Rewinding American identity

I recently watched a profoundly insightful lecture by New Yorker journalist and author George Packer at the University of California-Berkeley on “American Identity in the Age of Trump.” Packer’s lecture—which had previously been featured in a David Brooks column in the New York Times—provides a useful historical account of the deterioration of American politics, and how it wrought Trumpism. By exploring the different American stories jockeying for supremacy today, Packer gives us the tools we need to craft an identity to restore our democracy.

Packer’s theme is that American identity has collapsed amid polarization—that on an individual and community level, American life has grown ever more isolated, shrinking the common bonds we share as a national community.

He points to data showing a correlation between rising polarization, inequality, and immigration since the 1970s. “A smaller pie,” he argues, “divided into less and less equal slices among people who look less and less alike drives us toward cynical and hateful extremes.”

This sense of alienation has been driven by disillusionment with our institutions—not least of which include our political parties, according to Packer. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Democrats were the party of the “fair shake,” while the Republicans were the party of “getting ahead,” as he puts it. The parties more or less neatly aligned with workers and business, respectively.

That dichotomy gradually broke down in unpredictable ways. On the left, after the bloody 1968 convention, Democrats reformed their nominating process. This weakened the influence of entrenched labor interests, and gave more voice to the “new politics” of the day, with its emphasis on civil rights, the environment, and resisting militarism. This generation was proceeded by the Atari Democrats and Bill Clinton of the 1980s, with its own emphasis on embracing globalization and promoting education as a cure-all elixir. The Democratic Party, in short, became steadily detached from the concerns of working people over the last fifty years.

Over the same time period, the Republican Party has by and large been a “shaky marriage” between the rich and downscale whites. The GOP odd couple became a (white) workers’ party led by the Kochs, and stained by nihilism fed by rage, according to Packer. In 2008, the possibility of vice president Sarah Palin stirred political excitement in a segment of the Republican base that had long felt forgotten. That excitement was populism, which slowly seized Republican politics.

Palin’s populism turned working-class whiteness into a breed of identity politics. She doubled down on anti-institutional and anti-intellectual strains that had percolated in conservative politics for generations, amplifying them into all-out contempt for “lamestream” institutions, beaming ignorance as a point of pride. She tacked on infatuation with her own celebrity and unrestrained narcissism for good measure, as Packer puts it. With this combination, Packer says, “Palin was John the Baptist for Donald Trump.”

Packer alleges that our institutions stopped meeting the aspirations of those at the bottom, while those at the top stopped believing in interests larger than their own. His 2013 book The Unwinding traces the lives of several individual Americans over thirty-five years, as their senses of isolation and alienation deepened on the back of broader political and economic shifts in American life. It’s a book that describes the early warning of something like Trumpism. Packer says—“a democracy where no center holds.”

Packer met an Ohio steelworker who found Trump’s insults refreshing, saying that Trump’s ugliness is a “mirror of how they see us”—turning the tables on those elites who defile Middle America as flyover country populated by uncouth rubes. The lower Trump’s language and behavior sank, Packer observed, the more the press vilified him, and the more he was celebrated by his tribe. It’s a trend that has carried on into the Oval Office: the more he demonstrates manifest unfitness and danger to the office, the more the press hollows, and the more his Republican base rallies around him.

To Packer, Trump has revealed what has been true all along. Republican voters are not small-government principled conservatives who read the Wall Street Journal editorial page and belong to the Federalist Society. They want government to do things that benefit them, and not people who don’t look like them. The party’s most energized elements, Packer says, “are driven by violent opposition to changes in color and culture to the country they once knew.”

The election in 2016 was in part about economic anxiety—not necessarily economic hardship. Trumpism succeeded in places with low levels of mobility, little hope, and lost faith in the success of their communities. (Of course, these attitudes tend to correlate with and be informed by harsh attitudes on gender and race, as well.)

