Sleeping with the elephant

It is time to return to thinking about the USA and how Canada can and should respond to what is happening there.

Screen Shot 2020-07-22 at 07.15.55I have been a fan of Professor Amy Chua since her first book, ‘World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability‘ was published almost 20 years ago. She became more famous, even infamous for a memoir about raising children, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,’ which fascinated and infuriated many Americans, especially, but that didn’t stop her from being named one of the world’s top Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine in 2011.

In a new essay in Foreign Affairs, Professor Chua addresses the old issue of ‘Divided We Fall‘ and provides her answer to the question: ‘What Is Tearing America Apart?

Because I continue to assert, as I said, again, just a few days ago, that “Restoring a good, solid strategic relationship with the USA ~ one based, above all, on shared values, not just on trade or even on security ~ must be the Number 1 Priority of any responsible Canadian government,” I believe that we, Canadians, must try to understand what is happening in the USA so that we can adjust our diplomacy accordingly. Pierre Trudeau was right (I rarely say that) when he quipped (in a speech to the Washington Press Club in 1969) that living next to the USA “is, in some ways, like sleeping with an elephant: no matter how friendly or even-tempered is the beastone is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Well, the elephant is twitching a grunting a lot these days and Canadians would od well to listen to Americans who try to explain why.

Amy Chua says, and I agree, that “It has been clear for many years that the United States is a house divided. But since March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the country, that division has taken on a ghastly new face. Staggering death tolls and nightmarish images of body bags, overwhelmed hospitals, and freezer morgues have stirred little sense of unity or common purpose. Instead, they seem to have simply fed an already raging case of partisan polarization—another virus for which there is as yet no treatment or vaccine. It has become difficult to ask even the most basic questions—whether a certain medicine works, whether a city has enough ventilators and protective equipment—without triggering a political brawl, usually revolving around President Donald Trump.” That’s the symptom, but what is the underlying condition?

She looks for answers in two recent books: “Ezra Klein’s left-leaning Why We’re Polarized and Michael Lind’s right-leaning The New Class War,” she says, both “attempt to explain how things got to this point. Klein, the co-founder of the news and analysis website Vox, puts the country on the couch. His explanations center on psychology, identity, and the dominant role that party affiliation plays in Americans’ psyches. By contrast, Lind—a prolific writer and a co-founder of the think tank New America—finds his answers in a single factor: social class. (It is one of the ironies of the present moment that putting class warfare front and center can now be a right-wing position.) Klein and Lind are two of the country’s keenest political observers, and their books are a cut above the slew of others on the United States’ divisions. They are best read in tandem, as complements to each other. Although they might not admit it, Klein and Lind are describing the same peak, just from opposite sides of the mountain.” I’m relying on Professor Chua’s analysis because I have yet to get to, much less through, either book.

She tells us that “Klein begins by marshaling an impressive body of evidence from cognitive and social psychology that reveals the human proclivity for group identification and us-versus-them conflict. Normally, people have many crosscutting group identities. Today, however, Americans’ political identities have become “mega-identities.” The labels “Democrat” and “Republican” increasingly subsume other sources of identity, including race, religion, and geography, and are highly predictive not only of where people stand on abortion or immigration but also of where they shop, what sports they like, what news they watch, and so on. These political mega-identities are “far more powerful than issue positions in driving polarization,” Klein writes. In fact, “there’s only a weak relationship between how much a person identifies as a conservative or liberal and how conservative or liberal their views actually are—to be exact, in both cases it’s about a .25 correlation.” In the United States, partisan identity has become central to “psychological self-expression” and is now the country’s most intense social cleavage, even more intense than race.”  Ezra Klein uses a study by Professors Shanto Iyengar (Stanford) and Sean Westwood (Princeton/Darthmouth) which deserves a read in its own right. Their conclusion, that partisan, political affiliation matters. more than race or achievement is new and frightening.

