View from
The Left

Pharmakon V: Culture Wars—Trickle-Down Economics vs. Trickle-Down Morality

(Nathan Klima)

“Without this circumspection, advocacy appears heavy-handed, tone-deaf, mistimed, and ultimately self-defeating, to the detriment of the downtrodden.”

Imagine walking by two quarrelers and hearing one blurt out in exasperation, “It’s all about the money with you!” Without any context, is it possible to discern whether the remark is a deserved rebuke for being miserly, betrays petulant insensitivity to inescapable material constraints, or merely reflects momentary frustration in an ultimately subjective disagreement about value proposition? The propriety of this outburst has little to do with the value of the item under debate but is instead contingent on the difference in socioeconomic status between the two quarrelers. Disagreements over million-dollar heirlooms may be par the course for beneficiaries of a vast family estate. Young couples often have innocent squabbles over what to do with the little they have saved up by the month’s end. An uninsured patient bitterly reproving an unyielding doctor with these words is heart-breaking. A banker chastising a homeless panhandler’s solicitation in this manner is outrageous.

Now suppose that the quarrelers knew nothing of each other’s station in life. How likely then is it for one of them to have this outburst? It will depend on how they were reared, the socioeconomic landscape and their awareness of it, their estimation of what the life of someone outside their class looks like, their sense of entitlement over the cards they were dealt, and the norms of their peer group, among other factors. A wealthy patrician in the Red Tory tradition of noblesse oblige would be deeply ashamed if these words escaped his lips in a moment of discomposure and may, in turn, secretly welcome such reproach in helping him guide his philanthropic efforts. French nobility during the time of the Ancien Régime, on the other hand, supposedly went even further and snorted “Let them eat cake!” In short, adherence to a sense of propriety is determined by culture.

Lastly, suppose that the siloed lifestyle of the rich in a culture of self-importance predisposes them to pile on demands and retort with such remarks when denied, without any sense of self-awareness. Their put-upon compatriots—raised with an attitude of forbearance but having their accommodative nature constantly provoked—would eventually reach a breaking point and lash out with resentment. The ensuing discord could accurately be characterized as a culture war, whereby the norms under which the rich and poor were raised set them on a collision course.

Although the nation has often recently been described as being embroiled in a culture war, the way the term is used in common parlance is very different from this socioeconomic framing. That is a great pity. The common usage conjures imagery of a hard-nosed patriarchy refusing to honor transgender pronouns, tweetstorms exposing bastions of white privilege, a haggard Jordan Peterson beating back androgynous green-haired college students, bandanaed Neo-Nazis glowering at kerchiefed Antifa, Christian fundamentalists picketing abortion clinics, and social justice warriors shaking their fists at the sky. Casting social conflict as a battle between ideological duals is operatically emotional; Dali-esque in its absurdity; intellectually dubious; and rarely holds up to hindsight.

Given that none of these conflicts reflect primary grievances for the working or middle class, it follows that the culture war—as commonly represented—is nothing but a proxy war between ideological factions of the wealthy, who have commandeered the social discourse. Polarization in the lower classes is a spillover effect due to over-exposure. This top-down polarization is not a recent phenomenon. Writing over a decade ago, the statistician Andrew Gelman noted that, “The cultural divide of the two Americas looms larger at high incomes…the cultural differences between states—the things that make red and blue America feel like different places—boil down to differences among richer people in these states.” The political views of the general population are, therefore, much more nuanced than the partisan split of the popular vote may otherwise suggest, a notion corroborated by a study of the U.S. cultural divide entitled Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape. Yascha Mounk summarizes the study as follows:

“…25 percent of Americans are traditional or devoted conservatives, and their views are far outside the American mainstream. Some 8 percent of Americans are progressive activists, and their views are even less typical. By contrast, the two-thirds of Americans who don’t belong to either extreme constitute an ‘exhausted majority.’ Their members ‘share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.'”

The existence of an alienated majority (consisting of traditional liberals, passive liberals, moderates, and the politically disengaged) confirms that the culture wars—as commonly understood—conflate the fringe with the mainstream. This misattribution creates the impression of a pan-societal tug-of-war between the progressive left (who supposedly champion equality, diversity, and justice across various domains) and the conservative right (who are said to perceive such advocacy as undermining the stabilizing effect of tradition) for moral authority. In keeping with this narrative, whole demographics are assigned to these two camps de facto based on the identity politics of majority/minority status or historical grievance, creating acrimonious designations of the oppressed and the oppressor according to race, gender, sexual orientation, generation, or religion.