Put together, the election was about alienation, Packer concludes. It had very little to do with actual policy. Hillary Clinton came armed with pages and pages of policies and white papers aimed at making the economy more responsive to working people, breaking up economic monopolies, and more. When he interviewed Clinton just before the presidential election, Packer suspected none of her ideas would break through to voters. “She’s a lifelong institutionalist at a time of bitter distrust in institutions, a believer in gradual progress faced with violent impatience,” he wrote at the time.

In short, the traditional partisan divide between the “fair shake” and “getting ahead” has broken down. “The essence of American politics today is tribalism,” Packer says. He points to Richard Rorty’s influential tract Achieving Our Country, which tells us that politics is a contest of narratives. Different narratives of the American story have always jockeyed for supremacy in our politics. But to Packer, the narratives that dominate public debate today have become increasingly balkanized and splintered.

Packer sees four dominant narratives in America today:

  1. Libertarian America. This narrative emphasized individual freedom and free markets. It’s the narrative of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek; of Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan, and the Republican establishment. “The libertarian idea regards Americans as consumers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers—everything but citizens,” Packer says. There’s little respect for self-government to meet our needs, which is why Ryan sits back and lets Trump trash our democracy for the sake of tax cuts for the rich.It’s also a shell narrative with little actual support in the real world. Packer calls the libertarian narrative a “head without a body”—the ideology of the donor class and conservative think tank bubble, with little resonance among actual Republican voters.
  2. Cosmopolitan America. This is the narrative of meritocracy and globalization. It’s the narrative that embraces modernity and technological change, thrilled by the prospect of disrupting old system and flattening hierarchies. This narrative prevails in Silicon Valley and educated urban professionals. It’s the legacy of the New Democrats that occupied the Democratic establishment from the 1980s on through the bridge to the twenty-first century.
  3. Diverse America. This is the narrative of social justice that focuses on remedying histories of oppression and celebrating America’s pluralism. It sees Americans as members of groups, each with their own stories and historical perspectives. Packer sees Diverse America and Trump each reacting to one another. Trump deliberately picks fights with subscribers to this narrative (indeed, its largely the narrative that Hillary Clinton ran on in 2016), and shrewdly sees it as his ally—as the progressive the progressive mirror of “America first.”
  4. America First. This is the narrative of Trumpism. Its one that pits true patriots against their victimizers: disloyal coastal elites. It’s the narrative of the heartland, of Palin’s “real America”: white, Christian America.

Each narrative brings forward a set of winners and losers. Libertarianism has its makers and takers, in the words of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. Cosmopolitanism has urbane meritocrats and Trump’s beloved “poorly educated” white working-class. Diverse America pits group against group. And America First pits “real Americans” against elites.

Packer thinks that none of these narratives will suffice to forge a true American community. He does not offer a fifth competing narrative, but instead offers an aspiration that we define national identity in the most inclusive terms possible, turning away from tribalism and toward broadly shared citizenship.

*          *          *

To my mind, a narrative that turns back polarization and unites a true American community must be one that actually values such a community. That narrative must build upon what is right and good about our existing narratives, while doing away with their zero-sum spoils and losses.

Each narrative has something compelling to offer. Americans have always believed in individual freedom and autonomy—just not the narrow anti-government strain offered by today’s libertarian right. America has always been a country that embraces innovation like globalization and technology—but cushions must be set in place to withstand the disruptions of those forces. America is a nation of immigrants, and is exceptional precisely because it undertook an experiment to prove self-government by heterogeneous groups can actually work—a belief that people of different faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds can come together and form one community, not siloed tracts of black, white, and brown. And America has always been a proud, patriotic country. At its best, that patriotism is an inclusive celebration of shared American values. But at its worst, it can mutate into an exclusionary chest-thumping assertion of an ultra-limited claim over “true” American heritage.

