middle class would not vanish as quickly. The effects of technological change and globalization could be altered by political actions. We could restore and expand education, shifting resources from policies like mass incarceration to improving the human and social capital of all Americans. We could upgrade infrastructure, forgive mortgage and educational debt in the low-wage sector, reject the notion that private entities should replace democratic government in directing society, and focus on embracing an integrated American population. We could tax not only the income of the rich, but also their capital.

The cost of not doing these things, Temin warns, is incalculably high, and even the rich will end up paying for it.

“Look at the movie Hidden Figures,” he says. “It recounts a very dramatic story about three African-American women condemned to have a life of not being paid very well teaching in black colleges, and yet their fates changed when they were tapped by NASA to contribute to space exploration. Today we are losing the ability to find people like that. We have a structure that predetermines winners and losers. We are not getting the benefits of all the people who could contribute to the growth of the economy, to advances in medicine or science which could improve the quality of life for everyone — including some of the rich people.”

Along with Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the Twenty-First Century examines historical and modern inequality, Temin’s book has provided a giant red flag, illustrating a trajectory that will continue to accelerate as long as the 20 percent in the FTE sector are permitted to operate a country within America’s borders solely for themselves at the expense of the majority. Without a robust middle class, America is not only reverting to developing-country status, it is increasingly ripe for serious social turmoil that has not been seen in generations.

A dual economy has separated America from the idea of what most of us thought the country was meant to be.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham’s Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore. 

http://www.alternet.org/books/america-regressing-developing-nation-most-people?akid=15455.265072.jP3WSU&rd=1&src=newsletter1075889&t=8

Science and Socialism

The issues posed by the worldwide March for Science

20 April 2017

Hundreds of thousands of scientists and other professionals, together with students and working people who support them, will take part this Saturday in the worldwide March for Science. The demonstration has evoked a significant response, in large measure because it is seen as a way to protest the Trump administration’s attacks on scientific knowledge and investigation.

The Socialist Equality Party welcomes this demonstration. We call for the mobilization of working people throughout the world against the destruction of the environment by giant chemical and energy corporations; attacks on public education that threaten access to all aspects of human culture for an entire generation of young people; the subordination of science to the profit requirements of the ruling class and the military; and all censorship and restrictions on research and teaching.

The call for the March for Science refers to these issues, but it has definite limitations, summed up in its declaration that the attacks on science “are not a partisan issue.” This question must be understood correctly. The defense of science is only “nonpartisan” in the sense that both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for the attack on public education, the deteriorating environment, the growth of militarism and the effort to censor and suppress scientific research.

The defense of science is, however, profoundly political, as it has been throughout history, as far back as Galileo Galilei’s trial by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Every reactionary government and class persecutes scientists and seeks to suppress and subordinate science to its own ends. The progress of science and reason has always depended upon the progress of society and social relations—and this is a political question.

The challenge today is to recognize the source of the attack on science, which did not suddenly arise from the limited brain of Donald Trump. He is only the crudest and most backward representative of a social system in which all human activity, including science, is subordinated to private profit. While science and technology have immensely developed the power of social production, this production remains trapped within the increasingly irrational forms of private capitalist ownership.

The defense of science is therefore inseparable from the revolutionary struggle of the main progressive force in modern society, the working class, against the corporate ruling elite.

Science and technology have made it possible to abolish hunger, cure disease, banish ignorance and secure a decent standard of living for every person on this planet. But under the profit system, vast wealth is monopolized by a tiny handful of the super-rich. Just eight mega-billionaires possess greater wealth than the poorest half of humanity, while hundreds of millions go hungry; millions die of preventable diseases; and schools, roads, water systems and other public infrastructure are crumbling.

Modern technology, from revolutionary developments in transportation to the creation of the Internet, has shattered the barriers to human interaction and made possible the integration of all humanity. Science itself is the most international of human enterprises, developing through global collaboration.

However, because of the division of the world into rival nation-states, technology is made the instrument of repression and persecution: the hounding of refugees and immigrants throughout the world; the building of walls against immigrants on the US-Mexico border; China’s “great firewall,” separating one billion people from the rest of the world; and the development of the NSA’s vast apparatus of global spying directed against the population of the entire world.

Most ominously, in the hands of the rival nation-states, with US imperialism taking the lead, science and technology have been perverted into means of mass destruction. The April 22 demonstration takes place under conditions of a growing threat of world war, with the Trump administration, backed by the US media and Democratic Party, firing missiles at Syria, dropping the largest bomb since Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Afghanistan, and threatening a preemptive military strike against North Korea.

The danger of a direct military conflict involving nuclear-armed powers is very real. More than anyone else, scientists know that this would mean the extinction of civilization, if not life on planet Earth.

What is the way forward? Those who wish to defend and advance the work of science must confront a contradiction in their own ways of thinking. They are accustomed to applying scientific methods to the processes of nature, but not to the workings of society, still less to politics.

In part, this derives from the greater complexity of social life, where the number of variables—including human beings—makes scientific analysis more complicated. More importantly, it reflects the ideological domination of the corporate ruling elite, which opposes efforts to apply rational standards to the operations of a social system that affords them unparalleled wealth and privilege. Within academia, the attack on objective truth and reason spearheaded by postmodernism and other forms of irrationalism is directed at all forms of scientific knowledge, above all at the science of society and history.