These divisive appraisals contribute to the reticence of the exhausted majority. They have a broad spectrum of perspectives that cannot be shoehorned into this dichotomy and are muzzled by the a priori moral status conferred on each camp. Even worse, the two latent variates that actually underlie much of the cultural division—economic inequality and its rationalization by the national philosophy—end up being masked by these artificial demographic partitions, hindering advocacy for those most vulnerable in any society: the poor.

In this light, the culture war that needs to be scrutinized is the socioeconomic one waged upon the lower classes by the upper class, not the proxy one between conservative and liberal factions of the wealthy.

For instance, when social liberals learn about white privilege, they exhibit reduced sympathy and increased blame for poor Caucasians, who constitute the largest impoverished ethnic group. Similarly, 37% of the LGBT community holds the conviction that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” Although media narratives of nativism lend the impression that white people are most opposed to legal immigration, both African Americans and Hispanic people actually favor reductions at a comparable rate. These observations are not made in the spirit of contrarianism or to cast aspersions but simply to highlight that designations of the oppressed and the oppressor that are socioeconomically atheistic are ultimately incomplete. Such designations do a great disservice to the poor (who are invariably the most vulnerable even within groups designated as oppressed) and prevent tensions between socioeconomically disadvantaged groups forced to compete for limited resources from being investigated and alleviated.

The correct way to understand the culture wars—as a socioeconomic phenomenon—is to appreciate the cascade of interactions linking economics, psychology, sociology, and politics. The cumulative effect of different life experiences between those on either end of the wealth distribution leads to fairly predictable psychological differences. These are amplified through socioeconomic stratification, social institutions, and the media to manifest as a sociological hierarchy of norms, priorities, and viewpoints mirroring society’s class hierarchy. Since the process by which individuals ascend the class hierarchy is attritional in nature rather than meritocratic, the positioning of elements in the corresponding sociological hierarchy reflects survivorship bias, rather than innate importance per se.

In a hierarchy of grievances, for example, existential crises of meaning occupy the apex, simply because those struggling with housing security are unlikely to ascend to the pinnacle of the class hierarchy. The grievances prioritized by the privileged few residing at the pinnacle according to their lived experiences are, therefore, least likely to be confounders for the general population. This is paraphrased in the slogan of the yellow vests, the populist movement in France, resisting Macron’s gas tax: “You are concerned with the end of the world. We are concerned with the end of the month.” Lower-class norms, priorities, and viewpoints, which emerge largely as adaptations for navigating life at a harsher economic setpoint, are apt to be disregarded or derided when this dynamic goes unappreciated, giving rise to cultural unrest and political resentment.

In this light, the culture war that needs to be scrutinized is the socioeconomic one waged upon the lower classes by the upper class, not the proxy one between conservative and liberal factions of the wealthy. The latter is merely a sensationalist distraction. The lower classes have diverse viewpoints but are struggling against an array of common obstacles due to economic inequality, poor social mobility, and a lack of public services. These priorities have been mocked, ignored, and assailed by the highly polarized upper class. Each pole has inflicted damage in a different way according to their respective platforms, pinching the exhausted majority between two fronts.

The right-wing policy agenda easily does the most damage to mainstream America by rationalizing inequality and privatizing public services, as was previously discussed. That it is propagated by the rich was never in doubt. Tradition preserves those in power, so it is natural for the wealthy to double-down on the national philosophy that has granted them prominence. Since the corresponding conservative social agenda seeks to maintain the status quo, it can be enacted in ways that are insidious but opaque to the public—installing right-wing judges, funding propaganda on social media, corporate consolidation of traditional media, gerrymandering, lobbying against gun control, subverting campaign finance laws, etc. Since the Right operates incognito, it receives little blowback from the exhausted majority, the most notable exception being the short-lived fury following school shootings.

The left-wing platform, progressivism, is comprised of a policy agenda advocating for universal healthcare, equitable public education, environmental protections, student debt relief, stronger labor laws and guaranteed income, and a social agenda promoting racial diversity, feminism, and LGBTQ rights, among other issues. Historically, progressivism has emerged from grassroots movements, but it is overwhelmingly the hobbyhorse of the wealthy in the United States, making American liberalism an embarrassing oddity among its international counterparts. Referring again to Mounk’s analysis of the Hidden Tribes study:

“Compared with the rest of the (nationally representative) polling sample, progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year. They are nearly three times as likely to have a postgraduate degree. And while 12 percent of the overall sample in the study is African American, only 3 percent of progressive activists are. With the exception of the small tribe of devoted conservatives, progressive activists are the most racially homogeneous group in the country.”