Perhaps we can retain these compelling features of Packer’s four narratives, while sanding off the downsides to create an American identity that doesn’t presuppose winners and losers. That would create a new narrative that doesn’t accept or encourage a winner-take-all society between makers and takers, or between Ivy Leaguers and high school graduates. And it would strive for something bolder than a politics of factionalism based on either intergroup rivalry or resentful mono-cultural purity.

Such a narrative might expand upon Packer’s hope for inclusive common citizenship. It would be a narrative that relies on communitarian values and social democracy to achieve greater dignity and self-determination for all. The politics that undergirded the era of progressivism from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal on through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society do not fit neatly within Packer’s four narratives. The proud American identity of this era, and the national aspiration of broadly shared uplift and prosperity, ought to be resurrected today.

Of course, racial and cultural politics ultimately unwound that common identity. Lest we circle back to Packer’s descent into polarization from the ‘70s onward, we must update the New Deal politics to eliminate its exclusions. Fortunately, much of that work has already been done by none other than Barack Obama, who relentlessly cast the American story as one of steady progress, where groups rise up against legacies of oppression to demand a place in the American community—a current always churning toward broader citizenship.

The four American narratives that prevail today are products of our long descent into polarization. To escape that spiral, we must transcend the narratives that define our current politics. A narrative that is both new and old, that harkens back to America’s heyday as a secure middle-class nation while pointing forward toward America’s future as a dynamic multicultural democracy, may just be what we need to reverse our long unwinding.

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The rise of the New Democrats

Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is the final tome in his trilogy (so far) on American conservatism. The contemporaneous developments in liberalism take a back seat throughout the trilogy. But one subplot lurking in Perlstein’s chronicle of the post-Watergate era is the breakthrough of a new breed of Democrat. The rise of the Democrats swept into power in the wake of Watergate may portend what’s in store for the class jockeying for power in the midst of Russiagate today.

The emergence of the New Democrats began before the dust had settled on Watergate. In December 1973, then-Representative Gerald Ford was confirmed to serve as vice president after the scandal-ridden resignation of Spiro Agnew.   This led to a special election for the House of Representatives seat in Michigan that Ford had vacated.

The Democratic candidate for that district—which no Democrat had won in over sixty years—was Richard Vander Veen. Hoping to capitalize on public disgust with the illicit governance of the Nixon administration, he ran heavily on Watergate, insisting that his special election bid could be a “referendum on Richard Nixon” in the manner of a vote of no confidence in the British political system.

Vander Veen also distanced himself from the Democratic Party. He “was a peculiar kind of Democrat,” Perlstein writes, “one apparently indifferent to being a democrat at all. He spoke rarely if at all about the New Deal accomplishments upon which the party of Jefferson and Jackson had been winning elections for a generation.” Instead, Vander Veen modeled himself upon Michigan’s moderate Republican former governor George Romney, and hoped to undertake a nonpartisan citizens’ commission to brainstorm ideas to reform Washington.

Indeed, Vander Veen saw Watergate as a not a Republican scandal, but a Washington one. “Democrats can take an equal share of the blame for failing to present the country a candidate of sufficiently broad base in the presidential election of 1972,” he maintained—a shot at the liberalism of failed candidate George McGovern. This pox-on-both-their-houses attitude engaged a cynical strain of public thought at the time that both parties habitually partake in Watergate-style underhanded shenanigans, but Nixon just happened to be the one who got caught.

On Election Day in February 1974, Vander Veen pulled off a stunning upset, defeating his Republican opponent in a district that Gerald Ford had won thirteen times. Vander Veen’s anti-Washington nonpartisanship had resonated with his Michigan district. But Democrats drew national implications from his unlikely win. Vander Veen’s crusade, Perlstein writes, “was just the sort of antipolitician, it turned out, Americans longed for to effect their political deliverance.”

With voters looking to wash away the rot of Watergate three months after Nixon stepped aside, Democrats were elected in a wave election in the 1974 midterms. Democrats picked up 49 seats in the House, winning a dominant two-thirds majority. In the Senate, Democrats won four seats, holding 60 seats in total.