Scientists must find their way back to insights of their greatest predecessors like Albert Einstein, who were drawn to socialism as the application of reason to the development of modern society—and as the only means of ending war and dictatorship. This means taking up a study of Marxism, which bases its revolutionary politics on an analysis of objective reality and class interests.

The working class is the revolutionary force that has the capability to put an end to capitalism and establish a socialist society based on equality, democracy and social ownership of the wealth created by collective labor. In the Russian Revolution, whose centenary we mark this year, this scientific understanding was vindicated in practice, with the working class coming to power under the leadership of a Marxist party.

The working class cannot advance without the aid of science. But science itself requires the advance of the working class, which will provide science with the necessary mass base in society. In the final analysis, the progress of science—and the progress of humanity as a whole—depends on the resurgence of a new revolutionary movement of the working class. The socialist movement unites under its banner both the pursuit of scientific truth in all its forms and the struggle for human equality.

Statement of the Socialist Equality Party

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/04/20/pers-a20.html

How Did America’s Wealth Inequality Reach This Level of Toxic?

BOOKS
We are just beginning to understand one further dimension of toxic inequality: a devastating emotional and physiological phenomenon we might call “toxic inequality syndrome.”

Photo Credit: nuvolanevicata / Shutterstock

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.:

In recent years, as living standards for many families have declined and productivity, income, and wealth gains have flowed to the very top, a new conversation about inequality has emerged in the United States. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in the fall of 2011, splashed inequality across the front pages and provided space for discussions about historically high income and wealth disparities and their causes. The movement pitted the wealthiest and most powerful 1 percent against 99 percent of Americans. Thomas Piketty’s best-selling 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, brought attention to a different kind of inequality with a focus on capital. Yet many popular and academic accounts of inequality, spurred by media coverage and the emerging national discourse, continued to focus on income disparities, economic class, and the mega-rich. A pre-occupation with income led to an insufficient understanding of the new inequality that left wealth out of the picture. President Barack Obama provided perhaps the crowning moment in this new public attention to economic inequality when he proclaimed in a December 2014 speech that inequality “is the defining challenge of our time.” But the president’s speech referenced income inequality eleven times and wealth inequality once. Leaving wealth out of the conversation is a crucial mistake, giving fodder to those who would make personal poverty the result of personal failings.

Wealth inequality in the United States is uncommonly high. The wealthiest 1 percent owned 42 percent of all wealth in 2012 and took in 18 percent of all income. Each year the Allianz Group, the world’s largest financial service company, calculates each country’s Gini coefficient—a measure of inequality in which zero indicates perfect equality and one hundred perfect inequality, or one person owning all the wealth. In 2015, the United States had the highest wealth inequality among industrialized nations, with a score of 80.56. Allianz dubbed the USA the “Unequal States of America.”

Wealth concentration has followed a U-shaped pattern over the last hundred years. It was high in the beginning of the twentieth century, with wealth inequality reaching its previous peak during the Depression, in 1929. It fell from 1929 to 1978 and has continuously increased since then. By 2012, the share of wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent was three times higher than in the late 1970s, growing from 7 percent in 1979 to 22 percent in 2012. The bottom 90 percent’s wealth share has steadily declined since the mid-1980s.

The rise of wealth inequality is almost entirely due to the increase in the top 0.1 percent’s wealth share. The steady decline in the bottom 90 percent’s wealth share has struck middle-class families in particular. Half the population has less than $500 in savings.

Wealth is not just a matter of money. Wealth is also about power, status, opportunity, identity, and self-image. Wealth confers transformative advantages, while lack of it brings tremendous disadvantages. A family’s income reflects educational and occupational achievements, but wealth is needed to solidify these achievements to build a solid foundation of economic security. Wealth is a fundamental pillar of economic security, and without it, hard-won gains are easily lost.

The explanations for economic inequality are many. One prominent line holds that individual values and characteristics either promote or hinder achievement and prosperity. Inequality, in this view, results from poor people’s laziness and lack of work ethic, the decline of traditional marriage, an influx of unskilled, uneducated immigrants, and dependence on welfare. Our interviews contradict such arguments—the people we spoke with, rich and poor, had broadly similar values and aspirations—and reveal instead the importance of policy and institutional factors. Other theories focus on such factors as market forces in a globalizing economy, technological change, policies, and politics.

To take a different tack, we must understand wealth and income inequality together with racial inequality. Despite recent attention to racial disparities in policing, mass deportation, persistent residential segregation, attacks on voting rights, and other manifestations of racial injustice, the conversation about widening economic inequality largely leaves out race, as if that gap’s causes, its harshest consequences, and its potential solutions are race neutral. Whether they focus on the widening gulf between the very top and various segments further down the distribution ladder, on the fortunes of the bottom 40 percent, on the dwindling of the middle class, or simply on the growing share garnered by the best-off, traditional accounts emphasize class and economics as the central (and sometimes only) explanation. As a result, much of our national discourse about inequality sees disparities as universals that impact all groups in the same ways, and many of the policy ideas proposed to address it fail to recognize the racially disparate distributional impact of universal-sounding solutions. Recent movements such as the Color of Change, the Dreamers, and Black Lives Matter are vigorously trying to recenter the inequality conversation to include race, ethnicity, and immigration. I have been inspired and heartened by the new public conversation about inequality. At the same time, I am frustrated that once again it looks like attention to class is trumping a reckoning with race.