Grassroots progressive activism requires a population to be sufficiently educated about viable alternatives to the status quo and have opportunities to organize and self-advocate. The downtrodden in the United States cannot participate in such activism because they are under-educated in weak public schools, disoriented by propagandist media, and held hostage by exploitative labor practices, so left-leaning elites end up being the voice of progressivism. Since the wealthy have likely never attended derelict public schools, been denied medical coverage, or faced unemployment, they fail to appreciate the severity of logistical confounders to well-being. In turn, their advocacy largely neglects the policy agenda, which seeks to alleviate these logistical confounders by bolstering the social welfare net and providing affordable access to basic services. If the goal of progressivism is to alleviate suffering, this is a huge blindspot. Financial hardship is the most pervasive form of suffering, with far-reaching implications for all other domains of life.

Conversely, the social agenda of the progressive platform has been unduly prioritized. The shortcomings encountered at the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, where wealthy progressives have been deposited by the jetstream of financial privilege, are not logistical in nature, but moral. The social agenda seeks to address these moral failings, but, as reformers, progressives cannot deploy the same covert mechanisms as their counterparts on the Right. Ensconcing gay rights and consolidating Roe v. Wade, for example, require society at-large to subscribe. Many points on the social agenda are also not matters of legality but, instead, require a transcendence of biases. Overt messaging campaigns are needed to change norms and behaviors, but social bombardment orchestrated by the well-to-do is self-righteous and patronizing. The public’s empathy is quickly saturated when the techniques of choice are shame and snarkiness, and the favored vocabulary is the vapid one of hashtags and memes.

Taken together, the mainstream impression of progressivism is that it is an ideology for cockamamie social activists, mirroring George Orwell’s assessment of socialism’s optics in 1930’s England:

“It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home…to do his yoga exercises quietly!…[Socialism seems to draw toward it with] magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist.”

This is a tragic misperception, but it is not surprising given how lopsidedly elites have represented the progressive platform. Progressivism—if properly practiced—is not a fringe philosophy; it is the common-sense choice for every wage-earner who cares to vote in his or her self-interest. Its policy agenda is the only instrument of liberation from the insatiable capitalism rationalized by the American national philosophy.

Unfortunately, owing to the influence of plutocrats and corporate donors, progressive policy planks have not been formally represented in the Democratic Party for at least four decades, being supplanted instead by corporate neoliberal policies that prescribe free-market solutions to societal problems. It took a hero campaign on the part of an outsider—Senator Bernie Sanders—to single-handedly reintroduce these progressive policy planks (which are the bread-and-butter of liberal platforms in other countries) into American political discourse. In the 2016 election, Senator Sanders’ focus on the progressive policy agenda and eschewal of identity politics explains his broad grassroots support and favorable head-to-head poll numbers against then-candidate Donald Trump among white, working-class voters. However, following former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s nomination, the Democratic Party neglected Senator Sanders’ policy agenda, while continuing to loudly champion the progressive social agenda, leading to abandonment by many among the exhausted majority. That the Democratic Party considers the nomination of minority candidates such as President Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton to be success stories—despite both having center-right, corporatist voting records—epitomizes this inverted prioritization.

When considered purely on a moral footing, no progressive issue is frivolous. One would be hard-pressed to justify why—in a perfect world—there should not be universal healthcare and equal wages for equal work; why everyone should not be afforded the same dignity and opportunity regardless of the basket of arbitrary traits they were indentured to at birth; or why society should not empower everyone to feel at home in a world that no one asks to be born into. To realize these ideals politically, however, existing constraints on a struggling electorate need to be accounted for; the origins of contrary opinions fairly investigated; and issues prioritized according to their prevalence and severity. Without this circumspection, advocacy appears heavy-handed, tone-deaf, mistimed, and ultimately self-defeating, to the detriment of the downtrodden. Despite the best of intentions, progressives are the primary target of backlash by the exhausted majority because of their poor self-awareness and performance in this department.

