There is one issue on which the whole ideological range of campaign 2016 seems to agree. “The American Dream is dead,” says Donald Trump. “For many, the American Dream has become a nightmare,” says Bernie Sanders.
Even discounting for the apocalyptic mood of many candidates – like John the Revelator with a toothache – this is a justified concern. A way of life in which increased productivity resulted in higher wages and a realistic shot at economic advancement is fragile or failing. For as many as 40 percent of Americans, work now means a series of part-time, temporary, on-call and contract jobs. The old benefit packages and promotion pathways are largely gone. Life has instability, worry and toxic stress at its core.
For those who criticize populist candidates, it is doubly important to understand and address the causes of populist discontent. One of those causes is pervasive, warranted economic anxiety.
The political divide emerges in how this challenge is explained – a division that does not lie between parties or even ideologies. Some believe the American Dream has been stolen. It may have been an inside job, done by Wall Street or wealthy political donors. Or it may have been the work of outsiders such as illegal immigrants, the Mexican government or Chinese competitors. But our economic problem is viewed as effectively a crime.
As economic analysis, this is generally wrong, shallow or partial. But it is the political consequences that concern me.
If the American Dream has been stolen, the main purpose of politics is not to propose policies that ameliorate this problem or that; it is to define, fight and defeat enemies who have stolen the dream. This approach to public life is inherently personal. Our economic problems have faces. They may be owned by sneering billionaires, or have a more Latino or Asian aspect. But they certainly don’t look like us. They are the scheming, the exploiters, the guilty, the other.
This gives rise to a politics characterized by anger, retribution and enmity. It has the chemical advantage of lighting up the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. If I remember Psych 101 correctly, this portion of the brain includes the hypothalamus, which regulates the “Four F’s” – fighting, fleeing, feeding and … mating.
A hypothalamic politics is not oriented toward consensus. In any economic diagnosis that involves fighting the bad guys, progress is a zero-sum game. Some must lose for the virtuous many to win. And this requires not persuasion but revolution – a word that some presidential candidates use promiscuously.
There are many problems here, but the worst is misdiagnosis, because it undermines the possibility of productive change. The American Dream has not been stolen. It has been undermined by a vast economic transition that has placed American workers in competition with talented workers around the world, and replaced whole categories of labor with new technologies. This has resulted in a consistent downward pressure on wages and a ruthless demand for higher skills. For many communities, it has meant a more or less permanent recession.
The effective collapse of the blue-collar economy has come at the same time that working-class family structures have dramatically weakened and community institutions – which once provided assistant or substitute parents – have fallen apart. S
This is the real-world context for effective policy. People need the skills, support structure and human capital to succeed in a modern economy. This is definitely not an explanation that elicits a hormonal response. But it is the shared premise of serious policy thinkers on the center right and the center left, presenting the possibility of compromise and agreement. It is possible to shape an innovative role for government that empowers individuals, increases the rewards for work and respects the important place of family and community.
This might be the productive substance of a presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio (or Jeb Bush, or John Kasich). It would probably not be the outcome of Trump vs. Sanders.
But the actual problems of our economy will not be solved by barbed wire on our southern border, or by putting Wall Street villains in shackles.
It will require politicians who call Americans to the ramparts of an evolution – educating and equipping all our citizens, one by one, for a different and difficult economy. In that, there should be no enemies.
Michael Gerson, a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group, may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.