For it is crucial to understand that the trends toward greater income and wealth inequality are converging with a widening racial wealth gap. The typical African American family today has less than a dime of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by a typical white family. The civil rights movement and the landmark legislation of the 1960s helped to open educational and professional opportunities and to produce an African American middle class. But despite these hard-won advances, as a study following the same set of families for twenty-nine years shows, the gap between white and black family wealth has widened at an alarming pace, increasing nearly threefold over the past generation (see Figure 1.1). Looking at a representative sample of Americans in 2013, the median net wealth of white families was $142,000, compared to $11,000 for African American families and $13,700 for Hispanic families. This racial wealth gap means that even black families with incomes comparable to those of white families have much less wealth to use to cushion unemployment or a personal crisis, to apply as a down payment on a home, to secure a place for their families in a strong, resource-rich neighborhood, to send their children to private schools, to start a business, or to plan for retirement.

In short, the basic pillars of economic security—wealth and income—are today distributed vastly inequitably along racial and ethnic lines. African Americans’ historical disadvantage has become baked into the American economy. African Americans are effectively stymied from generating and retaining wealth of their own not simply by continuing racial discrimination but also by senseless policies that protect existing wealth—wealth that often originated at times of even more intense racial discrimination, if not specifically from racial plunder. Race and wealth have intertwined throughout our nation’s history. Too often missing in today’s dialogue about inequality is this binding race and wealth linkage. Failure to tackle the nexus of race and wealth will lead, at best, to only small ameliorations at the worst edges of inequality.

Figure 1.1  Median Net Wealth by Race, 1984–2013

The phrase “toxic inequality” describes a powerful and unprecedented convergence: historic and rising levels of wealth and income inequality in an era of stalled mobility, intersecting with a widening racial wealth gap, all against the backdrop of changing racial and ethnic demographics.

I call this kind of inequality toxic because, over time and generations, it builds upon itself. Wealth and race map together to consolidate historic injustices, which now weave through neighborhoods and housing markets, educational institutions, and labor markets, creating an increasingly divided opportunity structure. So long as we have entrenched wealth inequality intertwined with racial inequality, we cannot even begin to bend the arc toward equity.

Toxic inequality is also noxious in that it makes these challenges harder to tackle. High levels of material inequality are inherently destabilizing, heightening social tensions. Janet Yellen, chair of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, has warned that economic inequality “can shape [and] determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.” Thomas Piketty argues that extremely high levels of wealth inequality are “incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” and warns that a drift toward oligarchy is a real danger. The new inequality is especially politically poisonous because most people of all races feel stuck in place, finding it harder to believe that hard work, sacrifice, and innovation are going to pay off and lead to a better life. People are apt to look for someone to blame, and America’s changing demographics encourage racial division, resentment of other groups, and prejudice. These forces have complicated economic policymaking throughout our history, but they are especially dangerous today, given the urgent need to address the particular economic disadvantages facing people of color.

We are just beginning to understand one further dimension of toxic inequality: a phenomenon we might call “toxic inequality syndrome.” Are there emotional and even physiological consequences for families and individuals exposed to repeated, persistent economic trauma, frustrated ambitions, and cumulative downward spirals? We know that there is a strong relationship between adversity and social outcomes throughout the life course, with greater frequency of adverse events leading to worse outcomes. One adverse event increases the likelihood of a cascade of other stressful and traumatic events. Research has documented the negative impact of a wide variety of stress-inducing events, including community violence, accidents, life-threatening illnesses, loss of economic status, and incidences of racism. We also know that financial resources shield families from economic and social trauma, lessen the impact of some trauma, enable more rapid recovery, and reduce the risk of subsequent adverse events. Yet many of the families we spoke to experienced multiple forms of adversity—foreclosure, violence, unsafe neighborhoods, incarceration, disability, sudden or chronic family illness, family breakup, unemployment or loss of wages, declining living standards—without adequate wealth resources and without the sorts of family, institutional, community, or policy support that can also foster family resiliency.

America’s response to toxic inequality will set our future course for generations. The current magnitude of inequality robs the nation of human potential and promise, sapping aspirations and distorting futures. Earned achievements have become uncoupled from financial rewards and personal well-being. Frustrated ambitions and stalled social mobility foment racial anxieties. Without bold changes, we will keep heading toward greater inequality and become even more polarized along class and racial lines. The tiny segments of the population that are doing well will continue to do so, and the vast majority will try even harder just to stay in place. The rich and powerful will continue to write rules that protect and expand their vast advantages at the expense of those struggling to keep pace, especially younger adults and families and communities of color. As differences magnify, those groups facing the brunt of inequality, stalled mobility, and lost status will more critically interrogate the legitimacy of governmental and economic systems. Such an interrogation of deep structures is necessary and productive as long as it uncovers drivers of inequality. However, an explanation that does nothing more than pander to racial, ethnic, and class fears will short-circuit solutions. To avoid this bleak future and bend current trends in the direction of shared prosperity, we must transform the deep structures that foster inequality. Policy solutions must be bold, transformative, and at a scale sufficient to reach the families and communities most affected by toxic inequality.