In terms of the social agenda, wealthy progressives have inadvertently infected most directives with a classist bias, taking what ought to be moral imperatives and serving them up as caricatures to cynics. For example, while feminism seeks to promote equality for women, the plight of poor women is largely overlooked. Closing the gender wage gap is often discussed in conjunction with executive compensation packages and five-figure disparities in upper management salaries. However, in terms of the number of women affected and impact on living conditions, lobbying for a higher minimum wage should be the obvious priority: Women are twice as likely to hold minimum wage jobs, in part causing one in eight to live in poverty (a rate 38% higher than for men), disproportionately along racial lines. Similarly, feminist analyses tend to highlight gender imbalances in the elite, high-paying professions on the radar of white, college-educated women who dominate the privileged, progressive demographic, such as chaired professorships, board memberships in Fortune 500 companies, cabinet posts in government, or lucrative STEM positions. Unfortunately, discussions about smashing the glass ceiling are not going to resonate among a population who know that poor social mobility will likely preclude them from ever reaching even middle management, let alone crawling out of the drudgery of a semi-subsistence lifestyle.

A requisite of organized society is that all interests—including those of the privileged—need to be considered, but the Middle America that is being accosted is not the booming post-WWII suburban paradise but, rather, a haggard and ornery shadow of its former self, where half the population lives paycheck-to-paycheck. This observation of classism is, of course, not limited to advocacy for gender inequality. Overwhelmingly, the best way to help any identity group—based on gender, race, or sexual orientation—is to help those who are struggling financially. Doing so helps them build credibility in a society where money talks, allows opportunities for self-advocacy, and provides the necessary breathing room for grassroots movements to take hold. Any other strategy disrespects the socioeconomic distribution, which is invariably dominated by those lower on the income scale, regardless of the identity group under consideration.

Racial discrimination is the only social issue not distorted by classist representation. The contexts in which it is discussed—poor educational outcomes, inner-city poverty, voter suppression, gerrymandering, police brutality, gun violence, and the prison-industrial complex—do justice to the socioeconomic landscape. However, until the Monopoly statistic—that a black child starts with $75 for every $1,500 in family assets backing their white peer—is common knowledge, the root cause of many grievances will continue to be misidentified. More than trending Black Lives Matter hashtags, petitions for criminal justice reform, or exposés on police brutality, this Monopoly statistic needs to be front-and-center in every campaign for racial equality. Unless this economic disadvantage is addressed, the quality of life for black Americans is unlikely to improve, with other measures amounting to band-aid solutions. Just as stark economic inequality makes a farce of democratic governance, it renders campaigns of social justice quixotic.

While wealthy progressives are problematic representatives for social issues, as policy advocates, they are totally compromised. Although they may bark loudly in favor of universal healthcare, for instance, they will also likely balk if asked to renounce the best private medical care for their children. Those accustomed to having the best that money can buy are unlikely to give up their purchased advantages gracefully. Given that most of the items on the progressive policy agenda are intended to reform a society modeled after an auction house, installing the highest bidders as spokespeople unsurprisingly leads to major credibility issues.

Trace the handle on a rage tweet about the University of Southern California college admission scandal, and who are you more likely to find? An overburdened millennial still struggling to pay off their student loans, or an Ivy League graduate whose Wall Street banker father effectively bought her admission by shelling out $40,000 a year on a private grade school education? Scrutinize the panelist bemoaning lack of diversity at a technology company or college campus, and what are you more likely to discover? An under-represented minority who defied the odds, or a Boston Brahmin who secured his cushy station in life through decades of financial elbowing, nepotism, and opportunity hoarding? When will they put two and two together? Google the author of a blog railing against white patriarchy and who are you more likely to encounter? A black fast-food worker struggling to feed her kids, or a graduate student who relies on weekly therapist appointments, unironically antagonizing a demographic in need of the mental health resources they take for granted? Climb the family tree of the scholar publicizing his or her research on oppressive power structures, and what are the chances that every parent and grandparent is a professor, lawyer, doctor, or politician? What are the odds that his or her television appearance is a candid autobiographical presentation of Exhibit A? Every Prius-driving academic incessantly tweeting about climate change pollutes more by flying to conferences of dubious value than the land-locked motorhead on the receiving end of their chastisements.

What does who they are have to do with their advocacy? Everything.