The “Watergate baby” generation of freshmen Democrats elected in 1974 was notable for its hostility not just to Nixon’s Washington, but also to the traditional New Deal ethos of their own party. Democrats picked up where Vander Veen left off, running on a reform agenda resistant to partisan labels and contemptuous of Congress itself.

These Democrats eschewed government-based solutions for the economy in favor of centrist neoliberalism. Where old school liberal Senator Scoop Jackson wanted to nationalize energy companies to solve the 1970s energy crisis, new school centrist candidate Gary Hart wanted pubic-private partnerships—“cooperative ventures between the environmentalists and the energy developers,” as he put it.

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Hart—the soon-to-be junior senator from Colorado—was among the most visible of the New Democrats running in 1974. The former McGovern presidential campaign whiz kid was the candidate most eager to announce a clean break with the New Deal generation that crashed and burned two generations’ worth of political capital in Vietnam. Hart’s stump speech was titled “The End of the New Deal.” He declared American liberalism to be “near bankruptcy.” He blasted LBJ’s “ballyhooed War on Poverty” for “succeed[ing] only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor.” He chastised the American consumer that “The party’s over, the day of having it all is gone . . . We’re entering a period of history when conspicuous consumption and waste just must end.” The post-World War II age of affluence must give way to a post-Vietnam age of austerity, Hart argued.

The New Democrats shifted the Democratic Party’s center of gravity further up the income ladder. The New Deal coalition assembled by Franklin Roosevelt had elevated two generations of Democrats to electoral success as a fundamentally working-class party. The Watergate Babies of were intent on turning the ‘70s Democratic Party into a middle-class one. The New Democrats eschewed economic populism for middle-class “lifestyle issues,” like environmentalism and conservation, Perlstein writes.

The insurgency of the New Democrats had immediate tangible consequences for domestic policy. Despite the Democrats’ newly dominant position in Congress, the House failed to override President Ford’s veto on a public jobs bill backed by the AFL-CIO. The Senate also buried a $9 billion economic relief bill introduced by liberal stalwart Sen. Walter Mondale with labor’s backing. One labor lobbyist summed it up, saying, “The freshman Democrat today is likely to be an upper-income type. I think a lot of them are more concerned with inflation than with unemployment.”

Hart endorsed this assessment, saying that his post-Watergate freshmen class was “not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” The New Democrats had no use for an old ardent champion of liberalism.

In 1974, taking on the Democratic establishment meant challenging it from the right. Hart preached austerity, and California governor Jerry Brown advocated for smaller government. After all, liberals had gotten the U.S. stuck in Vietnam, and had led Democrats to consecutive presidential losses to Richard Nixon. Rebelling against entrenched and discredited party leaders demanded a right-flank action.

By coasting in with a Democratic landslide, the New Democrats landed on a formula that would come to dominate the party’s electoral strategy for much of the rest of the century: triangulate toward an inoffensive and uninspiring brand of centrism, and stand ready as an acceptable alternative when Republicans abused their power or bungled the economy. A “Democrats by Default” strategy won the party power at the turns of the political pendulum, but never truly came close to permanently altering the rhythms of that pendulum again.

The shift in the Democratic Party that labor activists glimpsed in the 1970s hardened in the 1980s, as the New Democrats became techno-optimist Atari Democrats more at home in Silicon Valley than in the Rust Belt. The one-time party of the workingman was bidding Lunch-Pail Democrats adieu. The party of Roosevelt, Johnson, and Humphrey belonged to Hart, Clinton, and Gore now.

Perhaps the drift was inevitable. The racial confrontations of the 1960s—in the streets, at the lunch counters, and in the policy arena—began to polarize the parties. The dog-whistling campaigns run by Nixon expedited this realignment, making a successful bid for a large chunk of the Democrats’ working-class base. The New Democrat sentiment may have merely accelerated the unavoidable.

