We Need a Smaller Them – pt 3

TLDR: This is Part 3 in the Emotional Truth / Political Lies series: a loss of meaning can be more deadly than the loss of income when jobs go away for White working-class males. Their immiseration ripples out to affect us all.

(But first, friends links to a couple of new things on Medium:
Christianity from the Heart – Reverend Al makes a rare appearance.
Kevin Phillips – RIP – a history of today’s out-of-control Them-ing.)

Mervin Jules - Dispossessed [c.1938] - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Mervin Jules – Dispossessed [c.1938] – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Our plot so far:

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.

This is a further step in a series of a dozen or so works of political analysis I’ve written since 2016. I’m building this in small sections. Please kibitz!

This is also the counterweight to a theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us.

My thesis: the economic immiseration of a broad section of the American middle and working classes has unmoored them. Identity is up for grabs. The economic crisis creates a crisis of meaning and identity.

Political lies: significant resources are being spent to make sure widespread discontent doesn’t feed back into effective political action.

It’s expensive to make Americans this stupid, but the payoff has been rich.

Part 1 introduced the thesis and looked at who is to blame for our current laws and regulations.

Emotional truth: the feeling that government policy ignores everyday people is accurate.

Part 2 reviewed Those That Work and Those That Don’t – an early Petri dish example of identity destabilization through job loss.

The author’s finding: identity resets outside economic factors, substituting intangibles such as ‘moral superiority.’

  • Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.
    Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020

Part 3 – Deaths of Despair

The next analytic touchstone after ‘Those That Work’ is the research of Anne Case and Angus Deaton. This takes us from the Petri dish of ‘Golden Valley’ out to the wider impact of job loss. In this section, the pattern of good ‘working class’ jobs disappearing is viewed demographically rather than through a specific case history.

The research

In 2015, life expectancy in the wealthiest country in the world fell for the first time in decades. Then came the nearly unfathomable: Life expectancy in the US fell again in 2016 — and for a third time in a row in 2017. It is hard to communicate just how disquieting that trend is.
– Roge Karma, Vox, 4/15/2020

Half a million people are dead who should not be dead.
Case & Deaton 2015

Deaths: Bold Red = US White, Bold Blue = US Hispanic. Deaton & Case.

In 2015 (in a study that they initially had trouble even getting published!) Case & Deaton announced the discovery of what has come to be termed ‘deaths of despair’ among non-college-educated middle-aged Whites…men in particular and women to a lesser extent.

They noticed a spike in death rate first in comparison to other US ethnicities and then in contrast to similar populations in other countries. Digging into the statistics, these additional deaths were a result of suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose coupled with poor access to healthcare. Deaths of despair.

Groups less dependent on their job for a sense of identity (primarily because of their historical exclusion from ‘good jobs’ and, hence, centering meaning elsewhere, e.g., Latinos and women) did not exhibit the same demographic trends.

Let’s put the numbers in perspective.

Chart by me. Deaths of despair extrapolated to 2019 from Case & Deaton’s 2015 numbers using their methodology. Stopped at 2020 when COVID made that too complex.

What’s going on?

Repeating:

Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020

If we apply Sherman’s discoveries across this entire demographic, identity was set adrift— decentered —for a broad demographic   with dire consequences both for those individuals and for society.

Individuals scrambled to find a new way to play a leading role in their own stories. As Sherman points out, being ‘moral’…being a ‘good guy’…became core.

Many of those who failed the challenge died. Between successful and dead lay degrees of emotional distress, typically a chronic low-grade sense of panic among those on the edge.

Into the breach came a huge billionaire-funded industry aimed at offering wedge ideologies as identity and toxic religion as a comfort.

A core strategic win was the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church during the ‘Conservative Resurgence‘, starting in the late 70s and consolidating gains through the subsequent 15 years and again now in a second cycle. The SBC’s ‘liberals’ were certainly not far left of center, but they and even center-right moderates were purged.

The impact of this can’t be underestimated. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination even after close to 2000 churches broke away to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the Jimmy Carter Baptists.) Huge monetary and organizational resources were now available. The SBC has six sizeable seminaries training thousands yearly and an annual budget of nearly $200M–all contributed by people in local churches.