American progressives have an optics problem as enfants terribles because of this psycho-economic correlation, in which only the well-off can afford to be indignant. Unfortunately, their indignation is often inseparable from hypocrisy. Such a gross mismatch between spokesperson and agenda is not a uniquely American phenomenon. It is only more accentuated in the United States because its unbridled capitalism produces such economic inequality. That the current face of Canadian liberalism was prophesied to succeed his father to Sussex Drive while still in diapers is an affront to the idea of liberalism itself. It is difficult to conceive of a worse ambassador for feminism at the United Nations than a millionaire Hollywood celebrity.

It is typical to dismiss these types of criticisms as petty ad hominem attacks, misdirections, or whataboutisms. What does who they are have to do with their advocacy? Everything. If life circumstances predispose an individual to make only certain kinds of observations—surrounded by a certain class of people and supported by certain types of systems—their inferences will be stereotyped and highly correlated with those who have similar lived experiences. The national philosophy has produced both a stratified, balkanized society in which opinions are predictable and an individualistic culture in which these trite opinions are vocalized brashly.

That progressive activists’ views are treated by detractors as the inevitable bias of a moneyed lifestyle, instead of as meritorious convictions, is far from unreasonable. The assertion that borders are meaningless is difficult to seriously entertain when voiced by a cosmopolitan segment that could just as easily relocate to Katmandu tomorrow without any disruption in their livelihood. Cheerleading for lofty policy planks like universal basic income and free college will inevitably appear naïve when those holding the pom-poms have never had to rely on government bureaucracy themselves or seen it abused firsthand. It is difficult to listen with a straight face to a denunciation of the nuclear family as an oppressive patriarchal construct when the critic belongs to the political faction least likely to have kids and ever appreciate its functional value. An atheist’s rebuke of religion is adolescent defiance to those insulated by belief from the mental health epidemic afflicting the secular society around them. Every self-righteous Facebook tech bro railing against society’s evils could do everyone a favor by trading in his golden handcuffs for an orange jumpsuit. How dare somebody expecting a multi-million dollar inheritance sermonize about injustice to a population in which many have to work like a dog every day of their life until they drop dead? This is not an anti-progressive perspective but an empathetic one, undergirding the progressive push for diversity but rarely used as a tool of introspection.

Not only is the credibility of progressives suspect, but their explanations for injustice are often just as clueless as libertarian ones—and often more caustic: Instead of blaming the downtrodden group itself, which is bad enough, another group is impugned. Without the lived experience to appreciate how the nitty-gritty accumulates over time to result in disparities, there is instead an over-reliance on accurate but distal historical explanations, as well as a tendency to extrapolate the bigoted social dynamics common in elite circles (many of which are, in fact, old boys’ clubs) to society at-large. Discrimination along demographic lines is not uncommon in the broader society. But to conclude that half the population are members of a chauvinistic cabal, or that there is an ongoing, widespread Caucasian conspiracy is absurd and alienates many who would like to help. While terms like toxic masculinity and white privilege may be descriptive in particular scenarios, their cavalier usage in the mainstream is antagonistic and unproductive, especially in relation to the impoverished. Why is intersectionality conspicuously absent here? The long-standing antagonism between poor white people and poor black people, a major confounder to forming an alliance of the financially vulnerable, is exacerbated in the present-day by this divisive approach, which simply serves to legitimize misplaced white grievance.

While progressives have pinned the bullseye on patriarchy as the most oppressive societal construct from atop their war elephants, the deafening wails of those trampled underfoot the pachydermal weight of unfettered capitalism and economic inequality, go untended. Just as a physics major will find a humanities student’s explanations for how societies evolve and operate awfully wishy-washy, the everyman considers identity politics as the explanation for America’s social problems—instead of socioeconomics—far-fetched. The commonality is that pupils of physics and students of the school of hard knocks both receive a thorough education in constraints.

Disparities in society are more productively understood as the cumulative effect—not of discriminatory interactions—but of these constraints. Can I afford to pay rent? How far is the grocery store? How much is bus fare? Is the nearest school any good? Undoubtedly, the answers to these questions will be correlated with identity group, but the lived experiences of disproportionately impacted groups should be tapped to abstract a policy formulation applicable to all members of society—affordable housing strategies, irrigation of food deserts, public transit subsidies, and equitable school funding. The progressive policy agenda is popular exactly because it seeks to provide universal access to services in this manner. Conversely, not generalizing programs targeted at certain identity groups makes them deeply unpopular. For example, while 60% of progressives support affirmative action, it is the least popular item on the progressive social agenda, with 85% of the exhausted majority opposing the use of race in college admission decisions.

