Here’s my take, in no particular order:
1. A lot of Americans are exceedingly susceptible to malicious media influence, emotional reasoning, and charismatic hucksters and con men.
There are a number of factors that contribute to this — many of which are cultural or which have been part of U.S. society for many decades — and likely all of them must be addressed in some way:
A. Every American should commit to improving their critical thinking and discernment skills. This begins at home and in K-12 education, but also should be reinforced by remedial classes for adults — as a free community service and advertised with PSAs — on identifying propaganda and logical fallacies, and differentiating between credible sources of information and those with manipulative agendas.
B. Mass media has to become more neutral, fact-based, and disconnected from the agendas of wealthy stakeholders and foreign disinformation campaigns. There are many ways to do this, such as reviving the FCC fairness doctrine
, treating social media similarly to other news media, verifying the identity of everyone who participates in online discussions, and so forth — but we need to end the spirals of amplified nonsense that entice people into fear-mongered, self-destructive, crazed, conspiracy groupthink.
C. Along similar lines, there must be some mechanisms that help us all quickly differentiate factual and expert insights from armchair opinions and conspiracy rants — in all media, but especially social media. There are tools like Media Bias/Fact Check
, and Snopes.com
that can be very helpful. But for social media, I’ve been thinking about something like an Information Clearinghouse
structured like the Rotten Tomatoes
movie review site, where both experts and the general public weigh in on various topics to help folks navigate them. Perhaps links to such resources could automatically populate all social media posts, so that folks could easily and quickly access better information. The “democratization of knowledge” that the Internet has afforded us is revolutionary…but it has also diluted the meaning of truth and facts to an almost comical degree.
D. There will need to be an attenuation of (or countervailing forces that disrupt or ward against) for-profit marketing and advertising practices in the U.S. that condition consumers to constantly respond to commercial calls-to-action. This conditioning begins at a very young age, so that Americans believe they must reflexively consume things outside themselves — including information and perceived “truth” — in order to nourish themselves and fortify their self-concept. In essence, commercialism infantilizes Americans so that they become dependent on (or even addicted to) external guidance and stimulation. How can we change this? By disallowing advertising to children, for one. By critiquing/satirizing ads (When I lived in Germany, they did this with stick-figure cartoons after each TV advertisement that made fun of inflated advertising claims). By ending direct advertising from pharmaceutical companies. By encouraging more holistic self-care. There are really a lot of tried-and-true approaches from other countries and cultures that could help.
2. Much of rural and blue collar white America is really suffering from profound poverties.
Not just economic, but cultural, intellectual, and in their collective esteem and identity. This suffering has largely been ignored by the political class in the U.S., who has either been focused on enriching corporations (often at the expense of jobs and economic mobility for rural white America), or on promoting a flavor cultural progressivism that is very alien — or alienating — to rural and blue collar white America. This suffering is further exacerbated by the cultural, economic, technological, and demographic shifts occurring in the U.S. which have, by and large, been inevitable. Enriching culture, jobs, economic mobility, human diversity, and interesting opportunities, experiences, and life choices have all been concentrated in urban areas of the U.S. for many decades now. This began with the industrial revolution of the 1800s, has accelerated since, and came to a head in the neoliberal financialization
of the U.S. economy beginning in the 1980s. It has been further exacerbated by what I call “neoliberal carpetbagging” in rural areas — persuading rural populations to fulfill corporate agendas (crony capitalism, monopolization, etc.) in agriculture, energy production, resource extraction, retail, and countless other sectors — that further decimates rural economies and cultures. And those “left behind” in rural America and former industrial centers have increasingly felt disconnected from — or even adamantly opposed to — the socioeconomic shifts associated with these changes. But cities, and especially those with high-tech and gig jobs, are where multicultural population continues to concentrate and grow, and rural America and former industrial centers continue to be hollowed out. So there is anguish among those who feel left behind, and grief, and anger…and Donald Trump simply tapped into those intense (and increasingly desperate) emotions when no one else running for President could.
Are there ways to relieve some of the suffering of rural and blue collar white America? Sadly, nothing Donald Trump has done — or has proposed — will do that in a substantive way, and many things he has pursued (like ending the Affordable Care Act, initiating a trade war with China, etc.) either have made, or would make, the situation much worse. Mr. Trump offered a rallying cry and temporary emotional bandage for his voters, and little else. Even his many judicial appointments to SCOTUS and lower courts will do little to mitigate the forward march of change that a large slice of America so fears and rails against — because, ultimately, those changes will be facilitated by legislation enacted/supported by the ever-increasing urban, multicultural majorities around the U.S. In this way the “progressive agenda” is just playing catch-up with on-the-ground change that is occurring at breakneck speeds. However, let’s be clear: a prominent feature of financialization is that all companies, across all industries, become solely fixated on pleasing shareholders, and do not care about the concerns of consumers or labor — eventually, that will destroy the relative affluence and status of high-tech and gig workers just as it did factory workers. So ultimately, no one will be immune from the same fate.
So is there a way to help rural and blue collar white America, and ease their pain? In the short run, probably not, because that pain is too acute, and has been horrifically amplified by propaganda discussed in point #1 above. In the longer run, though, healing could arrive through forms of subsidiarity (pushing decision-making and policy implementation to the most local level possible), providing targeted economic opportunities for rural America (a green tech revolution could be huge in this regard), aggressively countering neoliberalism
and the ongoing financialization of the economy, and efforts at urban-rural cultural reconciliation — such as increasing dialogue between rural and urban voters, and between folks with different educational, economic, and ethnic backgrounds — and increasing joint activities between those groups to solve common challenges. But ending the forward march of inevitable change is probably not an available option for much of America, so outreach to help rural and blue collar white America cope with that change — counseling resources, support groups, and the like — may be an important consideration.
