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The Democratic Eclipse: It's the Economy, Stupid

December 22, 2017

I'm a month back from the 14,000 mile search and in that phase of research writing where several things are happening:

  • The stories I recorded during interviews are beginning to coalesce into themes and insights

  • I'm integrating new material and sources into the the context created by the trip - experiences and insights, now with outward connections

  • New ideas are forming, both reinterpretations (and doubts) of assumptions as well as new lines of expansion, drawing connection between points of insight

A good example is around the very concept of "democratic" myths. From many of the interviews that I've had, it became clearly that the second half of the twentieth century - say, the 1950's forward - was the most fertile source of democratic narrative and imagery. Pushing that one step further, it would be fair to say that most of our stories about democratic meaning are derived during our lifetime.


In other words, there is good reason to question the assumption of "founding myths"; it is possible our democratic narratives are crafted generation by generation. Original ideas are passed down and adapted over time, infiltrated by each political era's opportunities, challenges and priorities.


I am also aware that "democratic" myths may not be the true source of cultural and social power in America. Rather it is a set of economic myths that power our national imagination.


In a recent article, "What Do You Call A World That Can't Learn from Itself," Umair Haque makes an observation that upset the research table I'd spread for myself:


There is a myth of exceptionalism in America that prevents it from looking outward, and learning from the world. It is made up of littler myths about greed being good, the weak deserving nothing, society being an arena, not a lever, for the survival of the fittest — and America is busy recounting those myths, not learning from the world, in slightly weaker (Democrats) or stronger (Republicans) forms. Still, the myths stay the same — and the debate is only really about whether a lightning bolt or a thunderstorm is the just punishment from the gods for the fallen, and a palace or a kingdom is the just reward for the cunning.


This idea that economic myths are the real basis for our civilization's aspiration is a little chilling. Perhaps I find it chilling because of the "unfettered free-market" basis, and growing libertarian implications of our "moment." However, governance concepts are fundamentally different from economic concepts, and the tools to achieve the public and private aims of each are vastly different.


The insight was reinforced in a brief NPR spot with Philip Alston, the Australian U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Reflecting on his tour of the United States that brought him through California, Alabama and West Virginia, he made a casual reference to American society's economic myths:


The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success. The poor, on the other hand, are wasters, losers and scammers. So as a result money spent on welfare is money down the drain. Money devoted to the rich is a sound investment.


As evidence of these myths in play, Alston observes that, "While funding for the IRS to audit wealthy taxpayers has been reduced, efforts to identify welfare fraud are being greatly intensified."


There is a long tradition of American thought that that connects prosperity with morality and righteousness. Perhaps what is being accomplished by conservative efforts to reform tax policy today is an effort to use public policy tools to drive behavior - reward the rich and punishes the poor - a set of ideas that place prosperity at the center of the moral calculus. And in contrast, liberals place empowerment at the center of that calculus.


In his NPR interview, Alston comments that, "The reality is that the US now has probably the lowest degree of social mobility among all the rich countries. So if you are born poor, guess where you are going to end up?"

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