Worse, in my opinion, those local churches, critical envelopes of support in the face of death, illness, trials and tribulations, and pillars of identity to many, now became organizing cells in the culture wars.

Add to this Koch-brothers-type think tanks, right-wing talk radio, and Fox News as the Ministry of Truth, and you have the enormous resources devoted to keeping the pot boiling.

Observing people seeming to vote against their self-interest, I hear friends asking how people can be so stupid. If we could calculate a ‘cost per unit of stupid,’ I think we’d find it’s hugely expensive to make people this ‘stupid.’ Obviously, it’s worth the investment to those footing the bill.

Two points:

First, if you combine the decentering of working-class identity and the way that it has been exploited, the result is that ideology has become identity. This is key to understanding what’s going on and looking for strategies to fix it.

An ideology is a narrow and brittle basis for identity. Under these conditions, a challenge to particular ideas is an existential threat!

Much of what seems crazy has to be understood in that light. It’s not at all a matter of ideas and evidence. The challenge is to the person’s sense of self, not some contingent idea that can be easily revised or corrected.

Another way to look at it: if people are acting against their economic interests, there must be something they see as more important.

I believe that dividing the world up into Us and Them is baked in by our evolutionary history. (Evidence on request.) That makes it a leverage point easily exploited.

Starting politics with a common rallying point…say, a commitment to decent jobs, good schools, health care that wasn’t a huge source of misery and personal bankruptcy, and a clean environment…could cut across the most common Us vs Them divides.

It would also mean that the corporate engines of consolidation and profit at any cost and the 1%’s domination of American politics would be imperiled. So, something divisive has to be substituted.


Coming in future installments. Where do we go from here? Republicans and Democrats – heartless exploitation vs. gutless weasels. And more.

Side note: Wedge identities are only getting more unmoored. Even conservative pastors are starting to flip out. They’re being challenged over direct quotes from Jesus, e.g., love your neighbor as yourself or turn the other cheek. (But “Jesus said that” apparently carries insufficient weight.) A recent study found Trump supporters trust him significantly more than their friends and families, conservative media figures, or their pastors.

For a fascinating interview on the Christians vs. Jesus thing and how ideology becomes identity, listen to this podcast with Russell Moore, ex-head of the SBC’s policy arm and current editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, in this episode of Talkin’ Religion and Politics without Killin’ Each Other.

We Need a Smaller Them – pt 2

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)
    • Betrayal
    • Exploitation
  • 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.

  1. Supporting this definition of worth and identity doesn’t come with a cost in, say, higher taxes. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)

We Need a Smaller Them – pt 1

Blogging!

In case you missed the announcement, I’m shifting my base of operation from Medium back to this blog. Rather than working for weeks and kicking out biggish posts there, I’m going to publish small chunks here. Occasionally, the chunks will coalesce into longer articles that will go back out to Medium.

Emotional Truth and Political Lies

What’s below is not part of the new approach in that it’s part of a longer article that’s already in progress. I’ve got the early part written and am only fine-tuning. The last parts are still a word salad. As things get firmed up, I’ll post them here.

This excerpt is a recap of a dozen or so articles written between 2016 and today. It’s also the counterweight to a repeating 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.

Here is a draft of the first sections. Please kibitz. First, an overall outline.

  • Intro (draft included here)
  • Decentered Identity (draft included here)
  • Grounding (draft included here)
  • Emotion Truth / Political Lies Touchstones (this and subsequent sections to follow)
    • Setting the Stage
    • Those that Work and Those That Don’t
    • Deaths of Despair
    • Betrayal
    • Exploitation
  • A Smaller Them
  • Wrap Up

We Need a Smaller Them

Emotional Truth, Political Lies — Our Plot So Far

There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.
Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021)

The neoliberal project was focused on designing institutions — not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy.
-Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (2018)

On November 6th, 2016, I was jolted out of my assumptions about our political landscape. My hijacked attention has been focused on the contradictions of our weird political culture ever since. I’ve been reading and thinking, hoping to internalize the contradictions and write my way out. I’m part way there. This is my interim report.