This failure to consider tangible constraints on the ground manifests in advocacy in myriad forms and is responsible for the perception of progressives as naïve and impractical. This blindness is perhaps inevitable, given that the base of Maslow’s pyramid is blurry when viewed from its lofty summit. While progressive advocacy leads most to believe that the LGBT community’s major grievance is discrimination or a lack of acceptance, a Pew Research poll found that employment rights were cited as frequently as poor social treatment (57%) by the community as the dominant priority. This should not come as a surprise. A secure livelihood is the primary concern for anyone who is not wealthy.

While the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms has appeared in dozens of articles in The New York Times over the last few years, that 90% of homes do not have running water in some Alabama counties has only received coverage in the country’s “paper of record” once. Indeed, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights noted that “raw sewage flows from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits…I think it’s very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this.” Issues like gender-neutral bathrooms are overdue to be discussed in a city like Boston but are as premature in Montgomery as they are in Dhaka. This is not because the people of Alabama are backward (nationwide, 60% agree that “accepting transgender people is the moral thing to do,” a heartening revelation considering that former President Obama himself only supported same-sex marriage as recently as 2012) but because they are starved for resources. Progressive culture stems from solid socioeconomics, not vice versa.

More generally, in a country with no guarantee of health care, thousands of violent neighborhoods, bleak economic prospects masquerading behind artificial metrics of prosperity, a silent opioid epidemic, and 36 million people reliant on food stamps, the progressive social agenda inevitably seems haughty, partial, and neglectful. How can compassion be expected of a population that has to run GoFundMe campaigns for insulin and why is there such little advocacy on their behalf? Deciding that opening his own wallet is too bothersome, the banker now accosts the panhandler, and when rebuffed, replies: “It’s all about the money with you!”

Through classism, the adoption of a divisive approach, and blindness to constraints on the ground, American progressives have accomplished the seemingly impossible feats of being hard-hearted bleeding hearts, simultaneously thin-and thick-skinned, and oversensitive without being sensitive. Although this impression is commonplace among the exhausted majority, it is rarely articulated because of fear of reprisal in a culture of political correctness, itself a social construct of wealthy progressives. Mounk again notes:

“If age and race do not predict support for political correctness, what does? Income and education. While 83 percent of respondents who make less than $50,000 dislike political correctness, just 70 percent of those who make more than $100,000 are skeptical about it. And while 87 percent who have never attended college think that political correctness has grown to be a problem, only 66 percent of those with a postgraduate degree share that sentiment.

Political tribe…is an even better predictor of views on political correctness. Among devoted conservatives, 97 percent believe that political correctness is a problem. Among traditional liberals, 61 percent do. Progressive activists are the only group that strongly backs political correctness: Only 30 percent see it as a problem.”

The financial insulation of the wealthy tends to hermetically seal them in morally hypoallergenic environments.

Political correctness is not just about professionalism, politeness, or a necessary response to dog-whistle politics. Candid statements cause outrage and diplomatic wording inspires scorn because the three conceptual pillars of political correctness—sensitivity, judgment, and belief—rest atop a socioeconomic schism, which divides each concept into two competing denotations according to class.

First, there is a correlation between sensitivity as instrumentation, the ability to detect, and sensitivity as emotional valence, mental frailty to stressors. The lower classes face far more adversity and build resilience by developing thick skin, becoming numb to unfairness in the process. The financial insulation of the wealthy tends to hermetically seal them in morally hypoallergenic environments. This can make them keen detectors of injustice but also prone to reactions most consider hyperbolic. For most, “Don’t be so sensitive” is dermatological advice to develop callused skin that will blunt life’s blows but is likely to be construed as an encouragement of callousness by progressives. Flip through the pages of any newspaper and more likely than not, one will find a piece discussing whether some celebrity wearing a kimono was cultural appropriation, whether “Christmas break” is a politically correct term, whether a prosaic incident was a microaggression, or if the response to it virtue signaling. Over the course of one month in 2019, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran three pieces covering how polyamorists are misunderstood. None of these conversations are innately frivolous, but they do come across as bizarre causes célèbres to the general population. They have bigger fish to fry and their ability to endure daily hardships requires a modicum of jadedness.