Yet nostalgia for the New Deal coalition persists. Democrats have never recaptured the feats and widespread loyalty that a coalition grounded in class politics achieved in reshaping American life from 1932 through the mid-1960s. The Obama coalition came closest, but has so far proved unable to endure without the twenty-first century’s first great Democrat on the ballot.

There are signs that today’s Democratic Party stands at another inflection point. Like in 1974, the party establishment has steered the party wrong in humiliating fashion against an unacceptable presidential opponent. Only now, it’s the center-left descendants of the New Democrats making up the party establishment. The insurgency now comes from the left, demanding prominent Democrats sign on to social democratic objectives, and levying primary challenges against congressional Democrats sitting comfortably in deep blue districts. Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s galling 2016 loss will prove to be the last gasp of the New Democrats.

Time will tell whether the Democratic class of 2018 can emanate political reverberations on the magnitude of the class of 1974. But if the Watergate babies proved anything, it’s that when a party is at its lowest ebb is when its foundations are ripe for shaking.

Last night was about healthcare

The country sent Donald Trump and the Republican Party a clear brush back pitch on November 7, 2017.  Democrats enjoyed their best election night in a half decade, winning high-profile governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, and making massive statehouse gains in states across the country.  It was a rout — a veritable “ass-kicking,” in the words of Connecticut senator Chris Murphy.

And the common thread of the night was Americans sticking up for their healthcare.

In Maine, nearly 60 percent of voters approved a referendum to adopt Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, extending health insurance to 89,000 low-income residents.  The state’s intransigent troglodytic governor Paul LePage had ardently opposed expansion, repeatedly slandering Maine’s would-be Medicaid recipients as lazy leeching “able-bodied adults who can work and contribute to their own health insurance costs.”  The people of Maine just put LePage in his place, going around him to overwhelmingly approve healthcare for their neighbors.

Medicaid’s rousing victory in Maine is expected to inspire similar ballot initiatives in more non-expansion states in 2018.  These could include Utah, Idaho, Kansas, and other states that have held out against expanding Medicaid.

In Virginia, a tight governor’s race turned into an easy win for Democrat Ralph Northam.  This has roundly been read through the lens of Northam’s Republican opponent, supper lobbyist Ed Gillespie, who remade himself in the image of Trump be running on racial fear-mongering in an attempt to gin up the conservative base.  Voters in Virginia roundly rejected Trumpism on Tuesday.

But the results were also driven by voters’ concerns about their healthcare.  Nearly 40 percent of Virginia voters surveyed in exit polls reported that healthcare was their most important issue, far outpacing any other concern.

Democrats also made historic gains in Virginia’s House of Delegates.  As of Wednesday morning, Democrats had picked up an incredible 14 seats in the hundred-seat statehouse, pulling to a 48-47 lead with five races still being tallied or too close to call.

Winning a statehouse majority would extend Medicaid to 400,000 low-income Virginians.  Current Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe tried for years to expand the program, but the Republican-controlled House of Delegates blocked him at every turn.  A Democratic-led statehouse would allow Virginia to finally expand the program.  But even a House of Delegates with a slim Republican majority will feel incredible pressure to expand Medicaid in light of Tuesday’s sweeping election results.

These were state elections, but they were driven by national politics.  Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress relentlessly attacked the health security of millions of Americans for the vast majority of 2017.  Their party paid for it up and down the ballot on Tuesday.  Voters fought back to protect their care.

Before Tuesday, Republicans in Congress were toying with using their tax reform bill to take another stab at secretly gutting Obamacare by repealing the law’s individual mandate.  If Congress balks, Trump is poised to continue his administrative campaign to sabotage the law by readying an executive order unraveling enforcement of the mandate.  Either would strike a massive blow against ensuring affordable healthcare access under Obamacare.

