These are challenging times for progressives. I am not ashamed to admit I was very disappointed with the recent election results. The policies being enacted are bad enough — placing profits over people, removing environmental protections and quickening the wealth extraction by the elites. But even more disheartening to me was the swell of racism, misogyny and homophobia, of the misdirected anger lingering on the hot edge of violence, that seemed to eclipse the common sense of otherwise rational, compassionate human beings.
I want to better understand it, so I’ve been doing some focused reading. Here’s my list of reading in the age of Trump that, taken in order, helped me find some clarity (but no solace) about what is happening in America.
White Trash by Nancy Isenberg
This is where I started, and it was a good place. The book does an excellent job of deconstructing the “founding myth” of America that we are descended from scrappy, self-sufficient and self-made (mostly) men. In fact, we are the result of a highly stratified society of mostly systemic poverty, bolstered by slavery, which created a bitter foundation of racial hatred conjoined with economic despair that still exists today. (Read the full review.)
This unique history shapes and sustains our current national economic system that rewards the rich over the poor, leading me to a book about economic inequality.
The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel
This thorough and far-reaching study leads to a disheartening and inescapable conclusion: wealth and resource inequality (which is maximized by the compounding advantages of wealth, access to political influence and the narrowing effects of inheritance) — has always been part of the human experience. Only four things have ever leveled inequality in any significant way — mass mobilization warfare (WWI and WWII, for example), pandemics (the Plague), transformative revolutions (as in the communist variety) and state collapse. The research brings to life a troubling trend — a gulf of wealth inequality that continually increases, putting the capital and resources into the hands of a small (and shrinking) wealthy elite while extracting them from basically everyone else (especially the working- and lower-classes). And worse, current levels of inequality are greater than the Gilded Age (the 1920s and high water mark in the U.S.), and perhaps greater even than between Roman senators and slaves. (Read the full review.)
So what is the natural response to this cruel and unsustainable level of inequality? Anger, of course.
The Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra
Next up, a book that seeks to place into historical perspective the disappointment and anger leading to a global backlash of anger aimed at the wealth inequality we tacitly or implicitly condone. Mishra traces the current unrest in the world to a Nietzschean ressentiment (the morality of the defeated which gets twisted into a destructive, transformative force) that, he thinks, has been festering since many countries moved to an industrialized economy. He builds the compelling case that modern humans, especially, are gripped by this resentment as the promise of individual fulfillment — a common narrative in western democracies and beyond — is found to be unachievable and, in fact, is actively suppressed by current socio economic systems. (Read the full review.)
Anger, directed at a system that disproportionately rewards the wealthy, naturally leads to political fault lines.
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John B. Judis
Next up, a book about the current surge of populism in the U.S. and in Europe, on the left and right side of politics, and how we got to this juncture. Populism is less about approach and more about context — finding strength and nobility in the “common” man and woman and demonizing of political or wealthy elites — than stated policies. This book helps separate the rhetoric from the policies, which are based on the needs of the “common” person and stand in opposition to the wealthy elite. Though a perhaps sensible response, at present it seems populism in the U.S. (election results just in from France have sidelined Le Pen, at least for the moment) has been hijacked by racism and self-interest, and manipulated by the very wealthy elite that populism should be fighting against. (Read the full review.)
How could all of that anger get redirected into an elite-backed wealth extraction scheme at the expense of “the common man?” Turns out we’re begging to be conned.
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time by Maria Konnikov
Cons can only work because we humans are, mostly, wired to trust and con men take advantage of that. They are wired a little differently than most, often scoring high on the “dark triad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Along with exploitable trust, add in greed, an overwhelming desire to feel special and a few other psychological traits like “egocentric anchoring” (“We assume that other know what we know, believe what we believe, and like what we like.”) and “the mere exposure effect” (familiarity breeds affection), and the stage is set for being suckered. The book is a riveting look at what it takes to convince people to, against all their better instincts, act against their own self-interest. (Read the full review.)
But even if people are easily conned by false promises, how does that turn from a handful of “marks” into a mass movement? One last book helped clear that up.
Emotional Contagion by Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo and Richard L. Rapson
This is a seminal psychological study focused on how humans are especially attuned to receive information from others — in the form of instinctive assumptions related to emotional and other subconscious forms of communication (posture, facial movements, etc.) We are driven to respond to, mimic and even amplify emotional information, often without realizing it and, often based on faulty initial interpretations. It is a great capstone book explaining how we humans can be driven by the emotional distress around us, feel some satisfaction in responding to it and amplifying it, and creating an emotional wave, or movement, grounded in, say, anger, Nietzschean resentment which provides an emotional balm to the dissonance and self-loathing we engineer. (Read the full review.)
With a foundation of racism, poverty and willful blindness to our complicity in propping up a “ruling elite,” wealth inequality and anger are natural outcomes. We look to populist politicians who claim to speak for the common man, buy in to their empty promises of solutions they never meant to deliver and then broadcast and amplify the emotional resonance of these gilded notions to the likeminded around us.
After finishing these books, I didn’t feel any better — quite the opposite, actually — but I no longer felt quite as bewildered, and like a stranger in my own country.
Probably didn’t help that the next book I picked up was How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System, by Wolfgang Streek.
Contributed by Clark Hays