The second contributor to political correctness is a failure to appreciate that the term judgment has two denotations. Depending on the context, judgment can be used to mean executive decision-making, moral accusation, or both. In some domains, the relevant denotation is unambiguous. Evangelical denunciations of homosexuality as sinful are examples of the second denotation, and society has rightly sought to purge such arbitrary, illiberal, and cruel value judgments. However, in many other domains, the first denotation is also applicable. While it is tempting to lump aversion to recreational drug use into this same category, for example, studies have shown that “marijuana use adversely affected college academic outcomes, both directly and indirectly through poorer class attendance.” When someone who is saddled with student loans and cannot afford to flunk a semester decides to abstain, the judgment is made according to the first denotation.

More generally, discerning unproductive behaviors and making optimal decisions are vital mental faculties for those not buffered from risk. There are higher standards for the role of personal accountability in risk mitigation as one descends the income ladder; the financial backstop of family wealth becomes more flimsy, causing the fallout from poor decisions to be more devastating. In this sense, the lower socioeconomic classes are necessarily more judgmental. While accountability and self-reliance are often labeled as conservative traits, they are in fact strongly correlated with socioeconomic status. Politically correct statements that decry all forms of judgment without respecting this dichotomy betray a classist bias on the part of the speaker who has likely never had to assess lifestyle decisions in terms of optimality.

The last factor that contributes to political correctness is the knee-jerk assumption that beliefs said as inferences are actually endorsements. The former denotation is an appraisal of the truth and is adopted by those whose convictions do not have consequence. Scientists who study ambivalent physical systems and the disenfranchised, used to being spectators in their own lives, default to this denotation, yielding an innocent candor that is easily misconstrued as crassness. The latter denotation is an act of planting a moral flag and is the default one adopted by those whose convictions matter. The religious, whose belief in God saves them from perdition, the ignorant and egotistical, who are convinced that the world revolves around them, and the powerful, for whom there is no barrier between thought and action, default to this denotation. Among those who consider belief an endorsement, there tends to be moral policing, to prevent thoughts with unsavory implications from being acted on. Among all political tribes, progressive activists report the most pressure to conform from individuals of their tribe, presumably owing in part to this dynamic.

The statement “immigrants are taking away our jobs” is likely to be construed as xenophobic by progressives since they belong to an over-empowered class. It is not farfetched that one of their peers may eventually go on to have a hand on the immigration spigot. Myriad studies have shown that immigration is good for GDP growth, so it is necessary to reprimand such beliefs whose origins must lie in ethnic prejudice, the thinking goes. However, the effect of immigration on low-income demographics is often negative. For example, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “a 10-percent immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced the black wage by 4.0 percent, lowered the employment rate of black men by 3.5 percentage points, and increased the incarceration rate of blacks by almost a full percentage point.” Someone from a low-income demographic who says “immigrants are taking away our jobs” is merely articulating an accurate inference. Voting for reduced immigration would be the logical move for a rational actor wanting to avoid a race to the bottom, and this likely explains the anti-immigration stance of African Americans noted earlier. Political correctness stymies such rational attitudes from being voiced so that productive measures to ameliorate these tensions—such as stronger labor laws, job placement programs, or a housing strategy—never get discussed.

Undoubtedly, there are many views whose origins do lie in prejudice, but political correctness often amounts to muzzling Cassandra while crying wolf. Even-keeled, candid individuals eventually disengage to the detriment of the disadvantaged while those with the most extreme viewpoints commandeer the national conversation with moralizing rhetoric. The most extreme are the most wealthy.

In keeping with the elitist national philosophy, the American voter is therefore pinned between two far-fetched, unworkable ideologies. From the Right, he is indoctrinated to believe in trickle-down economics. By subsidizing billionaires and corporations, he is supposed to witness improvements in his own quality of life. It has instead led to the current quagmire. From the Left, he is being peddled trickle-down morality. By putting all his problems on pause to help wealthy progressives transform their elite habitat into a moral utopia and scrub the moral stains in their myopic purview, his society will supposedly be transformed from vulgar to woke. The fact remains that even after every issue on the progressive social agenda is resolved, the country would still be in tatters, and suffering would be pervasive.

The wanton demon on the right shoulder is Homer Simpson as the boorish moron (high school dropout inexplicably working as a nuclear safety inspector, whose response when asked how he affords casa de Simpson is “Don’t ask me how the economy works”), telling his co-worker Frank Grimes (who “never got to go to school,” “used his few leisure moments each day to study science by mail” to receive “his correspondence school diploma in nuclear physics,” and does night shifts at the foundry) to work harder. The wanting angel on the left shoulder is Homer Simpson as the charmed, happy-go-lucky simpleton (Grammy-winner, astronaut, neighbor to two presidents, thoughtless husband, and negligent father who cannot remember his baby’s name), asking Old Grimey (who was “abandoned by his parents at age 4,” spent his childhood years “delivering toys to more fortunate children,” “taught himself…to feel pain again” after a silo explosion, and has nothing to show for his lifetime of toil but a lonesome existence in a “single room above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley”) to be more sensitive.

