Here’s the result of a good conversation I had with my old friend Bill McKenzie, who is now the Editorial Director at the George W. Bush Institute, and editor of its magazine Catalyst, in the current issue of which the entire interview appears. We’re talking about politics in the Trump era. Excerpt:
McKenzie: I could throw a bunch of statistics back at you about how automation has actually changed the job place more than global trade or how globalized production helps working families by keeping the price of products like cars and jeans lower. But I think what you are describing is a far more visceral response. It’s a fear of losing what was. So, if you’re like me, and think it is important that America not retreat from the global economy, how do you reach people who feel the way you describe?
Dreher: You’ve hit on one of the defining political issues of the period into which we have now entered. It’s one in which the familiar ideological stances of left and right don’t offer much help. Nor does the new populism, as articulated by Trump – if “articulated” is the right word – have a clear idea what to do about automation, for example. We are all, to some extent, flying blind.
I don’t think the fear is based on nothing. The numbers on income stagnation, a slowdown in productivity, the loss of good manufacturing jobs, and so forth, are undeniable. People feel in their guts that something has gone very wrong – and they’re not wrong. I don’t believe that Trump has the slightest idea how to get the economy back on track, but who could possibly have confidence that the neoliberal establishmentarians of the Democratic and Republican parties do?
A lot of folks on both the left and the right sensed that those establishments were satisfied to manage the decline of the middle class. This is what the Bernie Sanders phenomenon was about on the left, by the way. Sanders didn’t have the answers either, but at least he was speaking to the deep sense of alarm that people have, and the erosion of authority in the normative institutions – especially the political parties – in contemporary America.
The economy cannot be easily separated from the rest of life. It matters a lot to the sense of self-worth of workers that their labor is meaningful. Cheaper cars and jeans cannot compensate for the loss of work with dignity.
This problem is not quantifiable, which, in the minds of many economists and others, renders it unreal. But it’s happening. I am doing better economically than most people my age, but now that my first child is getting ready for college, it occurred to me the other day that I do not believe that my children will be more secure economically than their mother and I are.
I grew up in a working-class home in the 1970s, and despite the economic travails of that era, my generation was raised with the confidence that we would be better off than our parents. That was the natural order of things, or so we thought.
It didn’t hit me till the other day that I don’t know anybody who believes that anymore. Most of us, in my experience, believe that our kids will have to fight hard simply to hold on to what we have. The crash of 2007 and 2008 shattered a lot of people’s faith in the economic future, and I don’t think it has recovered.We can argue over the extent to which globalization has caused this widespread economic destabilization, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo. Brexit and Trump show us that. In the future, politicians of the left and right across the West will have to find a way to rein in market forces for the sake of social stability.
We can argue over the extent to which globalization has caused this widespread economic destabilization, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo.
Pope John Paul II said that the market was made for man’s flourishing, not man for the market’s. Before the present moment, one might have considered that to be religious idealism. Now, it’s political common sense, and leaders who don’t understand the wisdom there are going to be swept aside. Greater automation, though, is going to make the job of politically managing the decline of manual labor even more difficult.
What I don’t hear too many people on the left or the right talking about is the role that moral libertarianism plays in the unraveling of our society. I’ve been reading an advance copy of “Move Fast And Break Things,”  a hard-hitting book by Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.
The book’s title was Facebook’s motto for a while, meant to express Mark Zuckerberg’s ethos of disruption, which is what they call “creative destruction” these days. Taplin writes about how the form capitalism has taken in the digital age has tremendously negative consequences for democratic self-government. His book goes into detail about the Silicon Valley ideology of “techno-libertarianism” – Taplin’s term – has come to exercise outsized power in postindustrial America. It’s an economics book, mostly.
What I find so fascinating about the book is how the economic libertarianism Taplin talks about has developed alongside an equally powerful moral libertarianism – one that cannot help but have serious social and political effects. Put simply, radical individualism is powering the digital economy and dissolving old forms of doing business, just as it is powering social change, and dissolving old customs and forms.
The loss of community has been something social critics of the left and the right have been talking about since the end of the Second World War. Now we are seeing the family falling apart. A professor at a conservative evangelical college told me not long ago that he doubted whether many of his students would ever form stable families. When I asked him why, he said, “Because so few of them have ever experienced one.”
Capitalism is tearing apart the social institutions – families and communities — it needs to sustain itself. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not advocating socialism. But we have to understand what the dynamics of our individualistic cultural and economic values are doing to our social fabric, and deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were.