How Did We Get Here?

The Decline of the Common Good, the Rise of Trump

If one wants to understand the rise of Donald Trump, it’s useful to consider two narratives.

The first narrative goes like this: The fortunes of the white working class have been waning for decades. Real median wages for people without a college degree are lower today than they were forty years ago. Income inequality is now back to where it was during the Gilded Age. Meanwhile, trust and social cohesion have plummeted. As each new technological advance leaves low-skilled workers out in the cold and the ceaseless march of globalization destroys both jobs and decent wages, once-vibrant regions have been hollowed out and entire communities ruined. For a generation raised to believe in American exceptionalism, this seemed like a betrayal, both personal and national. But nobody seemed to care. Republicans offered tired old trickle-down economics, insisting that the American dream was just around the corner. All we had to do was give tax cuts to the “job creators,” deregulate large swaths of the economy, and remove the soft mattress of social protection to give people the motivation to work hard. For their part, Democrats turned away from the people who once constituted their core constituency, entranced by the geniuses of the “creative classes” in Silicon Valley and Wall Street and devoted to the narrow politics of personal identity. Nobody spoke for the working class anymore. Then along came someone who not only spoke the language of class but mastered its nuances: Donald Trump.

The second narrative goes like this: Race has always been the dark underbelly of American politics. Thanks to the Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon’s strategy of stoking racial resentment, white voters in the South deserted the liberal Democratic Party for a GOP that rebranded itself increasingly as a party of white interests and white identity. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” took a while to ripen and rarely declared itself explicitly. It often took the form of racist “dog whistles”—think of Ronald Reagan railing against “welfare queens,” and Jesse Helms running campaign ads implying that minorities were cheating white people out of jobs. A sense of insecurity grew. White Americans saw clearly that their dominance—economic, political, and cultural—was fading. The politics of race-tinged resentment grew worse over time, reaching fever pitch with the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party, which ominously promised to “take back the country.” All of this laid the groundwork for Donald Trump, who mastered the language of white resentment and tapped into the growing rage against cultural elites.

So which of these two narratives is the true one? Both, actually. Poll after poll shows Trump drawing his main support from men and from whites—especially from white men. A thorough analysis of this support by NBC News found “a distinct movement of Americans alarmed by economic trends, unsure of their place in a more diverse nation and convinced that the major parties no longer have their interests in mind.” This report’s detailed analysis links Trump’s ascent to such factors as paltry income growth over the past decade, limited white participation in the labor force, and lower educational attainment—in other words, to “rougher economic conditions.” His supporters were also more likely to oppose immigration, and to feel that whites were “losing out” to other racial groups.

To understand the improbable rise of Donald Trump, then, we need to understand how these two different narratives relate to each other. It helps to examine them in the light of Catholic social teaching. One of the key concepts of this teaching is the common good, understood as the good arising from a shared social life in which the flourishing of the individual is inseparable from that of the community, each reinforcing the other. This common good transcends the sum of its parts and so cannot be disaggregated. It does not permit the exclusion of any individual or group.

This idea of the common good presupposes that the good of the community is the highest good in politics. This is an old idea, going all the way back to Aristotle, but it sits uneasily in our age of individualism, with its motivating virtues of autonomy, self-reliance, and self-interest. In contrast, the virtue that animates the common good is solidarity—defined explicitly by Pope John Paul II as a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” This deep sense of co-responsibility applies especially to the poor and the excluded. In the words of Pope Francis, “solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.” Solidarity is the antithesis of what Francis calls the “throwaway culture,” in which the excluded are simply written out of the social contract. From this perspective, it seems obvious the common good has been undermined dramatically over the past few decades—as evidenced by pervasive economic exclusion, entrenched racial injustice, and declining sense of social cohesion.

 

IT WAS NOT always so. The three decades after the Second World War now seem part of another world. It was a time of greater solidarity, with an ethos of shared sacrifice that came from the experience of war and economic calamity. The “New Deal settlement,” broadly supported by both parties, mirrored the rise of the social-market economy in postwar Europe. It was an era of rising prosperity and low levels of inequality. Unions remained strong, ensuring that the benefits of economic growth flowed to all social classes. It was also an era of financial stability thanks to the strong regulations put in place after the Great Depression.

Of course, we should not idealize this period. It had some glaring defects—and racial injustice was the worst of these. Long after the shift toward social democracy embodied in the New Deal settlement, African Americans and other minorities were still systematically excluded from the economic and social life of the nation.

