Understanding “Make America Great Again”

Philip M. Neches @caltech.edu wrote:

This missive is addressed to the comfortable, educated, privileged people I know.

In the last few months, many of us came to understand what is behind the slogan, “Black Lives Matter”.  From our starting viewpoint, the slogan jars the sensibilities, because all lives matter.  But we were asked, and may of us did, put ourselves in the viewpoint of Black Americans, considered the 400 year history of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, and systematic exclusion from full participation in America’s advantages.  For too long, Black lives didn’t matter, and now we need to say that they do.

We need to come to a similar recognition of the power of “Make America Great Again”.  Whoa!  For us, America has always been great.  America welcomed our forebears with freedom and opportunity.  We have enjoyed prosperity, personal security, and the pleasures of a vibrant society.

The problem with understanding Black Lives matter began with me not being black.  The problem with understanding “Make America Great Again” is that I am not one of those people for whom America is not Great, or even good.  And those people are about 50% of the population, and growing.  Growing in numbers, growing in relative disadvantage, growing in frustration, and growing in anger.

Bread line circa 1930.  Despite their hunger, these men had the pride to wear overcoats, hats, and shoes — needed to survive the climate.

In the Great Depression of the 1930’s, unemployment of men affected at least 25% of American families.

Queuing for food distribution, 2020.  These families do not have “food security”, but they have their vehicles — needed to survive the economic climate.

The problem today is not so much unemployment as underemployment: no wage growth; part-time and “gig” jobs without benefits; inflation greater than the reported rate in necessities including housing, food, energy, and education — all resulting in stagnating standards of living for up to 50% of American families.  And it’s not just the sectors of the population held back by systemic historical racism: it now includes the white working and middle classes.

    The American Dream became the American Nightmare.

Consider a 1970 family: a house in the suburbs, two cars, plenty of food, stable employment, factory job for husband, stay at home for wife, public college for any kid who wanted it, 3 television networks — all affordable with just a high school education.  With the Great Inflation of the 1970’s, it now took two incomes to support that life style.  By the 1990s, good jobs required college education.  By the 2000s, the house in the suburbs was beyond reach.  By the 2010s, college for the kids was beyond reach.

Neither political party responded with programs of any substance.

Neither political party responded with programs of any substance.  Bill Clinton felt their pain.  Donald Trump felt their anger.  Through Democratic and Republican administrations, the cost of housing, education, food, and energy continued to rise far faster than incomes, or even the official rate of inflation. 

Families fell further and further behind.  Rates of depression, homelessness, opiate addiction, and suicide soared.  Life expectancy stagnated, and even declined. 

To these Americans, we are not a great nation — not even a good nation.  We are already a dystopia.  The dream of parents of a better life for their children is a cruel hoax, not a real aspiration.

And these people remember, or at least imagine, better days in the past.  Make America Great Again resonates with them. 

Those of us on the comfortable, educated, prosperous side of American society are coming to realize that we have to deal now with the 400-year history of systemic racism that is behind the “Black Lives Matter” slogan.  We also need to realize that we have to deal now with the 40-year history behind “Make America Great Again”.  Both are problems made by the forces controlling society and the economy.  That is to say, by us.

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