Adapted excerpt from TOXIC INEQUALITY: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Thomas M. Shapiro is the Pokross Professor of Law and Social Policy at the Heller School, Brandeis University, where he directs the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. He is the author of four books, including The Hidden Cost of Being African American and, with Melvin Oliver, Black Wealth/White Wealth. His most recent book is Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future.

http://www.alternet.org/books/toxic-inequality-book-race-income-and-wealth?akid=15406.265072.GJAX2r&rd=1&src=newsletter1075360&t=26

Rising death rate for middle-aged US workers driven by “deaths of despair”

By Niles Niemuth
24 March 2017

The latest research on rising mortality rates by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, presented this week at the Brookings Institution, shines new light on the depth of the social crisis which has devastated the American working class since the year 2000.

Building off their initial 2015 study which documented a sharp rise in the mortality rate for white, middle-aged working-class Americans, Case and Deaton conclude that the rising death rate is being driven by what they define as “deaths of despair,” those due to drug overdoses, complications from alcohol and suicide. The mortality rate for these causes grew by half a percent annually between 1999 and 2013.

During the course of the 20th century, the annual mortality rate for all middle-aged whites fell from 1,400 per 100,000 to 400 per 100,000. The US experienced a 100-year period of almost uninterrupted improvements in death rates and life expectancy. In this context Case and Deaton identify the recent rise in middle-aged mortality as “extraordinary and unanticipated.”

Midlife deaths of despair across countries

The epidemic of deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide was initially seen in the American Southwest in the year 2000 but soon spread to the Appalachian region and Florida and is now nationwide, affecting rural and urban areas alike.

While every region of the US has seen an increase in the rate of “deaths of despair” among middle-aged whites over the last 15 years, the hardest-hit states are in the South (Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi). Large urban and suburban areas have been the least affected, rural areas the most.

The mortality rate for working-class whites was also pushed up by a slowing and then stagnation of the decline in deaths from heart disease for white Americans between 2009 and 2015. On top of this the decline in mortality from lung cancer, caused by smoking and occupational hazards, slowed for white men 45-54 between 2000 and 2014, while mortality actually increased for white women 45-49 between 2000 and 2010.

Case and Deaton found that midlife mortality for middle-aged, working-class, white Americans surpassed the midlife mortality for all African Americans for the first time in 2008, and by 2015 mortality for working-class whites was 30 percent higher than for blacks. More significantly, their data shows that the gap in mortality between whites and blacks in the working class has all but disappeared. This is the outcome of a general decline in mortality for blacks and a rapid increase for whites over the last decade-and-a-half, though in recent years the mortality rate for working-class blacks has begun rising along with that of whites.

Case and Deaton’s report is supported by the most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data concerning suicides and overdoses.

The CDC found that after declining between 1986 and 1999 the US suicide rate rose gradually between 2000 and 2015, with the rate growing most rapidly in smaller cities and rural areas after the 2007-2008 economic collapse. Whites and Native Americans had the highest suicide rates, with both groups seeing noticeable increases. All told there were 600,000 suicides in the US between 1999 and 2015—the equivalent of the loss of a major city, more than the total estimated deaths in the Syrian civil war.

Another recent CDC report found that overdoses from all drugs has more than doubled since 1999, with middle-aged Americans having the highest rate of overdoses. The overdose rate for whites has more than tripled since 1999 and is now more than double the rate for blacks and Hispanics combined. Nearly 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses alone in 2015, more than four times the number of deaths recorded in 2010.

Midlife mortality by all causes in the US

The data collected and analyzed by Case and Deaton reflects a deeply sick society, the outcome of a social counterrevolution which has accelerated since the 2008 crash.

Their research makes clear that the American working class, regardless of race, is being made to pay the price for the failure of capitalism, exposing the lie repeated by pseudo-left groups and the practitioners of identity politics about the “privileged white working class.”

In the period reviewed by Case and Deaton, the Democratic Party completed its repudiation of a political program which in any way addressed the needs or interests of the working class, in favor of middle-class identity politics. This found its culmination in the election of Barack Obama, the first black president, who funneled trillions of dollars into Wall Street and expanded the wars in the Middle East. In the last year of his presidency, which had seen such catastrophes as the lead poisoning of Flint and the BP oil spill, and seven years of wage stagnation, Obama asserted that things were “pretty darn great” in America.

The immiseration of the American working class has also been made possible by betrayals of the trade unions which over the last four decades have collaborated with and integrated themselves ever more closely with the corporations in order to shutter factories, eliminate jobs and enforce wage and benefit cuts.

The period in which the American working class has been subjected to unrelenting attacks has seen the growth of historically unprecedented levels of social inequality. The resources of society and the wealth created by the working class have been plundered and funneled into the hands of an ever wealthier financial aristocracy. This process will only accelerate under Trump.

While it is claimed there is “no money” to pay for decent wages or social services in the US, the country claims eight of the world’s 10 wealthiest billionaires and spends more than the next seven countries combined on its military. The health care overhaul and budget cuts being proposed by the Trump administration are guaranteed to accelerate the social counterrevolution.