3. The cultural and intellectual isolation of rural and blue collar white America has permitted “Us vs. Them” thinking to take root, and consequently enabled othering and the scapegoating of outsiders.
Immigrants, people of color, and “coastal elite” liberals have almost nothing at all to do with the pain rural and blue collar white America has been feeling. This scapegoating is just a trick used by politicians, crony capitalists, and nefarious foreign actors to persuade rural and blue collar white citizens to vote a certain way, give money to certain candidates, or mobilize against straw man threats. Although the solutions proposed in points #1 and 2 above may help diffuse or disrupt this trend, there is something deeper and more pervasive in rural/blue collar white America that needs to be addressed. I don’t think it’s productive to call it “racism,” “classicism,” or “sexism,” or any other “ism,” because although those definitely exist, *such designations miss the root causes*, which are:
A. Lack of exposure to and positive interaction with different cultures, racial groups, religions, values hierarchies, and ways of life.
B. Lack of broader, deeper, non-America-centric education about the world and human history.
There are ways to address both of these deficits, such as wholesale changes to K-12 education style and curricula across the U.S. (for example, increasing parental involvement, elevating more diverse and even contradictory
perspectives, etc.); encouraging cultural exchange programs that involve rural and blue collar white folks and their children (having young people live for a few months with a family abroad could be very effective), incentivized service that exposes people to other regions, practices, and cultures (in the military, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, etc.), and so on. This isn’t an impossible task…but of course it is still impacted by most of the other considerations discussed here. In fact, if all of the other points aren’t addressed in some way, there will likely be vigorous resistance to broadening and deepening education and cultural exposure experiences from rural and blue collar white America itself.
4. The U.S. two-party system with high voter apathy and poor voting access unfortunately lends itself to polarization and the disempowering of diverse perspectives and political orientations beyond those two parties. In addition, the presidential form of democracy has led to an increasingly autocratic executive branch.
In other systems, such as parliamentary democracies, there can be a much more diverse representation of perspectives, a more vigorous incentive to work out compromises that benefit more constituents or represent varied ideological approaches, and more distributed and diffused concentrations of power. I am also a fan of semi-direct democracy as practiced in Switzerland, which again pushes decision making down to more localized levels (subsidiarity), affords the electorate the direct means (referenda) of opposing or redirecting legislation passed by their representatives, as well as an avenue to enact legislation directly via initiatives (see This is how Switzerland’s direct democracy works
for more info). And I think strongly incentivized
voting with effortless voting access would go a long way toward encouraging Americans to be more engaged and committed to self-governance, regardless of what system we have in place (see Incentivizing Participation Would Increase Voter Turnout and Political Information
). Although it would require a Constitutional amendment to make some of these changes, I suspect the U.S. will need to seriously consider doing something to fix what is broken.
5. We also have a perfect storm right now, in that we are overwhelmed with ever-increasing complexity — in how our world works, and in how we understand it — while at the same time that traditional values, cultural attitudes, and social roles are being upended or ridiculed.
This means that men and women in the U.S. are no longer sure what it means to be “masculine” or “feminine;” that many folks simply find it easier to deny science than to attempt to understand its subtleties and perpetual evolutions; that “intellectualism” has become distasteful because it so often challenges or questions many beliefs and practices folks hold dear; that countless traditional phrases and attitudes are now suspect because they lack “wokeness;” that the seemingly bone-deep and enduring racism of some white communities is being reversed and used against them. The result? A “strongman” leader who is profoundly ignorant, misogynistic, racist, endlessly pedantic, and basically dead wrong on everything he opines about has become an attractive antidote to the overwhelming complexity and cultural fluidity of our times.
What is the solution? I honestly don’t know. Maybe, as a culture, we need to recover our sense of humor about many of these things. Maybe we need to let go of reflexively judging each other, and just accept our differences. Maybe relieving some of the stressors and suffering described in other points will help folks let go of their prejudices and trying to control each other. Again…I’m not sure what will work best. I do know from experience, however, that compassion for — and radical acceptance of — what often seems like a combative diversity of values and ideals will go a long way toward healing the discord.
6. This point is probably going to be more controversial and hard to stomach for some people in the U.S., but after living abroad myself, I think it has a fair amount of truth: much of the U.S. is culturally immature, and at an adolescent stage of development as a nation.
This is evidenced by individualistic and tribalistic morality (only considering I/Me/Mine or “what’s best for those just like me” in one’s moral reasoning, as well as prioritizing a need to belong and conform to a particular tribe above everything else); spiritual immaturity (dogmatic, black-and-white legalism and fundamentalism, instead of compassion-centric attitudes and practices); emotional immaturity (blaming others for problems we ourselves created, throwing tantrums when we don’t get our way, confusing willful selfishness with “freedom,” etc.); intellectual immaturity (excessive confirmation bias, tolerance of cognitive dissonance, closed-mindedness, logical fallacies, conspiracy thinking, etc.), and so on. It will simply take time for Americans to mature past this phase — perhaps another fifty years or more before U.S. Americans even catch up with the maturity of many older cultures.
7. Lastly, there were some 81 million people in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election who decided enough was enough, and that it was time to reject divisive rhetoric of hate and lies in the hope of rekindling governance of compassion, inclusion, reason, and truth.
That’s sort of a big deal…especially considering that Joe Biden, who represented this return to sanity, received more votes than any other Presidential candidate in U.S. history. Hopefully this will mean there is real promise of healing and a semblance of unity to move the U.S. forward through a very difficult period. And yet, if the other considerations mentioned earlier are not addressed in substantive ways, we may see nativist, self-centric populism rear its ugly head once more….
So that’s my 2 cents. Hopefully it will help folks outside the U.S. appreciate at least some of the factors in play in the current election.