What’s in a sneer? Part 3: The Status Quo

“We live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work [sic] hard, and earned it.”

This quote comes from a well-off person annoyed at the inconvenience of having homeless people show their faces in public. As I read those lines I couldn’t help but notice that the language mirrors the fictional accounts I have described in this mini-series of posts: It is the attitude of the Salary Class towards the Wage Class but in a more advanced state. It’s the natural progression of the mentality which arises when a group finds itself in a position of superiority relative to another.

The quote is taken from the moving story of a member of the Wage Class trying desperately not to slide into outright poverty in the US and is well worth reading in its entirety.

Such stories are not uncommon these days. They describe very accurately the plight of the Wage Class as a group. There is no shortage of statistics to back up these accounts. Even using the official figures, which are systematically distorted to make the results look as good as possible for the government, the middle and lower class has been going backwards for at least two or three decades in the US. The bailout following the GFC further exacerbated this and the failure of the US government to reign in the excesses of the banks has seen income disparity get steadily worse and worse. Couple this with the loss of manufacturing, increasing automation, the increase in part-time work etc. and there is absolutely no doubt that the standard of living of many millions of people has gotten worse. Even life expectancy in certain demographics is falling for the first time in generations.

Given these facts, the rise of a “populist” like Donald Trump doesn’t seem very surprising. In fact, it seems overdue. But it certainly has come as a big surprise to many elites. Jeb Bush’s feeble campaign is one of the great examples of a man who woke up one day in a world that bore no resemblance to the one he knew. I suspect a similar revelation is waiting around the corner for Hillary Clinton. But elites are very far removed from the realities of everyday life and their ignorance is not all that surprising. What is more noteworthy is the reaction of one of the groups relevant to my theme: the Salary Class. Their attitude to Trump could best be described as irrational loathing. Trump has managed to trigger a deep emotional response from the best educated and supposedly most rational group in society. Why is this so?

In previous posts, I have explained how both the economic winners (Salary Class) and losers (Wage Class) make up stories to explain their relative positions. I tried to show how the stories of both groups have their roots in the attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance felt when there is an unanswered question of economic justice. In this post, I will refer to a set of related stories: the stories that make up the wider political discussion in society. I see these stories as a natural extension of the stories told at the individual level.

One of the most important of these is the State of the Union address. I recall one that Obama delivered a few years ago which had as its core message the idea that America was back on track. The GFC was history. Just a little blip on the radar. Everything was returning to “normal”. The middle class was back on its feet. The economic numbers were going in the right direction. A big deal was made about how the US was still making forays into space and was even seeing a resurgence in fossil fuel extraction as the fracking boom kicked into gear. In a strange way, it was a big song and dance trying convince the public that it was the early 80s all over again. This kind of story is the one that has become generally accepted in the public discourse in the years since the GFC.

The Salary Class had no problem with the story. It pretty much described their condition. Maybe a few bankers lost their jobs for a while after the GFC. Maybe there were some layoffs in other professional services, but they quickly bounced back. It was indeed business as usual.

For the Wage Class it was very different. Their jobs did not bounce back. Their conditions did not recover. Reality for them just continued the same downward slide that they had known for decades.

Not only had the economic reality steadily declined for the Wage Class but the offical public discourse had ceased to discuss their problems. It is not hard to see how this state of affairs would exacerbate an already increasingly tense situation. Levels of anxiety, anger and resentment among the Wage Class grew as they not only saw their life prospects get worse but were told by politicians and the media that everything was just as it should be. As more and more people found themselves in precarious economic straits, the number of people disenfranchised by this state of affairs grew.

The same dynamic caused a hardening of attitudes among the Salary Class. As the Salary Class find themselves better off relative to the Wage Class, it’s natural that they explain this in the same way they explained their original ascendance: by reference to intrinsic merit. As income inequality increases, the Salary Class feel themselves more entitled. If the reason they got ahead in the first place was because they were smarter and more hard working, it logically follows that the further ahead they get, the more smarter and hard working they must be. The flip side of the equation is that the Wage Class must be getting stupider and lazier. So stupid and lazy, in fact, that they lost their jobs altogether. The official discourse further reinforces these attitudes. If everything is just as it should be in society, then the people who cannot get by must have something wrong with them.

It is for these reasons that the number one sneer by the Salary Class against Donald Trump and his supporters is that they are stupid. That attitude does not come out of nowhere. It has been around in some form for a long time and a few decades of rising inequality has strengthened it. The relationship between economic reality and the official narrative created a positive feedback loop whereby the latent and not so latent differences between the two classes become further hardened and entrenched.  This is the natural outcome when both the economic reality and the offical discourse are skewed in favour of the Salary Class (or any class for that matter).

It is the self-serving and self-reinforcing nature of this dynamic that led to the inability of both the elites and the Salary Class to see what was coming. Because the official story happened to suit their economic interests, they never questioned it.  It never occurred to them that the same discourse was progressively alienating a large proportion of the voting public. When Trump came along and so expertly manoeuvred into the sweet spot where the beliefs of millions of disenfranchised people lay, they were simply not ready for what happened next.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the stories of the different classes happen to align with their economic interests. These narratives are just post hoc rationalisations of reality and not actual attempts to understand or predict reality. The difference is that the Wage Class has been increasingly disenfranchised while the Salary Class and elites have been happy to sit back and allow that to happen so long as their piece of the pie did not contract. When all’s said and done, it’s still just the economy, stupid.

What we are seeing in this election campaign is exactly what democracy is supposed to achieve. When the direction of the country no longer works in the interests of the majority of the citizens, those citizens should be able to choose a new direction. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature.  It’s a feature that Donald Trump is currently exercising to maximal effect. It’s because of this feature that democracies tend to last longer than the alternatives. If democracy were not allowed to right the course of the country, some other release valve would need to be found for these grievances. The most educated members of society appear to be unable to see that. They appear to be unable to see beyond their short-term economic interest. That is the spectacle that Trump has given us and it is a valuable one to understand.