I want to like Robert Reich. His heart is clearly in the right place. I'm sure Inequalty for All, a documentary featuring Reich that hits theaters on Friday, will make many important points.
But this passage in Reich's recent New York Times Opinionator column has the stale smell of conventional wisdom:
I'm 67 and have lived through some angry times: Joseph R. McCarthy's witch hunts of the 1950s, the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam protests in the 1960s, Watergate and its aftermath in the 1970s. But I don't recall the degree of generalized bile that seems to have gripped the nation in recent years.The problem with this is that it tells us that Both Sides Do It. It blames "the proliferation of media," as if MSNBC contributes exactly as much to America's polarization as Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Needless to say, Fox's audience is much larger than MSNBC's, and there's no popular left-wing analogue to right-wing radio talk. And yet, to Reich, there's apparently no difference.
... what, exactly, explains the national distemper?
For one, we increasingly live in hermetically sealed ideological zones that are almost immune to compromise or nuance. Internet algorithms and the proliferation of media have let us surround ourselves with opinions that confirm our biases. We're also segregating geographically into red or blue territories: chances are that our neighbors share our views, and magnify them. So when we come across someone outside these zones, whose views have been summarily dismissed or vilified, our minds are closed.
And then there's this, which is meant to have all good liberals nodding in agreement, but misses the mark:
[Various societal] changes help explain why Americans are so divided, but not why they're so angry. To understand that, we need to look at the economy.Well, no, not really. Fox News and other parts of the right-wing propaganda machine have made a lot of people for whom the game isn't rigged -- right-wing billionaires, gainfully employed red-state whites in outer-ring suburbs, comfortably retired Medicare scooter-riders -- believe that the game is rigged against them. The noise machine has done an excellent job in persuading people who aren't at risk that they are at risk -- from "death panels," "socialism," "government hands" coming for their Medicare, "gun-grabbing" that will lead to total civilian disarmament, "voter fraud," "the war on Christmas" (or Christianity), "creeping sharia," etc., etc.
Put simply, most people are on a downward escalator. Although jobs are slowly returning, pay is not. Most jobs created since the start of the recovery, in 2009, pay less than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. This means many people are working harder than ever, but still getting nowhere. They're increasingly pessimistic about their chances of ever doing better.
As their wages and benefits shrink, though, they see corporate executives and Wall Street bankers doing far better than ever before. And they are keenly aware of bailouts and special subsidies for agribusinesses, pharma, oil and gas, military contractors, finance and every other well-connected industry.
Political scientists have noted a high correlation between inequality and polarization. But economic class isn't the only dividing line in America. Many working-class voters are heartland Republicans, while many of America's superrich are coastal Democrats. The real division is between those who believe the game is rigged against them and those who believe they have a decent shot.
But to Reich, the anger stems largely from economics:
Losers of rigged games can become very angry, as history has revealed repeatedly. In America, the populist wings of both parties have become more vocal in recent years -- the difference being that the populist right blames government more than it does big corporations while the populist left blames big corporations more than government.Except that the populist wing of the left has been barely visible or audible in the past five years, apart from sporadic outbursts (the brief Occupy moment, the Scott Walker protests). Some on the populist right really are slipping, but plenty aren't -- it was noted a couple of years ago that tea party members are wealthier and more educated than the genral public.
Widening inequality thereby ignites what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style in American politics." It animated the Know-Nothing and Anti-Masonic movements before the Civil War, the populist agitators of the Progressive Era and the John Birch Society -- whose founder accused President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy" -- in the 1950s.And now we're back to Reich seeing all populism as tending inevitably to paranoia -- again, Both Sides Do It. Is he really saying that anger at sufficient levels inevitably leads to paranoia? If he's blaming paranoia on inequality -- and if, as I'm arguing, angry lefties are more likely to be fighting against real inequality, while angry righties are fighting Fox-generated chimeras -- then he's suggesting that besieged union teachers in Wisconsin or debt-burdened recent graduates with no job prospects in Zuccotti Park are exhibiting "the paranoid style." Really, Robert?
The squeeze on the non-rich has created a lot of societal anxiety. Some of what makes the audience for Fox and talk radio jumpy is real. But right-wing propaganda diverts economic anger and anxiety, and gins up more anger and anxiety out of nothing. I want to see inequality reduced as much as Reich does, but inequality is not why there's rage or gridlock.