In this regard it is striking to note the overlap between the areas of the country particularly devastated by “deaths of despair” in the period examined by Case and Deaton and those with a large vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The anti-working class policies pursued in the Obama years paved the way for Trump.

The residents of these areas, either rural or devastated by years of factory closures, voted for Trump not out of racial animus—an assertion often made by the mainstream media and pseudo-left—but as a cry of desperation, incipient anger and complete disgust with the political establishment.

These people have been at the frontlines of the onslaught against the working class, facilitated by Democrats and Republicans alike. As far as Trump identified himself as an outsider, opposed to the political establishment which facilitated the plunder of the working class, he drew significant support. These same working people are quickly being disabused of any illusions they may have held in the billionaire businessman.

The fundamental question raised by Case and Deaton’s research is the struggle of the working class against the capitalist system and for socialism. Social inequality has never been higher and the rich have never been richer. The working class is the only force which can reverse this counterrevolution. Workers must turn to socialism and fight to build a mass independent movement which will fight for political power and take control of the wealth plundered from them, putting it to use for the common good.

 

WSWS

The Culture of Cruelty in Trump’s America

Posted on Mar 22, 2017

By Henry A. Giroux / Truthout

For the last 40 years, the United States has pursued a ruthless form of neoliberalism that has stripped economic activity from ethical considerations and social costs. One consequence has been the emergence of a culture of cruelty in which the financial elite produce inhuman policies that treat the most vulnerable with contempt, relegating them to zones of social abandonment and forcing them to inhabit a society increasingly indifferent to human suffering. Under the Trump administration, the repressive state and market apparatuses that produced a culture of cruelty in the 19th century have returned with a vengeance, producing new levels of harsh aggression and extreme violence in US society. A culture of cruelty has become the mood of our times—a spectral lack of compassion that hovers over the ruins of democracy.

While there is much talk about the United States tipping over into authoritarianism under the Trump administration, there are few analyses that examine how a culture of cruelty has accompanied this political transition, and the role that culture plays in legitimating a massive degree of powerlessness and human suffering. The culture of cruelty has a long tradition in this country, mostly inhabiting a ghostly presence that is often denied or downplayed in historical accounts. What is new since the 1980s—and especially evident under Donald Trump’s presidency—is that the culture of cruelty has taken on a sharper edge as it has moved to the center of political power, adopting an unapologetic embrace of nativism, xenophobia and white nationalist ideology, as well as an in-your-face form of racist demagoguery. Evidence of such cruelty has long been visible in earlier calls by Republicans to force poor children who get free school lunches to work for their meals. Such policies are particularly cruel at a time when nearly “half of all children live near close to the poverty line.” Other instances include moving people from welfare to workfare without offering training programs or child care, and the cutting of children’s food stamp benefits for 16 million children in 2014.  Another recent example of this culture of cruelty was Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeting his support for Geert Wilders, a notorious white supremacist and Islamophobic Dutch politician.

Focusing on a culture of cruelty as one register of authoritarianism allows us to more deeply understand how bodies and minds are violated and human lives destroyed. It helps us to acknowledge that violence is not an abstraction, but is visceral and, as Brad Evans observes, “should never be studied in an objective and unimpassioned way. It points to a politics of the visceral that cannot be divorced from our ethical and political concerns.” For instance, it highlights how Trump’s proposed budget cuts would reduce funding for programs that provide education, legal assistance and training for thousands of workers in high-hazard industries. As Judy Conti, a federal advocacy coordinator [at the National Employment Law Project] points out, these cuts would result in “more illness, injury and death on the job.”

Rather than provide a display of moral outrage, interrogating a culture of cruelty offers critics a political and moral lens for thinking through the convergence of power, politics and everyday life. It also offers the promise of unveiling the way in which a nation demoralizes itself by adopting the position that it has no duty to provide safety nets for its citizens or care for their well-being, especially in a time of misfortune. Politically, it highlights how structures of domination bear down on individual bodies, needs, emotions and self-esteem, and how such constraints function to keep people in a state of existential crisis, if not outright despair. Ethically the concept makes visible how unjust a society has become. It helps us think through how life and death converge in ways that fundamentally transform how we understand and imagine the act of living—if not simply surviving—in a society that has lost its moral bearing and sense of social responsibility. Within the last 40 years, a harsh market fundamentalism has deregulated financial capital, imposed misery and humiliation on the poor through welfare cuts, and ushered in a new style of authoritarianism that preys upon and punishes the most vulnerable Americans.

The culture of cruelty has become a primary register of the loss of democracy in the United States. The disintegration of democratic commitments offers a perverse index of a country governed by the rich, big corporations and rapacious banks through a consolidating regime of punishment. It also reinforces the workings of a corporate-driven culture whose airwaves are filled with hate, endless spectacles of violence and an ongoing media assault on young people, the poor, Muslims and undocumented immigrants. Vast numbers of individuals are now considered disposable and are relegated to zones of social and moral abandonment. In the current climate, violence seeps into everyday life while engulfing a carceral system that embraces the death penalty and produces conditions of incarceration that house many prisoners in solitary confinement—a practice medical professionals consider one of the worse forms of torture.