Republicans go after healthcare at their own risk.  Tuesday’s electoral sweep follows on the heels of a surge of early sign-ups on Obamacare’s health exchanges despite Trump’s best attempts to thwart them.  The anti-Trump resistance flexed its muscle last night.  If Republicans train their fire on healthcare yet again, they will only fuel the greater storm gathering for November 2018.

How Obamacare repeal sets the table for the entire GOP agenda

President-elect Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are ready to press ahead with Obamacare repeal come January.  The effects of repeal will be devastating enough.  But repeal also triggers problems that help the GOP justify the rest of its agenda.  By repealing Obamacare, Paul Ryan and company will try to bootstrap in drastic changes across government in the name of reducing deficits and stabilizing federal programs like Medicare.

Republican plans to repeal Obamacare would exact a massive human toll.  Repeal could throw upwards of 30 million people off of their health insurance, doubling the current uninsured rate.  And if Republicans gut the law’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions, 52 million people would struggle to find affordable insurance.

The human carnage of repeal is meant to coerce Democrats into going along with a right-wing replacement bill.  Republicans will have 52 votes in the Senate in 2017.  They can repeal most of Obamacare with 51 votes for a reconciliation bill.  But to enact new legislation replacing the law, they’ll need eight Democratic votes to overcome a filibuster.  The thinking is that creating an Obamacare cliff with massive human disaster on the other side will compel cooperation from Democrats.

Never mind whether this scheme can actually work without provoking a stampede of insurers out of Obamacare’s marketplaces during the transition period leading up to the cliff.  Like the hostage-taking expeditions during the Obama administration—the debt ceiling fiasco, the fiscal cliff, the government shutdown—this is another instance of the GOP manufacturing a crisis in order to strong-arm its policy priorities through Congress.

Conveniently for Republicans, Obamacare repeal opens the door to far more of the conservative agenda than just upending the individual insurance market.  According to a new report from the Brookings Institute, repeal would also jeopardize the solvency of Medicare.  Obamacare included a 0.9 percent payroll tax on incomes above $200,000 to help shore up Medicare’s finances.  This extended the solvency of the program’s trust fund until at least 2028.  Without this tax, Medicare could go broke in less than eight years.

It’s impossible to imagine conservatives restoring any of Obamacare’s taxes on the wealthy.  (Indeed, cutting these taxes is part of the appeal of Obamacare repeal for Republicans.)  And by repealing the law, Republicans also drag Medicare closer to crisis.  It’s easy to picture Ryan and others seizing the opportunity to warn that Medicare cannot be sustained without drastic changes along conservative lines–the type of reform Ryan has spent years pursuing.  The conservative vision would terminate our commitment to Medicare as a government-run insurance plan, and replace it with a voucher payment to seniors to shop on their own for private insurance plans.

So by repealing Obamacare, Republicans worsen Medicare’s financial position and thereby tee up the case for privatization.  But that’s not all.  The passage of Obamacare has corresponded with a marked slowdown in the growth of healthcare costs over the last several years.  The U.S. is currently on pace to spend $2.6 trillion less on healthcare than we expected before Obamacare was passed.  It’s difficult to assess how much Obamacare contributed to these savings, but it undoubtedly played a part.

If this slowdown is reversed by repeal, and healthcare costs begin to balloon again, the GOP could well use it as an excuse to pass the rest of its radical policy prescription across the entire gamut of American insurance options.  These reforms range from block-granting Medicaid to capping the tax exclusion for employer-provided insurance to promoting higher deductibles for more people.

Repeal could even give Republicans space to shoehorn in their desired policies outside of healthcare.  The Brookings report also found that Obamacare repeal will worsen long-term deficits.  Republicans will also undoubtedly pursue massive tax cuts near simultaneously with Obamacare repeal.  This combination will cause deficits to explode.  And as the Congressional Budget Office begins projecting larger and larger deficits, Republicans will have a ready-made excuse to justify austerity politics and massive cuts to safety net programs and other domestic spending.