The average person is rough around the edges, considers the foot in his mouth and egg on his face reliable sources of protein, and does not have the time or energy to read long essays on every social issue. However, he is well-meaning and devoted in service of his loved ones. For a class of aristocrats whose overbearing morality is a theoretical inventory of impossibly nuanced, frequently contradictory views—derived not from any life experience but purchased by privilege from academic curators and refined by an excess of spare time—to presume to set his moral compass for him is astonishingly arrogant. Among all the forms of privilege they regularly denounce, the financial one that affords them eminence should be foremost, but it is often missing altogether. Perhaps the omission is coincidental but more likely than not, the selective silence is to avoid self-incrimination.

Although these are mainstream criticisms of the progressive movement, they are so inherently awkward that they are seldom articulated. First, it feels cruel to criticize advocates for historically marginalized groups, but the bottom line is that their divide-and-conquer strategies end up serving fewer people less effectively than grassroots approaches, while causing a lot of collateral damage politically. Second, in a benighted time for social discourse, it feels wise to abstain from comment to avoid being misunderstood. Third, only those at the foot of the socioeconomic ladder have a full view of the classist tilt of the progressive social agenda, but poor social mobility prevents them from climbing the rungs to reproach the wealthy activists who most need to hear these criticisms.

Lastly, given that climate change deniers, flat-Earthers, anti-vaxxers, white supremacists, incels, QAnon deep-state conspiracy theorists, and Covidiots all emerge from conservative ranks, criticizing the Left—particularly its fringe elements—feels misguided. After all, the Republican Party in power continues to incarcerate children in immigrant detention centers, considers climate change a hoax, uses Fox News as its propaganda arm to fan tribalism, has failed to indict an impeached President who threatens nuclear escalation over Twitter, and is the most vociferous champion of the national philosophy undergirding the United States’ political discord. Over the past four decades, the GOP has indulged in so much contrarianism, stonewalling, and false outrage that a historian will no doubt refer to this era as the Conservative Smirk, characterized not by stewardship or sensibility but by self-pity, wagon-circling, and snickering at those who gave a damn. However, it is exactly because there is no sensible alternative that a Democratic Party with a progressive policy agenda needs to be made a natural home for a disenfranchised population.

The only hope for redeveloping the United States is a progressivism that seeks to unite—not by creating a false equivalence between the Left and Right—but by clearly understanding the links between economic inequality, effective democracy, and social justice, and, in doing so, can make a pitch that is constructive for everyone, in a voice that is credible for everyone. Allowing the working and middle classes to reclaim the progressive platform from the wealthy left and re-prioritize the policy agenda is vital to reforming the Democratic Party into a representative, moral, and plausible choice for the American voter and, by extension, is the key to sealing the rift in American politics.

In this vein, the tone of the 2020 Democratic primaries was far more sincere than the previous election cycle. Universal healthcare was the dominant policy issue. Candidates like Andrew Yang have given much-needed exposure to humanitarian ideas like universal basic income. Billionaire candidates Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer were roundly humiliated for attempting to purchase support. Although the eventual nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is a moderate, establishment candidate, he maintains warm relations with Senator Sanders and has established joint policy task forces on many progressive issues.

One thing is certain. The longer the status quo is maintained, the more plausible the narrative of America as a declining superpower becomes. Without the bulwark of solid public services, the country is going to be battered by the stark challenges of the remaining century—the depletion of natural resources, precarious employment due to automation and a cutthroat global labor market, climate change and the ensuing mass migrations, an aging population, and widening wealth inequality.

Of course, history is not typified by moral arcs or sensible decisions. There is the more harrowing possibility that what unites the country is its eclipse by an authoritarian and expansionist China. Perhaps only an enfeebled America will have the humility to admit that it made an Achilles heel of its greatest strength by using the democratic process to sow discord instead of converge on the best ideas. The results in November will reveal how much further America has to plummet before hitting rock bottom and coming to grips with the reality that ethics and effort make a country great, not excuses and entitlement.

Duluxan Sritharan is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.

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