If anything’s become clear while watching the star-spangled spectacle unfold south of the border, it’s this: nature—in this case, human nature—abhors a vacuum.
The context is evident. Growing inequality. Gutted infrastructure. The rise of the precariat. And in the absence of a clearly articulated plan that will address the disillusionment, disenfranchisement and desperation so many are feeling, people can turn to the next best (or perhaps just the shoutiest) thing.
Americans are being offered two options. One is to stay the course. The problem, of course, is that “stay the course” means “more of the same” to so many who are already suffering under the very policies they’re being asked to keep banging their heads against.
And then there’s door #2: summon the scapegoats.
Scapegoating people who have already been identified as “the other” is not a new tactic. But coupled with society’s steadfast refusal to address systemic racism at the best of times, it is devastatingly effective.
Trump has positioned himself as the answer to (mostly) white male working class America’s primal scream of frustration. And when no one is prepared to unapologetically articulate a workable solution to very real socioeconomic problems, it’s far easier for desperate people to get behind “it’s their fault” (build that wall!) than it is to jump on the “keep on keeping on” bandwagon.
Voters are being told to choose between a current reality that’s untenable to the majority of the population, and… something else. One candidate is defending the first option, claiming that not only has it been totally awesome but, for the unconvinced, this time the results will be even better. The other is constructing a virtual reality of hate, fear and isolationism, and then not offering a single solution… other than—most humbly, of course—himself.
Ironically, while Trump rails against “big government”, he’s telling his supporters that, no matter their challenge or irritant—joblessness, poverty, skin pigmentation, bathroom territorialism—he’ll make it all better (without offering clues about how he might do that in any practical sense). In other words, whether he calls himself the builder, the fixer, a “blue collar billionaire” or just a guy who happens to construct iconic city skylines, he’s presenting himself as the ultimate manifestation of let-me-solve-your-problems big daddy government.
On the other hand we have the Democratic National Committee, positioning themselves as “the future is now!” with a woman leader (don’t get me wrong, that’s no small feat) who’s also a respectable children’s role model; a better soundtrack (that they’ve actually been given permission to use); soaring rhetoric (“courage, optimism, ingenuity!”); and a stage that apparently is big enough to bridge the ideological chasm between Shirley Chisholm and Madeleine (“there’s a special place in hell”) Albright. After months of being branded “Bernie-bros” by establishment Democrats, Sanders supporters have been told to “grow up” and get into formation behind Hillary (or, alternatively, are now being told they are privileged if they don’t). Which seems an odd way to actually build party unity: since when is it the responsibility of the disenfranchised to make themselves at home in a crowd that’s committed to belittling them and insisting their demands for solutions are unrealistic?
What’s missing from this political binary is any pretence that either candidate intends to provide workable solutions that will result in system change (at best, the DNC is talking about spreading around system bear-ability a bit).
But in the absence of solutions, scapegoats are a predictable and more tangible rallying point than the self-declared “rational”, matoor option that, to many, is a continuation of policies that have been proven inadequate.
This growing tension does not adhere to national borders. We saw it in Greece, when the population elected Syriza, a party that promised a progressive alternative (unlike the fascist, xenophobic Golden Dawn), and when they tried to implement it were brutally punished by the IMF. We saw it with Brexit in the UK, when the Leave campaign defeated the decidedly uninspired Remain camp through a combination of anti-immigrant sentiment, electoral disgust at political powerbrokers, and fact-challenged faux-populist politicians who recanted several key promises the day after the votes were counted.
But as we watch events unfold south of the world’s longest undefended (and—currently—un-walled) border, we need to shelve the superiority complex stoked by cute “Meanwhile in Canada” videos that circulate on social media. We are not immune.
As our social safety net continues to fray through decades of underfunding, whatever modest protections kept us from the worst of growing inequality will become less evident and more resented as an ineffective “waste” of tax dollars. After all, how long can widespread support for publicly-funded education be maintained if systemic underfunding renders it less capable of responding to the needs of the population while the most marginalized watch the wealthy pursue private “upgrades”? (This is precisely what’s behind the voucher school model in the U.S.)
If we pretend where we’re at is the high water mark we need to protect from regressive forces trying to chip away at that already-inadequate standard, it leaves us no room to grow or improve. It allows the pretence that things are just fine, thanks very much, to fester—along with the anger and disillusionment from those who are tremendously ill-served by where we’re at. And to paint those who call or work for tangible alternatives as unreasonable or politically immature or naïve (or not a “team player”) is not just painfully short-sighted, it ensures resentment and disillusionment will grow.
Progressive change does not happen by accident. It requires dedication and a tremendous investment in those who are positioned, inside and outside the system, usual and unusual suspects, to take on the development of alternative models of How Things Should Work. Or rather, How Things Can Work Better For All Of Us—but particularly for those who have benefited the least from The Way Things Are.
Erika Shaker is Director of Education and Outreach at the CCPA. Follow Erika on Twitter @ErikaShaker.