In truth, the New Deal settlement was never really settled. The communitarian moment turned out to be a fleeting one. Individualism was simply too deeply rooted in the American psyche to remain bottled up for long. Perhaps ironically, the first sign of its return came not from the right, but from the left—with the rise of the 1960s counterculture and its rebellion against what it perceived as the stultifying conformity of the postwar era. As historians of this period like the late Tony Judt have emphasized, what became known as the New Left threw out the baby with the bathwater. Embracing the politics of self-determination and personal identity, it failed to appreciate the social-democratic achievements of the previous generation. It also failed to protect them. Many of the New Left’s causes were noble: it fought against racial injustice and for gender equity; it took a brave stand against the war in Vietnam. But it ultimately proved too willing to jettison a communitarian politics rooted in shared purpose for something far more individualistic. And this shift had lasting implications.

It was the right that made the next move. Owing in part to a misdiagnosis of the economic malaise of the late 1970s, free-market economics staged a dramatic return. The communitarianism of the New Deal was written off as a failure, and a prewar economic vision rooted in libertarianism became fashionable once again. The impetus behind this resurgence was partly intellectual: ever since the famous meeting at Mont Pelerin in 1947, leading libertarian thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises set their minds on winning the war of ideas, and they were willing to play the long game. But it was also partly financial. Corporate America—put on the defensive by a bullish left—made a concerted effort to use its money and influence to shape national politics in a way that would favor its interests. This gambit was hugely successful. The rise of Ronald Reagan (and also Margaret Thatcher) signaled a decisive turn away from the postwar consensus toward what became known as neoliberalism—an ideology characterized by low taxes, a less intrusive state, paltry social protections, deregulation, privatization, and weaker unions.

The strategy succeeded as politics but failed as policy. Defenders of Reagan frequently cite the high growth rates of the early years of his presidency. Yet that boom can be easily explained as a natural rebound from the deep recession engineered by the Fed’s tight monetary policy, which was designed to wring inflation out of the system. If supply-side policies truly worked, we would expect to have seen higher productivity and long-term growth, not just a temporary cyclical rebound. But we didn’t. Instead, we saw increasing inequality, declining levels of social cohesion, greater concentration of corporate power and rent-seeking, and an economy that relied more on financial engineering and the creation of asset bubbles than on the production of socially valuable goods and services. The 2008 financial crisis was the natural culmination of these trends.

To fully assess the damage wrought by neoliberalism, however, we need to dig a bit deeper. We need to address the changing values and social norms that accompanied this ideological shift. These changes were profound. Solidarity, which had always been fragile and partial, was now eclipsed by self-interest. Market competition was seen as more virtuous than social cooperation. The immediate took priority over the enduring. Financial incentives stood in for, and crowded out, the kind of intrinsic motivation that comes from appeals to civic virtue. Human flourishing was understood in purely materialist terms; its relational and communitarian elements were forgotten. Hedonia triumphed over eudaimonia.

Not surprisingly, these new social norms proved fatal for what remained of solidarity. Any remaining sense of shared purpose started to unravel, while collective deliberation about the common good was replaced by an increasingly demagogic public discourse. New forms of media gave voice to festering resentments, especially on the right. At the same time, the wealthy increasingly put short-term private gain over the long-term public interest—securing higher profits and lower taxes by buying control of the political system. Numbed by consumerism and wealth-worship, the cultural ethos of the early twenty-first century centered on self-display and celebrity—even when celebrities contributed nothing of value to society. “Famous for being famous” ceased to be a criticism and became an aspiration.

These cultural and economic developments are all connected. We can trace a direct line from the cry for unrestrained personal freedom in the 1960s to the greed-is-good mentality of the 1980s to the shallow cult of celebrity in the early twenty-first century. And it is surely no surprise that Donald Trump embodies the worst elements of all three periods—sexual hedonism, unapologetic greed, and celebrity narcissism. He epitomizes the decades-long corruption of social norms.

 

BUT WHERE WERE THE political and cultural gatekeepers? It almost seems as if Donald Trump walked onto an empty stage and grabbed the microphone. And it’s true that both parties have essentially ceded a large portion of the stage to him. They have both, to one degree or another, collaborated in the relentless erosion of the common good that contributed to his rise. And they have both been unable to formulate the kind of consistent moral framework needed both to stop him and to respond effectively to the legitimate concerns motivating some of his supporters.

Bankrupt ideology prevents both parties from adopting such a framework. The dominant economic ideology of the Republican Party remains libertarianism. Republicans are the proud inheritors of Ronald Reagan’s mantle, and still maintain—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that his policies worked while he was president and will work again. The Republican Party’s aversion to facts about climate change and supply-side economics is motivated by a deep attachment to an ideology of freedom and self-reliance. In this worldview, individual autonomy is the summum bonum, the free market is the domain of virtue, and government should not interfere with market outcomes.

More conventional Republican presidential candidates could not beat Trump on this terrain. They were incapable of admitting the damage done by neoliberalism to the economic prospects of the poor and the middle class, to social cohesion, and even to the basic virtues and norms that motivate human cooperation. Their ideology is not even consistent. When it comes to the military, for example, Republicans actually prefer a rather large role for government. And on broad areas of social policy, they throw out libertarianism altogether.