We’ve seen this story before: the GOP leverages a crisis of its own making to push through its chosen policy prescriptions.  Even with a congressional majority, Republicans won’t be able to quit governing through crisis mode.  Their policy agenda will be painful for millions of Americans, and deeply unpopular because of it.  Republicans need a pretext to bolster the political necessity for making sweeping changes to our safety net.  Repealing Obamacare unlocks a whole host of rationales to help the GOP do precisely that.

But this also allows Democrats and other Obamacare defenders to lay out the full stakes of repeal.  Obamacare repeal doesn’t just rob insurance from the millions who have gained coverage under the law.  Repeal also jeopardizes the financial sustainability of Medicare for future retirees.  Repeal threatens to ignite higher healthcare inflation, raising premiums and eroding employees’ take-home pay.  Repeal erodes the financial standing of a whole host of programs for low-income Americans that are vulnerable to arbitrary budget cuts.  The implications of repeal are simply massive.

By repealing Obamacare, the GOP is trying to tee up its entire legislative agenda.  Liberals have an obligation to shout from the mountaintops about the full harm of this conservative exercise in bootstrapping.

Conservatism’s working class blues

In 2004, Thomas Frank set off a firestorm of debate with his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? He explored the question of why working-class white voters in America’s heartland insisted on supporting conservative candidates, even when such support might cut against their own economic interests. Frank’s answer was that conservatives were duping these voters by raising the salience of social wedge issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

In the years since Frank’s book became a touchstone in liberal circles, conservatives have consistently blasted Frank’s thesis as a condescending and elitist anthropologic dive in to the Heartland’s psychology. It exposed the “smug superiority on the left,” they said. Even today, they condemn Frank’s narrow vision of what’s good for the working class: “To Frank, the idea that voters might have interests beyond their economic status was unthinkable.”

Regardless of whether one accepted Frank’s theory, he was early detecting a certain angst in the Heartland. The possibly curious voting patterns were simply an indicator that something was awry.

We are now learning that Frank may have had his thumb near the pulse of a deeper crisis than we knew. In November, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a jarring study finding that the mortality rate for middle-aged white Americans had singularly and sharply increased over the last decade and a half. The authors found that “poisonings” and suicides among this population had spiraled to previously unseen heights. People were medicating themselves, abusing opioids, and, increasingly, ending their lives.

Deaton speculated that these Americans had “lost the narrative of their lives — meaning something like a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress.” Traditional working class jobs like manufacturing had vanished. Access to economic opportunity with basic education was once the norm, but was now nonexistent. Despair in the heartland and among the working class was producing tangible and terrifying human devastation, the economists found.

At the same time, the Trump phenomenon was sweeping through this very population. Trump was trouncing in the counties with the highest middle-aged white mortality rates. He was winning county after county with the least college diplomas; the most people out of work; and the greatest loss of manufacturing employment. In short, Trump was cleaning up in Case-and-Deaton Country: the places without jobs, education, or hope—the places where people were quite literally dying from despair.

Establishment conservatives, of course, have been tearing their collective hair out over the rise of Trump. They’ve pleaded with voters to see through his con routine and reject his strongman show, marshaling all of the intellectual firepower in their arsenal against Trump’s march to the nomination. Suddenly, there was a test of the allegiance of the conservative elite to the white working-class they had long professed to defend.

So what does the conservative elite think of the communities they used to lionize as “real America” now that they insist on supporting a candidate they loathe? Enter the National Review’s Kevin Williamson:

“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

When the Twittersphere collectively gasped in horror at Williamson’s denunciation, the National Review only doubled down, sneering at the “self-destructive moral failures” of “millions of Americans [that] aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying. [. . .] Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.”

Paul Krugman rightly connects this sentiment to Mitt Romney’s contempt for the 47 percent of Americans who make too little to owe federal income taxes, and to Speaker Paul Ryan’s critique of our social safety net as a coddling “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” “Stripped down to its essence,” Krugman concludes, “the G.O.P. elite view is that working-class America faces a crisis, not of opportunity, but of values.”