In addition, Americans live in a distinctive historical moment in which the most vital safety nets, social provisions, welfare policies and health care reforms are being undermined or are under threat of elimination by right-wing ideologues in the Trump administration. For instance, Trump’s 2017 budgetary proposals, many of which were drafted by the hyperconservative Heritage Foundation, will create a degree of imposed hardship and misery that defies any sense of human decency and moral responsibility.

Public policy analyst Robert Reich argues that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s [budget] initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.” Reich writes:

His new budget comes down especially hard on the poor—imposing unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, job training, food assistance, legal services, help to distressed rural communities, nutrition for new mothers and their infants, funds to keep poor families warm, even “meals on wheels.” These cuts come at a time when more American families are in poverty than ever before, including 1 in 5 children. Why is Trump doing this? To pay for the biggest hike in military spending since the 1980s. Yet the U.S. already spends more on its military than the next 7 biggest military budgets put together. His plan to repeal and “replace” the Affordable Care Act will cause 14 million Americans to lose their health insurance next year, and 24 million by 2026. Why is Trump doing this? To bestow $600 billion in tax breaks over the decade to wealthy Americans. This windfall comes at a time when the rich have accumulated more wealth than at any time in the nation’s history.

This is a demolition budget that would inflict unprecedented cruelty, misery and hardship on millions of citizens and residents. Trump’s populist rhetoric collapses under the weight of his efforts to make life even worse for the rural poor, who would have $2.6 billion cut from infrastructure investments largely used for water and sewage improvements as well as federal funds used to provide assistance so they can heat their homes. Roughly $6 billion would be cut from a housing budget that benefits 4.5 million low-income households. Other programs on the cutting block include funds to support Habitat for Humanity, the homeless, energy assistance to the poor, legal aid and a number of antipoverty programs. Trump’s mode of governance is no longer modeled on “The Apprentice.” It now takes its cues from “The Walking Dead.”

If Congress embraces Trump’s proposal, poor students would be budgeted out of access to higher education as a result of a $3.9 billion cut from the federal Pell grant program, which provides tuition assistance for low-income students entering college. Federal funds for public schools would be redistributed to privately run charter schools, while vouchers would be available for religious schools. Medical research would suffer and people would die because of the proposed $6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health.

Trump has also called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, making clear that his contempt for education, science and the arts is part of an aggressive project to eliminate those institutions and public spheres that extend the capacity of people to be imaginative, think critically and be well-informed.

The $54 billion that Trump seeks to remove from the budgets of 19 agencies designed to help the poor, students, public education, academic research and the arts would instead be used to increase the military budget and build a wall along the Mexican border. The culture of cruelty is on full display here as millions would suffer for the lack of loans, federal aid and basic resources. The winners would be the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the private prison industry and the institutions and personnel needed to expand the police state. What Trump has provided in this budget proposal is a blueprint for eliminating the remnants of the welfare state while transforming American society into a “war-obsessed, survival-of-the fittest dystopia.”

The United States is now on a war footing and has launched a war against undocumented immigrants, Muslims, people of color, young people, the elderly, public education, science, democracy and the planet itself, to say nothing of the provocations unfolding on the world stage.  The moral obscenity and reactionary politics that inform Trump’s budget were summed up by Bernie Sanders: “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, when 43 million Americans are living in poverty and half of older Americans have no retirement savings, we should not slash programs that senior citizens, children and working people rely on in order to provide a massive increase in spending to the military industrial complex. Trump’s priorities are exactly the opposite of where we should be heading as a nation.”

As more and more people find themselves living in a society in which the quality of life is measured through market-based metrics, such as cost-benefit analyses, it becomes difficult for the public to acknowledge or even understand the cost in human misery and everyday hardship that an increasing number of people have to endure.

A culture of cruelty highlights both how systemic injustices are lived and experienced, and how iniquitous relations of power turn the “American dream” into a dystopian nightmare in which millions of individuals and families are struggling to merely survive. This society has robbed them of a decent life, dignity and hope. I want to pose the crucial question of what a culture of cruelty looks like under a neofascist regime, and in doing so, highlight what I believe are some of its most crucial elements, all of which must be recognized if they are to be open to both criticism and resistance.

First, language is emptied of any sense of ethics and responsibility and begins to operate in the service of violence. This becomes evident as social provisions are cut for programs that help poor people, elderly people, impoverished children and people living with disabilities. This is also evident in the Trump administration’s call to scale back Medicaid and affordable, quality health insurance for millions of Americans.

Second, a survival-of-the-fittest discourse provides a breeding ground for the production of hypermasculine behaviors and hypercompetitiveness, both of which function to create a predatory culture that replaces compassion, sharing and a concern for the other. Under such circumstances, unbridled individualism and competition work to weaken democracy.

Third, references to truth and real consequences are dismissed, and facts give way to “alternative realities” where the distinction between informed assertions and falsehoods disappears. This politics of fabrication is on full display as the Trump administration narrates itself and its relationship to others and the larger world through a fog of misrepresentations and willful ignorance. Even worse, the act of state-sanctioned lying is coupled with the assertion that any critical media outlets and journalists who attempt to hold power accountable are producing “fake news.” Official lying is part of the administration’s infrastructure: The more authority figures lie the less they have to be taken seriously.

