Since the election, my Facebook page has been filled with postmortems, many being “I told you so” comments, seeking scapegoats for Hillary Clinton’s disastrous loss to Donald Trump. There is always someone or something who deserves quick, and primary, blame it seems — the media, the FBI, the Koch brothers, the DNC, Hillary, Bernie, the far left — pick your poison. And while all these played some role in the election’s outcome, along with xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism and misogyny, it seems to me that a fundamental and under-discussed crisis here is a crisis of values, an inability in the United States to define quality of life in anything but materialistic terms.
How in any society is it possible to glorify someone simply because, as Trump put it, “I’m rich, I’m very rich?” Millions of Americans clearly did. They somehow believe that because he is rich he is also smart, all his bankruptcies notwithstanding. They did not demand that he release his tax returns and did not recoil when he said that not paying taxes makes him smart, because they somehow believe that if taxes were not a burden for them, they too would be rich. For example, lower-income Americans are more likely to favor eliminating the estate tax than higher-income Americans. For so many, the goal is to get rich like Trump, and they accept unquestioningly Ronald Reagan’s wish to “see America always remain a country where anyone can get rich.”
The anti-government, tax-cutting paradigm that took root with California’s Proposition 13 in 1978 and Reagan’s 1980 claim that “government is not the solution because government is the problem,” still weighs heavily on us like a nightmare that we fail to confront.
All the “battleground” states that Trump won, plus countless other “red” states like Pence’s Indiana and nearly the entire South, have had government-bashing, tax-cutting GOP governors and legislatures throughout Obama’s term in office. They are almost all net “takers” of government money, while most blue states pay in more than they get. Yet, somehow, the citizens of these red states blame the Democrats for their fate — which is indeed poor. They trail blue states in almost every quality of life measure. For example, life expectancy in Massachusetts is 80.5, while in Mississippi it’s 75.0.
This certainly suggests that we haven’t done a very good job selling the value of the public sector. It doesn’t help to simply label the Democratic Party “neoliberal,” since that word has become almost devoid of meaning. There are major policy differences between the blue and red states and between the parties. To simply call both “neoliberal” obscures more than it illuminates.
Yet, perhaps the biggest similarity between the two parties is the continued acceptance of two myths — the idea of “American exceptionalism,” which even Obama constantly pays homage to (though the Right criticizes him for not being “patriotic” enough), and, the primacy of economic growth.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats challenge the growth mantra (even Paul Krugman is a cheerleader), though it is madness, as environmentalist David Brower once pointed out, to believe in unlimited growth on a finite planet. So, while Democrats want to share growth more widely and perhaps grow more via infrastructure support and alternative energy, they still believe that full employment and the end of poverty can be attained only through more growth.
The worship of GDP continues in the 5 percent growth rate that Trump promises. Even if obtainable, it would mean a near doubling of resource use in less than two decades, with disastrous environmental consequences. The idea that economic growth can be “decoupled” from resource extraction and environmental impact, has been disproven by several studies, though it is true that more resource-efficient technologies reduce the added impact of new products.
Therefore, as we try to reform the Democratic strategy, it’s necessary, as Herbert Marcuse once said, to promote a values transformation, away from the cruel, competitive performances and unrestrained expectations of consumer capitalism and toward a simpler, less hurried, more cooperative way of life, where work sharing is at least as important a strategy to reduce unemployment as federal jobs programs.
It’s necessary to understand that the values of affluenza, about which I have written at length, spur endless competition for scarce resources, and result in the overwork Bernie Sanders criticizes, as well as our declining health, our lack of social purpose, our lack of enough leisure time to be good, informed citizens and volunteer in our communities, and a host of other ills. To begin, we need to make the case that we need a new measure of well-being — indeed, one former Democratic presidential candidate, Martin O’Malley, has been a leader in developing a Genuine Progress Indicator, but such ideas never entered the debates. They should be part of our future vision.
A less acquisitive society with less focus on “hard work” will not be a poor one, either materially, or more importantly, in terms of quality of life. This is a point that must be made and something Bobby Kennedy knew back in 1968, when he first spoke out eloquently against the Gross National Product. Swedish Environmental Protection Agency studies show that 30 hours of work a week may well be optimal for well-being — 30-hour workers outperform 40- or 50-hour workers in almost every quality of life measure — life satisfaction, work satisfaction, time satisfaction, health, and importantly, in this time of climate change, lower greenhouse gas emissions.
So, perhaps it’s time to think a little bigger, a little bolder. To challenge American exceptionalism and the focus on growth. One way to challenge exceptionalism would be to focus on children. As reports by UNICEF and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) make clear, American kids rank near the very bottom in almost all aspects of quality of life among rich countries, leading only Turkey, Mexico, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania.
This should embarrass us — even conservatives can’t claim that five-year-olds should pick themselves up by their bootstraps. We should also proclaim the value of quality of life vs. quantity of income. Inequality is a much broader issue than dollar income.
If we support growing the economy, we need to also ask, what kind of growth, not what rate of growth. What can grow and what must shrink if we are to live well on a finite planet. We must put a value on things — leisure time, volunteering, home gardening, caring for each other, undeveloped nature, etc. — that are now seen as without value.
Those who would privatize our public lands have bumper stickers like “Wilderness, Land of No Use” that illustrate the lack of value we bestow on many of the things of greatest value.
As we consider political strategies for 2018 and beyond, let’s go beyond our silos and current ideas of economic success and lay the groundwork for a whole new value system beyond affluenza and predator capitalism.