Recently two social scientists checked in with their interpretations of the meaning of Trumpism and the unexpected rise of Bernie Sanders. Charles Murray wrote that even if Trump should pass from the scene, Trumpism will remain. Blame social liberals. Thomas Picketty writes that Sanders’ success is a sign of increasing pressure for economic equality. Blame economic conservatives – including the Clinton and Obama administrations.
Murray (who wrote the The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010) acknowledges the rise of economic and social inequality but just can’t quite bring himself to make the final link between vast economic dislocation, white working class anger, and America's economic royalists (since he was writing in the Wall Street Journal, no surprise there). To Murray, the American Way has been abandoned by a new upper class that has sequestered itself, and a new lower class that has dropped out. Trumpism is the signal that the working class is getting out, too.
It isn’t the loss of jobs that bothers Murray as much as the “defection from the principles of liberty and individualism.” He blames the civil rights and feminist movements, which he tolerates at their inception but decries as adopting group rights theories in place of sturdy American individualism. By the 80s, according to Murray, Democratic elites basically abandoned liberty and individualism. Thus, we have Reagan Democrats.
Murray says that the angry Reagan Democrats are rational. They have every right to be furious at the upper class because nearly all of the benefits of the last half-century of economic growth have gone to economic elites. During this period, America outsourced millions of manufacturing jobs. Murray doesn’t stay with economics too long though, he gets back to blaming the Democrats. It isn’t just Democrats though, as Murray writes of white working class males, “To top it off, the party they have voted for in recent decades, the Republicans, hasn’t done a damn thing to help them.”
If many in the white working class have abandoned the American creed who still waives the flag of cultural correctness? Lots of folk in the middle class and upper middle class, small business owners, “many people in the corporate and financial worlds and much of the senior leadership of the Republican Party.” Wait, aren’t those mostly the people who’ve betrayed the interests of the working class?
Thomas Piketty (Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century) doesn’t go looking for culture to blame, and he’s more optimistic than Murray about the future of American political economy. As a little history lesson, Piketty reminds us that from the 1930s-1970s, the United States was “at the forefront of an ambitious set of policies aiming to reduce social inequalities” – including a progressive income tax and estate taxes. Still, the post-war American economy boomed. The US set up a federal minimum wage that in the 1960s was worth $10 an hour in 2016 dollars. Also in the 1960s “the US finally put an end to the undemocratic legal racial discrimination still in place in the south, and launched new social policies.”
In 1980 though, Ronald Reagan was elected “on a program aiming to restore a mythical capitalism said to have existed in the past.” Estate taxes were lowered and income tax progressivity retreated too, a regime not challenged under either President Clinton or President Obama.
Along comes Bernie Sanders. Piketty writes:
Sanders makes clear he wants to restore progressive taxation and a higher minimum wage ($15 an hour). To this he adds free healthcare and higher education in a country where inequality in access to education has reached unprecedented heights. . . .
Meanwhile, the Republican party sinks into a hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam discourse (even though Islam isn’t a great religious force in the country), and a limitless glorification of the fortune amassed by rich white people. The judges appointed under Reagan and Bush have lifted any legal limitation on the influence of private money in politics, which greatly complicates the task of candidates like Sanders.
Piketty isn’t all rose colored glasses. Even from Europe he could see Hillary Clinton’s advantages with the institutional Democratic Party. But, Piketty says, “it has now been demonstrated that another Sanders – possibly younger and less white – could one day soon win the US presidential elections and change the face of the country.”
Two social scientists, two different views of the future of American politics. Everything is riding on who is closer to accurately seeing the future.