Fourth, in a culture of cruelty, the discourse of disposability extends to an increasing number of groups that are considered superfluous, redundant, excess or dangerous. In this discourse, some lives are valued and others are not. In the current moment, undocumented immigrants, Muslim refugees and Black people are targeted as potential criminals, terrorists or racial “others” who threaten the notion of a white Christian nation. Underlying the discourse of disposability is the reemerging prominence of overt white supremacy, as evidenced by an administration that has appointed white nationalists to the highest levers of power in the government and has issued a racist appeal to “law and order.” The ongoing rise of hate crimes should be no surprise in a society that has been unabashedly subjected by Trump and his cohorts to the language of hate, anti-Semitism, sexism and racism. Cultures of cruelty slip easily into both the discourse of racial cleansing and the politics of disposability.

Fifth, ignorance becomes glamorized, enforced through the use of the language of emotion, humiliation and eventually through the machinery of government deception. For example, Donald Trump once stated that he loved “uneducated people.” This did not indicate, of course, a commitment to serve people without a college education—a group that will be particularly disadvantaged under his administration. Instead, it signaled a deep-seated anti-intellectualism and a fear of critical thought itself, as well as the institutions that promote it. Limiting the public’s knowledge now becomes a precondition for cruelty.

Sixth, any form of dependency in the interest of justice and care for the “other” is viewed as a form of weakness, and becomes the object of scorn and disdain. In a culture of cruelty, it is crucial to replace shared values and bonds of trust with the bonds of fear. For the caste of warriors that make up the Trump administration, politics embraces what might be called neoliberalism on steroids, one in which the bonds of solidarity rooted in compassion and underlying the welfare state are assumed to weaken national character by draining resources away from national security and placing too large a tax burden on the rich. In this logic, solidarity equates with dependency, a weak moral character, and is dismissed as anaemic, unreliable and a poor substitute for living in a society that celebrates untrammeled competition, individual responsibility and an all-embracing individualism.

Seventh, cruelty thrives on the language of borders and walls. It replaces the discourse of bridges, generosity and compassion with a politics of divisiveness, alienation, inadequacy and fear. Trump’s call for building a wall on the Mexican border, his endless disparaging of individuals and groups on the basis of their gender, race, religion and ethnicity, and his view of a world composed of the deadly binary of “friends” and “enemies” echo the culture of a past that lost its ethical and political moorings and ended up combining the metrics of efficiency with the building of concentration camps.

Eighth, all cultures of cruelty view violence as a sacred means for addressing social problems and mediating relationships; hence, the criminalization of homelessness, poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, surviving domestic violence, reproductive choice and more.  The centrality of oppressive violence in the United States is not new, of course; it is entrenched in the country’s origins. Under Trump this violence has been embraced, openly and without apology, as an organizing principle of society. This acceleration of the reality and spectacle of violence under the Trump administration is evident, in part, in his call for increasing an already-inflated military budget by $54 billion. It is also evident in his efforts to create multiple zones of social abandonment and social death for the most vulnerable in society.

Ninth, cultures of cruelty despise democracy and work incessantly to make the word disappear from officially mandated state language. One example of this took place when Trump opted not to utter the word democracy in either his inaugural address or in his first speech to Congress. Trump’s hatred of democracy and the formative cultures that sustain it was on full display when he and his top aides referred to the critical media as the enemy of the American people and as an “opposition party.” A free press is fundamental to a society that takes seriously the idea that no democracy can exist without informed citizens. Trump has turned this rule on its head, displaying a disdain not only for a press willing to pursue the truth and hold politicians and corporations accountable, but also for those public spheres and institutions that make such a press possible. Under these circumstances, it is important to remember Hannah Arendt’s warning: “What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed … and a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and to judge.”

Tenth, all fascist regimes disparage, dismantle and destroy institutions, such as public and higher education and other public spheres where people can learn how to think critically and act responsibly. Evidence of an act of war against public spheres that are critical, self-reflective and concerned with the social good is visible in the appointment of billionaires, generals and ideological fundamentalists to cabinet positions running public agencies that many of them have vowed to destroy. What does it mean when an individual, such as Betsy DeVos, is picked to head the Department of Education even though she has worked endlessly in the past to destroy public education? How else to explain Trump appointing Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, even though he does not believe that climate change is affected by human-produced carbon dioxide emissions and has spent most of his career actively opposing the authority of the EPA? At stake here is more than a culture of incompetency. This is a willful assault on public goods and the common good.

Eleventh, cultures of cruelty thrive when shared fears replace shared responsibilities. Under such conditions, an ever-expanding number of people are reduced to the status of a potential “terrorist” or “criminal,” watched constantly, and humiliated under the watchful eye of a surveillance state that inhabits practically every public and private space.

Twelfth, cultures of cruelty dispose of all vestiges of the welfare state, forcing millions to fend for themselves. Loneliness, powerlessness and uncertainty—fueled by the collapse of the public into the private—create the conditions for viewing those who receive much needed social provisions as cheaters, moochers or much worse. Under the Republican Party extremists in power, the welfare state is the enemy of the free market and is viewed as a drain on the coffers of the rich. There are no public rights in this discourse, only entitlements for the privileged, and rhetoric that promotes the moral superiority and unimpeachable character of the wealthy. The viciousness of these attacks is driven by the absolute idolatry of power of wealth, strength and unaccountable military might.

