I’m working on a recap of a dozen or so works of political analysis I’ve written between 2016 and today. As I complete a section, I intend to post it here first. Please kibitz!
This is also the counterweight to a theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us. We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.
First, an overall outline.
- Intro (published in part 1)
- Decentered Identity (in part 1)
- Grounding (in part 1)
- Emotion Truth / Political Lies Touchstones
- Setting the Stage (skipped for now)
- Those that Work and Those That Don’t (found below.)
- Deaths of Despair (this and below are assumed sections and will follow)
- A Smaller Them
- Wrap Up
My thesis is that the economic immiseration of a broad section of the American middle and working classes has unmoored them. Identity is up for grabs and significant resources are being spent to make sure their discontent doesn’t feed back into effective political change. It’s expensive to make Americans this stupid, but the payoff has been rich.
Here follows a look at research that I think provides a clear analysis of what happens when the good working class jobs that underpin a community disappear. This was logging but think factory closing, consolidation of farming into corporate hands, or any number of community-level economic disasters.
1) Those That Work and Those That Don’t
My first touchstone is Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t by Jennifer Sherman. Before the widespread loss of good jobs in much of the US, an abrupt economic collapse in an isolated logging town provides us with a sort of petri-dish case history of the pattern that will repeat widely over the next 30 years.
Golden Valley, a once-bustling logging and mill town, is a community on the decline, characterized by unemployment, job instability, and poverty. Its denizens are caught in a struggle to define themselves as successful despite their economic and labor market failures.
Morality is one of the few remaining axes upon which to base this hierarchy. When jobs, incomes, and other sources of identity are stripped away, it is still possible to find ways to define themselves and their entire community as morally upstanding.
–Jennifer Sherman from Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t, 2009
In 1994, the Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species. As a result, logging in some parts of Northern California was cut by 80%. Forest Service and logging jobs disappeared, and the mills closed one by one.
In 2003, Jennifer Sherman, in dissertation research, moved into ‘Golden Valley’ CA, to study social hierarchy and self-definition in folks impacted. That work was expanded into a book published in 2009: Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America
Sherman’s core finding: when the economic underpinning of everyday life disappears, morality emerges as the critical component of self-definition and social standing. Being ‘moral’ provides dignity, purpose, and a place in the social hierarchy. Working … standing against the tide … is an indicator of moral worth.
Morality. A narrative emerges: We’re good people. We’ve done nothing wrong. Good people fight the good fight for a righteous way of life based on (sometimes imaginary) old-time values. Honesty. Godliness. Self-Sufficiency: being a breadwinner (or, at a minimum, staying off welfare) becomes a significant component of social standing and personal dignity. Self-reliance through hunting and fishing also grants status and meaning. Drug use is a crutch…a sign of moral failing.
The corollary: economic failure is a personal moral failure. Even though the economy has been shot out from under the whole community, it is not merely unfortunate. To succumb by, say, going on welfare is weak and wrong. 80% of the jobs are gone, but you can be a failure because you don’t have a job.
I’d like to note that this narrative is highly useable to our hypothetical controlling economic elite.
- Supporting this definition of worth and identity doesn’t come with a cost in, say, higher taxes.
- Keeping the focus on the uncoordinated individuals or families, the least effective political actors, as the sole agents of own their success or failure short circuits effective action.
- Related, channeling the emotion caused by the suffering into Us vs Them both within the community (Hillbilly Elegy) and toward the exogenous actors that shut down jobs keeps the situation manageable. Keeping the focus on the Them rather than strengthening and organizing the Us is very useful politically. (More on that in subsequent sections.)
(There’s not a lot of room for nuance in this quick summary I’m trying to provide. For a deeper look, I recommend Sherman’s book as a very worthwhile read.)