By Dr. Joseph Chuman
That American society has become deeply polarized is a prevailing reality of our times. We dare not become inured to it. Much has been written about the emergence of political tribalism. The human bond is a powerful force and people seek to associate with people like themselves in order to rein-force their identities and sense of security in a reality that can be, and often is, threatening. This need to bond goes far in explaining the endurance and bedrock reality of racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic loyalties. Today we add to them political opinion, whether it be about Second Amendment rights, abortion, anti-immigrant fervor or, for that matter, the role of government in fostering greater economic egalitarianism. In its rough outlines, it is the tribal vector that creates conservatives and liberals. In its narrower manifestations, tribalism can be exploited by demagogues to marshal and wield power. Fascism does not address individuals as much as it manipulates tribes.
There are many underlying realities that help propel the current phenomenon of political tribalism. I would like to bring two to the table: one economic, the other social.
The story vs. the reality
The official story, brought to us by political leadership and media punditry, is that our economy is in great shape. Look at the data: an unemployment rate of only 3.5 percent; an expanding economy; an increase in wages; a booming stock market. Yet, something here doesn’t compute. If we are doing so well, how is it that 40 percent of Americans have less than $400 in savings–one car breakdown or unexpected medical issue away from panic mode? While the unemployment numbers may be extraordinarily low, a closer look at the reality of work reveals that a huge number of workers make barely subsistence wages, laboring in crappy jobs, working for contractors or subcontractors with no benefits, no security, and no dignity. Isolated in their work, ruin is on the near horizon and the anxiety level commensurately high.
An economic dynamic that leads to this precarious reality is the exponential rise in the cost of services that one must have in order to survive in this economy, which is simply crushing. Among them is the rising cost of housing. A lack of construction raises home costs, which drives more people to become renters, which, in turn, forestalls wealth accumulation, especially among those starting out. Such a start can have lifelong economic consequences. The rule of thumb used to be that people spend one-third of their income on housing; today, for a sizable number of households it is now half.
Then there are medical costs that are huge. Health-insurance premiums for families can exceed $17,000, while deductibles are often greater than $3,000. Add to that the cost of childcare, which can be over-whelming. It is not uncommon for families to spend $15,000 to $26,000 a year to have someone watch their kids. Try doing that on a salary of $60,000. And then for those who go to college—well, 50 million Americans are stuck struggling to pay down their educational debts. Add some or all of these together, and it is not hard to see why so many American have no savings. It is fuel for fear, frustration, and anger.
More isolation and loneliness
But there are other factors that breed tribalism, and, ironically, they relate to increased isolation and loneliness in American society. People do not belong to associations as they once did, and social institutions, including the vaunted American family, are shredding.
David Brooks had the cover story in the “The Atlantic” recently, entitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Backed by data, he argues that the traditional “Ozzie and Harriet” ideal of the American family was, in fact, a very brief phenomenon. Prior to its heyday in the mid-20th century, people lived in extended, multi-generational families, sharing child-rearing and financial burdens. But in the past two generations, through divorce, people having children later, social mobility, and other factors, the family has gotten much smaller, with many people living alone and separated from others. This breakdown has been especially devastating for the poor, leading to so-called “deaths of despair,” including suicide and drug overdoses. Individuals who are alone are also more prone to demagogic appeals to scapegoating as a malignant way to spur solidarity among the alienated.
Fairness undercuts fear
There is no quick fix for these deep-rooted problems, but it does suggest a national agenda as we engage in this election year. I am not an economic determinist, but I do believe that an egalitarian society is a fair society, and fairness undercuts public fear and anger. In short, we need to find ways of getting beyond the monstrous wealth gap in society, the dangerous power of the super-rich to control our politics, and once again open the gates of opportunity that will nurture the better angels of our nature.
In my March 1 address, I will look at “Stitching Together the American Fabric.” I hope to see you then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.