Simply put, this is the go-to conservative diagnosis of widespread crisis among those caught in the lower rungs of the social ladder. When evaluating (predominantly black) urban poverty, Ryan once warned that “[w]e have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” And when assessing what ails the unemployed, former Speaker John Boehner said the jobless would “rather just sit around” and coast off of public benefits.

Conservatives have been tsk-tsk’ing the morals of the urban poor and the jobless for years. Never mind that disability rolls have swelled in close correlation to the exodus of blue-collar jobs. Never mind that slashing unemployment benefits does nothing to aid the job search process. And never mind that the supposed cultural rot conservatives detect in poor African-American communities can overwhelmingly be traced to pervasive systemic disadvantage. When a community is in need, conservatives can almost always find a moral failing lurking close behind.

Yet this begs the fundamental question of whether a community’s moral anguish is the cause or the effect of its suffering. To Williamson and others, the white working class has “lost the narrative of their lives” because they picked up heroin needles, crushed OxyContin, and pulled one over on the Social Security office. End of story.

But under a more sympathetic—and, to my mind, more compelling—view of these communities, something has caused them to lose the narrative of their lives, and in response, they have stood numb as work disappeared, have resorted to disability checks just to make ends meet, and have increasingly succumbed to drug abuse or worse. The sky-high rate of poisonings, the futile search for meaningful work, and the alarming frequency of self-inflicted harm are indicators of a deeper existential crisis—a loss of self-value from far-reaching systemic upheaval. The dispiriting data uncovered by Case and Deaton are the symptoms, not the underlying disease.

What Case and Deaton want to discover—and what liberal policymakers want to fix—is that something: the root cause of this despair and these unmoored bearings. It’s undoubtedly too late to return to the ‘60s and on-shore a vast and job-intensive well-paying manufacturing sector. But if nothing else, we can craft a modern social insurance system to match the volatility and realities of 21st century capitalism. Indeed, if we want to reap the tremendous gains of such an economy, we have a moral obligation to cushion those whom it inevitably fails.

But if the determinative moral failing is the individual’s (or the community’s), then conservatives can rest easy while doing little to remedy the plight. And that’s the causation they’ve largely chosen: the cause of a community’s pathology is the community’s insistence on being pathologic. The fix is for the community to simply stop acting in pathologic ways.

It’s a diagnosis that confers agency and abhors dependency, it’s claimed. But how convenient that this theory of what ails the working class so neatly fits within the contours of the laissez-faire free-marketeering predisposition of conservatism. It’s a theory that lets conservatism wash its hands of the struggle of the dispossessed. Why alleviate hardship when you can moralize as it festers?

Conservatism has long claimed to defend the working class and the rural heartland from the snobbery of self-styled liberal elites. Now we know that these communities are suffering immensely in the twenty-first century. And the suffering has grown so acute that these communities have latched on in great numbers to a duplicitous and vulgar anti-politician who gives uninhibited voice to their rage and sense of past greatness lost.

Rather than defend these communities, some conservatives are turning their fire on them. “They deserve to die,” Williamson snorts. Which suggests that Frank was onto something all along. The white working class believed that conservatism had its back. But if there was ever any doubt, now it’s becoming clear: when times grow tough, too often the first instinct of conservatism is to cast judgment rather than to extend a helping hand.

The Week: “Divide and conquer” and the deserving poor

Over at The Week, I have a piece on Republican candidate for the North Carolina Senate seat Thom Tillis’s “divide and conquer” comments and the lineage of our thinking about who deserves public assistance:

Last week, as Tillis was wrapping up the Republican primary, footage was discovered of remarks he made in 2011 about wanting to “divide and conquer the people who are on assistance.” [. . .] Some have compared this video to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” blunder in 2012. But where Romney exploited fault lines between the supposed makers and takers, Tillis stoked a different social division: the deserving versus the non-deserving poor.

Check out the rest here.