Thirteenth, massive inequalities in power, wealth and income mean time will become a burden for most Americans, who will be struggling merely to make ends meet and survive. Cruelty thrives in a society in which there seem to be only individual problems, as opposed to socially-produced problems, and it is hard to do the work of uniting against socially-produced problems under oppressive time constraints. Under such circumstances, solidarity is difficult to practice, which makes it easier for the ruling elite to use their power to engage in the relentless process of asset-stripping and the stripping of human dignity. Authoritarian regimes feed off the loyalty of those who benefit from the concentration of wealth, power and income as well as those who live in stultifying ignorance of their own oppression. Under global capitalism, the ultrarich are celebrated as the new heroes of late modernity, while their wealth and power are showcased as a measure of their innate skills, knowledge and superiority. Such spectacles function to infantilize both the general public and politics itself.

Fourteenth, under the Trump administration, the exercise of cruelty is emboldened through the stultifying vocabulary of ultranationalism, militarism and American exceptionalism that will be used to fuel further wars abroad and at home. Militarism and exceptionalism constitute the petri dish for a kind of punishment creep, in which “law and order” becomes code for the continued rise of the punishing state and the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. It also serves to legitimate a war culture that surrounds the world with military bases and promotes “democracy” through a war machine. It turns already-oppressive local police departments into SWAT teams and impoverished cities into war zones. In such a culture of cruelty, language is emptied of any meaning, freedom evaporates, human misery proliferates, and the distinction between the truth and lies disappears and the governance collapses into a sordid species of lawlessness, emboldening random acts of vigilantism and violence.

Fifteenth, mainstream media outlets are now a subsidiary of corporate control. Almost all of the dominant cultural apparatuses extending from print, audio and screen cultures are controlled by a handful of corporations. The concentration of the mainstream media in few hands constitutes a disimagination machine that wages a pedagogical war on almost any critical notion of politics that seeks to produce the conditions needed to enable more people to think and act critically. The overriding purpose of the corporate-controlled media is to drive audiences to advertisers, increase ratings and profits, legitimate the toxic spectacles and values of casino capitalism, and reproduce a toxic pedagogical fog that depoliticizes and infantilizes. Lost here are those public spaces in which the civic and radical imagination enables individuals to identify the larger historical, social, political and economic forces that bear down on their lives. The rules of commerce now dictate the meaning of what it means to be educated. Yet, spaces that promote a social imaginary and civic literacy are fundamental to a democracy if the young and old alike are to develop the knowledge, skills and values central to democratic forms of education, engagement and agency.

Underlying this form of neoliberal authoritarianism and its attendant culture of cruelty is a powerfully oppressive ideology that insists that the only unit of agency that matters is the isolated individual. Hence, mutual trust and shared visions of equality, freedom and justice give way to fears and self-blame reinforced by the neoliberal notion that individuals are solely responsible for their political, economic and social misfortunes. Consequently, a hardening of the culture is buttressed by the force of state-sanctioned cultural apparatuses that enshrine privatization in the discourse of self-reliance, unchecked self-interest, untrammeled individualism and deep distrust of anything remotely called the common good. Once again, freedom of choice becomes code for defining responsibility solely as an individual task, reinforced by a shameful appeal to character.

Many liberal critics and progressives argue that choice absent constraints feeds the rise of Ayn Rand’s ideology of rabid individualism and unchecked greed. But they are only partly right. What they miss in this neofascist moment is that the systemic cruelty and moral irresponsibility at the heart of neoliberalism make Ayn Rand’s vicious framework look tame. Rand’s world has been surpassed by a ruling class of financial elites that embody not the old-style greed of Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, but the inhumane and destructive avarice of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. The notion that saving money by reducing the taxes of the rich justifies eliminating health care for 24 million people is just one example of how this culture of cruelty and hardening of the culture will play out.

Under the Trump administration, a growing element of scorn is developing toward the increasing number of human beings caught in the web of oppression, marginalization, misfortune, suffering and deprivation. This scorn is fueled by a right-wing spin machine that endlessly spews out a toxic rhetoric in which all Muslims are defined as “jihadists;” the homeless are cast as “lazy” rather than as victims of oppressive structures, failed institutions and misfortune; Black people are cast as “criminals” and subjected en masse to the destructive criminal punishment system; and the public sphere is portrayed as largely for white people.

The culture of hardness and cruelty is not new to American society, but the current administration aims to deploy it in ways that sap the strength of social relations, moral compassion and collective action, offering in their place a mode of governance that promotes a pageant of suffering and violence. There will, no doubt, be an acceleration of acts of violence under the Trump administration, and the conditions for eliminating this new stage of state violence will mean not only understanding the roots of neofascism in the United States, but also eliminating the economic, political and cultural forces that have produced it. Addressing those forces means more than getting rid of Trump. We must eliminate a more pervasive irrationality in which democracy is equated with unbridled capitalism—a system driven almost exclusively by financial interests and beholden to two political parties that are hardwired to produce and reproduce neoliberal violence.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_culture_of_cruelty_in_trumps_america_20170322