I have elsewhere presented the case that, to survive, we need a bigger Us. This presents the corollary: we need a smaller, more focused Them.

Decentered Identity 

Something odd is going on. Folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum have been consistently acting against their own interests — or so it seems to me. Clearly, they don’t see it that way.

In my six-year journey to try and understand the dynamics of US politics, I have come to believe that it’s, in fact, “identity politics” at the core — but not in the way the term is commonly used. 

The destruction of working-class jobs unmoored working-class* identities (particularly among older White males) and left a big chunk of the population adrift generating death and pain, some serious craziness, and a lot of cold-hearted political exploitation. 

(*The term working class is a bit misleading since the blast zone includes not just warehouse, factory, and service workers but farmers, shopkeepers, tradespeople of various types, and so on…mostly, but not exclusively, the folks working for hourly wages unbuffered by employer-supplied health insurance and retirement benefits. I’m not sure a working-class/middle-class distinction has meaning currently.)

We commonly believe that our identity is something deeply personal, idiosyncratic, and tucked away ‘inside,’ but that isn’t accurate. Identity is how we feel, true, and what we do and think. Critically, it’s also how people respond to us. It’s the stories we hear about who we are and the stories we can tell about who we are. And it’s a lot more generic than we like to believe.

Identity is often significantly based on jobs; catastrophic job losses over the last 60 year has resulted in the widespread destruction of working-class identity. A large segment of the population has been cut adrift, economically for sure, but also in terms of self-respect and a grounded identity — in short, exiled from key pillars of a meaningful life. These concerns have not been adequately addressed by either political party. Exploited, yes. Addressed, no.

The mix of engendered emotions — rage, outrage, despair, feelings of betrayal, ‘paranoia’ —  is inherently dangerous to the established power structure and needs to be redirected to prevent effective action…something that might reverse the ongoing shift of income and resources from the lower 80% to the upper 20% of our population. It doesn’t matter whether this shift has been deliberate (oh, no, conspiracy) or enacted through mindless machinations of capitalism’s push toward monopoly and regulatory capture. The results remain.

To restate, folks are miserable as a result of their systematic immiseration. They have done nothing wrong, yet they’re steadily losing ground. That’s genuinely a pisser, and they’re pissed — if not in a spiral of despair —  and looking for clues as to who might be responsible.

I’ve found some tools that I think are key to understanding how this is playing out and hopefully pointers to things that might help counter it. They follow in as compressed a form as I can manage. This summarizes a series I call Emotional Truth and Political Lies.

Before We Start, a Bit of Grounding

…analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
Testing Theories of` American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens , Gilens and Page (2014)

Gilens and Page’s study analyzed the policy preferences of different groups and compared them to actual policy outcomes in 1779 policy cases. 

They found that economic elites and business interest groups have a disproportionate amount of influence on policy decisions and argue that this influence can be attributed to a variety of factors: primarily the role of money in politics, the limited access that average citizens have to policymakers, and the influence of the media. 

The tax code, regulatory environment, and funded services have been shaped primarily by the economic elite. If that aligns with the needs of everyday people, it’s a happy accident.

What’s the takeaway? 

  1. If you want to blame someone for how things are, it might make sense to target the folks actually controlling it! If the ‘Deep State’ is a group of actors controlling the system from the shadows, then big donors are the actual Deep State.
Gilens and Page — a tiny sliver of the US population makes the rules

2. It is important not to conflate the targeted semi-mythical ‘urban elites’ with actual economic elites. 

Gilens and Page define the economic elite as the top 1%. The top 1% represents about 1.3 million households who roughly make more than $500,000 a year out of a total of 128 million households in the US. Of the 128M, there are 108M urban households (versus 20M rural) — which gives us 106.7M urban non-elites. (See chart above.) And that assumes that all economic elites should be subtracted from the urban column — clearly not the case.

3. A PS, it’s unlikely that many of the people making things worse for almost everyone else are conscious of that. They might make good neighbors. (There are, of course, a few evil geniuses.) As a result, an ‘are they good people?’ analysis is not up to the task.

…to be continued…

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