Friday, April 12, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 09-01-2021 09:21

Too many very angry people

Millions of people who are neither that well-off nor desperately poor think the current economic arrangements are not working for them.

Not that long ago, cities in the United States were getting torched by “largely peaceful” mobs protesting against alleged police racism even in districts in which the police chief and most of the cops under him were black; they enjoyed the approval of senior Democrat politicians and much of the press, with few expressing sympathy for the victims of the riots.

Last Tuesday, a mob stormed the US Capitol building in a last-ditch effort to force legislators to deny Joe Biden the presidency he won in elections Donald Trump claims were fraudulent; hardly anyone had a kind word to say about their utterly deplorable behaviour or what exactly was it that riled them so much. The spectacle brought back memories of similar events here in which politically-minded rowdies unsuccessfully tried to batter their way into Congress or the Pink House but then, outside certain government circles, nobody believes Argentina is a model democracy whose representatives are entitled to go about lecturing foreign politicians on their failings and telling them to shape up or else.

While the United States has always been a turbulent place and so far the level of violence remains lower than was reached half a century ago, few think it is about to abate. Black Lives Matter militants and their Antifa allies will probably see this week’s mayhem as an invitation to them to redouble their efforts. As for the folk wearing ‘MAGA’ hats who want Trump to stay in office forever, they cannot be expected to resign themselves tamely to life under Biden and Kamala Harris.

On both sides of the main political divide in what is still the world’s most powerful country, there are simply far too many people who feel, often understandably, that their grievances are legitimate and something should be done about them. Their complaints may be different, but in almost all cases the discontent is fuelled by the inability of the United States, or any other country, to come near to meeting the expectations of most of its inhabitants.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, economic growth helped keep alive the illusion that things were about to return to what several decades previously had been regarded as normal, with factories employing armies of decently-paid workers and professionals or executives of one kind or another and others like them finding it quite easy to make money, but the optimism this generated would not have lasted for long. Technological progress is rapidly restructuring economies and, with them, societies the world over, with those at the top reaping handsome rewards and others lucky to get more than a few scraps.\

Trump benefitted greatly from the feeling that huge numbers of people would be hard put to hold on to what they already had, let alone add to it, in the coming years. As presumably non-partisan observers have been pointing out for some time, most of his supporters are well aware that he has many personal flaws and on occasion behaves quite disgracefully, but even so they prefer him to his rivals because he is more than willing to attack upholders of what in his day John Kenneth Galbraith called the conventional wisdom they know is crushing them. Millions of people who are neither that well-off nor desperately poor think the current economic arrangements are not working for them and are virtually certain to be even worse for their offspring.

They also resent being sneered at by academics, media pundits and multimillionaire entertainers belonging to the “coastal elites,” and fear that their country’s educational system has been taken over by leftists determined to brainwash the young into believing that all whites are in some way racist and should repent for sins committed centuries ago by their forefathers. The “progressives” whose sermons are so effective on Ivy League campuses are lucky to be preaching to students whose minds, whether they are aware of it or not, have been shaped by Christianity; Muslims, Hindus and those influenced in some way by Confucianism have no time for all that inherited collective guilt stuff.

The people who backed Trump, not so much because they thought him a fine upstanding man but because they liked his ability to drive his opponents up the wall, are far from being the only ones who want to see radical changes. Among the Democrats, there are plenty of men and women who fancy themselves to be utopian revolutionaries fighting to overcome society’s ancestral ills of which, they say, by far the worst and most deeply entrenched is racism.

This may seem far-fetched; it could be argued that, in comparison to the rest of them, the US is now one of the least racist countries on the face of the planet. Nonetheless, with the rise of “identity politics,” its more articulate inhabitants have become as obsessed with race as were South Africa’s rulers before apartheid was dismantled. If there is a difference, it is that in the United States, black militants are the ones who demand, and sometimes get, segregation as well as academic advantages to save them from having to compete with fiercely studious Asians for places in the most prestigious universities. 

Are prospects for the products of leading educational institutions as bleak as they have become for former factory workers and company executives who, after being “let go”, try to make ends meet by serving hamburgers or putting things on supermarket shelves? They soon could be. Academic credentials are reportedly worth relatively less than just a few years ago, especially if they are given for attending a course with the word “studies” attached to it, or even one of the traditional humanities, but tuition costs have continued to rise, leaving many graduates with debts they will be unable to repay. Although there still seems to be a ready market for credentialed experts in “diversity” and other politically mandated subjects, it could dry up in the coming months and years. 

Some commentators suspect that the US is creating a large class of what Ivan Turgenev famously described as “superfluous men,” who think they are well educated and expect to do well as a result, but soon discover that their abilities are not in demand. For Argentines, this is a familiar phenomenon – there has never been a lack of highly credentialed jurists or architects who drive taxis for a living – but it is less common in wealthier countries. As Turgenev and his contemporaries knew very well, when there are enough of them, “superfluous” men can be very dangerous because they are prone to devote what talents they have to undermining society in the hope of replacing it with one designed for people like themselves who are convinced they deserve far more than they can possible get. Latin American has long been used to their disturbing presence. Before too long, the US could find them equally troublesome.


James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


More in (in spanish)