But the Democrats are hardly any better and just as inconsistent. On issues like abortion, they seem every bit as libertarian as the Republicans do on economics, even deploying the same telltale language of self-ownership. But on the whole, their approach to freedom is more positive than negative. It is less about freedom from coercion in the libertarian sense and more about the freedom to pursue one’s own life choices and goals. It is about the politics of self-definition and self-determination. It is no accident that the modern Democratic Party uses abortion and gay marriage as its main markers of ideological purity—rather than, say, the rights of workers or the fight against climate change.

This ideology sometimes mirrors aspects of the common good, especially when it follows John Rawls’s maxim that people need sufficient primary goods—including liberties, opportunities, income, and wealth—to be able to pursue their own ends. But this ideology has in large part degenerated into the self-absorbed politics of personal identity. In the perceptive words of Tony Judt, it became about the “unrestrained freedom to express autonomous desires and have them respected and institutionalized by society at large.” The latest obsession with transgender bathrooms is a perfect embodiment of this trend. And this feeds right into the hands of people like Donald Trump.

Neither party, then, offers a compelling vision of human well-being. The Republicans stand up for the unborn and families, but they refuse to address the economic and social roots of abortion and the precariousness material conditions that threaten so many families. The Democrats support basic economic fairness and stand against racism, but they are most animated by the right of each individual to choose their own conception of the good. They are more interested in tolerance and diversity than in true solidarity. Neither party espouses a conception of freedom oriented toward the common good. Libertarians dismiss the very idea of a common good, seeing only a collection of individual people with individual interests. Latter-day progressives start from a slightly different point of view but reach a very similar conclusion; they argue that a commitment to pluralism precludes any notion of a common good. Missing from both views is the deep sense that “we are all really responsible for all.”

 

SO IS THE POLITICS of the common good dead? Not just yet. For much of the past year, it seemed to be undergoing something of a revival. The unlikely champion of this revival was a septuagenarian Jewish democratic socialist from Vermont. Bernie Sanders rode a wave of rising support because he spoke an older, barely remembered language—the language of the moral economy. This is what a lot of people failed to understand about his campaign. When Sanders spoke about widening inequality, the growing power of corporations, or the havoc wrought by the financial crisis, he was not merely pointing to technical problems that could be addressed with technical policy solutions. Rather, he was describing a fundamental moral failure that could be fixed only with a fundamental shift in values and norms.

No other recent presidential candidate has spoken this language. Of course, Sanders toes the progressive line on issues like abortion. But those issues are not what distinguished his campaign. What distinguished his campaign and inspired such fervent support was the promise to recover the common good. This was especially true among younger voters who came of age in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. This generation backed Sanders in overwhelming numbers. His message resonated less with older Democrats, who were unaccustomed to this kind of naked moral appeal on economic matters. There was a time, of course, when the Democratic Party was quite comfortable with the politics of the common good and the language of the moral economy. But over the past few decades, Democrats were taught to eschew the class-based politics of the New Deal and put their trust in a different class—the class of technocratic experts in government, business, and finance. And so they hammered Sanders for a lack of specificity, never appreciating the centrality of his moral language, which sounded to their ears like little more than hollow rhetoric.

Which brings us back to Trump. He might not speak the language of the moral economy, but he certainly exploits its absence. With the unraveling of social norms, Trump has proved adept at bringing out the worst instincts in people. One such instinct is the tendency to worship wealth, fame, and power. Another, even worse, is the tendency to divide people into in-groups and out-groups—belittling, demonizing, and even threatening those who are not part of the tribe. Trump appeals to real economic grievances that have been ignored by politicians, but he also shows no hesitation in going to some very dark places. In particular, he has been only too willing to exploit racism and Islamophobia for political gain.

Between Trump on the right and Sanders on the left stands Hillary Clinton, who seems dazed by all the twists and turns of this electoral cycle. She doesn’t appear to understand the shifting political conditions that gave rise to both Trump and Sanders. She embodies the earnest Democratic Party establishment, with all its flaws and blind spots. And yet, in view of the grave risks of a Trump presidency, most voters are likely to favor her in November.

But even if they are willing to settle for a candidate of the status quo to keep Trump out of the White House, many Americans are crying out for another kind of politics—a politics based on a robust idea of the common good. Whether Clinton fully appreciates this remains to be seen. At the very least, Trump’s success ought to serve as a wake-up call to a political elite that has been sleepwalking from one crisis to the next. An ideological shakeup is long overdue. The challenges this country faces will require leaders who care deeply about social inclusion and environmental sustainability, not just pluralism and economic growth. In the absence of such leaders, some version of Trump will be elected sooner or later. 

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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