We were due for a stress test and this is it.
Our parents’ generation created the greatest wealth engine in world history after World War II. With a flood of immigrants providing cheap labor, we built a massive military, a Great Society with a social safety net, and locked in New Deal reforms that sustain us to this day.
The bill for that wealth creation has come due in all sorts of ways – environmental damage, Me Too, racial discrimination and so much more. For today’s discussion, suffice it to say we got rich in America, especially if you were white and male. We did that through a lot of hard work, again mostly by immigrants from Europe and people of color descended from slavery.
And then— in the 90s and 2000s— we got really, really rich. Wall Street went wild, the tech boom happened. Secretaries at Microsoft became millionaires.
But there is a political downside to this wealth.
When you get really, really rich you think you did it by yourself. You lose touch with the reality of the work. Same with those around you. Your kids forget how the money happened because they didn’t experience the hardships. Guys like Steven Schwartzman really think they are captains of industry and that the president should listen to them.
The result is that the greatest economy ever has become a society of consumption and leisure. Manufacturing has left for cheaper markets. And the massive marketing machine that is American capitalism focuses on making its products easier to buy, life easier to live and products easier to consume. (Think Amazon, giant soda bottles and bags of Cheese-Its)
Poisonous processed food and sugar-based drinks are everywhere — in vending machines and the street corner, on billboards, TV, the web.
News is now delivered via Twitter and your phone in easy, quick, dopamine-hit-bites that divide and anger instead of inform.
We now have a society that consumes marketed products and takes vacation, ignorant of the stakes on which the principles of democratic society hang so precariously.
Such wealth and laziness lead us to stop paying attention. We no longer read. We don’t know our state legislator and we don’t understand our political process. Capitalism doesn’t care about the political system. It cares about selling you more soda, more TVs, more football.
And then— as I have written before— we lose sight of the role of institutions in a healthy civic society. People under 40 care less and less about institutions with which I grew up – the Democratic National Committee, the FBI, the courts, Congress, the New York Times or whether NBC News protected Harvey Weinstein. They have witnessed the way these places have failed us. They see how these places ignored people and placed their own interests above those of the society. Facebook sells ads no matter how offensive. Political leaders debase themselves daily on TV.
Pretty soon, the citizenry stops caring. So they vote for Trump who promises to burn it all down because the system is run by a deep state. That kinda resonates with a lot of people, even liberals who don’t like the guy. They are done with the lecture about professionalism and courtesy and leadership. They want the truth. And Trump sounded like he “tells it like it is.”
They kind of knew it was a trick. And there is the test. Trump is testing us. Every day is another test to see whether the system will stop him, whether the institutions that saved us from Nixon will work today. He is betting he has weakened the system enough so he will get away with it all. And he will keep testing the system until is knocks him down.
But at some point the system needs to act, to stand up for the principles in the Federalist Papers. (Read Federalist 65) That’s the test – can a society that has become fat and lazy and uninformed remember how it was founded and stand up for itself? Or will it eat/drink the processed food Trump is selling?
We were due for this test. And in the end, it is good medicine.