It is frightening because I see, in myself, every indication that political affiliation makes me susceptible to believing outrageous things. Just days ago I suggested thatI believe that the Liberal Party of Canada and its allies in e.g. the CBCThe Star, and amongst the others who speak for the Laurentian Elites are working very hard, right now, to move the Overton window frame of one idea from “Unthinkable” to at least barely “Acceptable.” That idea is that Justin Trudeau’s personal corruption (I believe that’s the right word) is acceptable.” I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I believe that:

  • Justin Trudeau is corrupt ~ I think there is more than sufficient evidence, including from Parliament’s own officers, to say that; and
  • The Liberal Pary and the Laurentian Elites and parts of the media want to persuade us that his corruption must be excusable if the alternative is that we must have a Conservative government. I have far less evidence for that … just impressions from a few articles and some TV clips ~ but good effective propaganda is subtle, isn’t it? I keep saying that I have friends who are committed Liberals (true) and that I believe that most Liberals are good, honest Canadians, just like me (just an opinion, like my opinion about the Overton window) but, clearly, my own political partisanship is on display.

Professor Chua explains that “In Klein’s telling, polarization’s original sin dates back to the 1960s. Before then, both major political parties were big-tent operations, “scrambled, both ideologically and demographically, in ways that curbed their power as identities and lowered the partisan stakes of politics.” Indeed, in 1950, U.S. political parties were so undifferentiated ideologically that the American Political Science Association published a report pleading for more political polarization. But this changed during the fight over civil rights, when the Democrats “chose to snap their alliance with the Dixiecrats to pursue justice,” prompting the segregationist Dixiecrats to jump ship to the Republican Party. “America’s modern run of polarization has its roots in the civil rights era,” he writes, “in the Democratic Party choosing to embrace racial equality and the Republican Party providing a home to white backlash” … [and, she says] … It was a fateful choice. By 2012, only nine percent of self-identified Republicans were nonwhite, according to a survey Klein cites. Klein observes that as the country’s demographics continue to change and the possibility of the United States becoming a “majority-minority” state grows ever more real, white Americans (and especially white men) increasingly feel that their status is threatened, and “the simplest way to activate someone’s identity is to threaten it.” (He cites my work on this topic to back up his argument.) To Klein, the election of Trump in 2016 represented the triumph of threatened white Americans, egged on by partisan primaries and “identity journalism,” in which media organizations compete for eyeballs and clicks by publishing provocative stories intended to reinforce people’s preferences for members of their own group and provoke hostility toward members of others.

Ezra Klein, Amy Chua says, “writes captivatingly well. Reading Why We’re Polarized is like having a conversation with a brilliant, extremely persuasive friend who has read everything and who is armed with scores of studies that he’s able to distill into accessible bites. Readers might be ready to buy his argument hook, line, and sinker—until they read Lind’s book, and suddenly, some of Klein’s deficiencies become apparent.” That, she says, is because Michael Lind “sets out to explain the wider, global populist surge that led to Brexit in the United Kingdom, France’s “yellow vest” protests, and the rise of the nationalist politician Matteo Salvini in Italy. Lind argues that “almost all of the political turmoil in Western Europe and North America can be explained by the new class war.” As he sees it, this war pits the working class against a small “overclass” of “managerial elites”—university-educated, cosmopolitan professionals and bureaucrats who make up somewhere between ten and 15 percent of the population but who enjoy outsize influence on government, the academy, and the economy.

This is familiar ground for me and I have commented, before, on that thesis as set out by Stephen Harper in his book, ‘Right Here, Right Now‘ in which he divided people into two broad groups:

  • The smaller group he called “anywheres.” They are the people who by virtue of education and experience can work and prosper anywhere in the globalized economy ~ anywhere in the world and in any part of the economy; and
  • The larger group which he called the “somewheres,” who are tied to a place because that’s where their job, often the only job for which they are well qualified, is.

ford_dagenham_diesel_production_line_with_happy_workerThere was a time when small cities like Halifax, Levis, Oshawa, Saint John, Trail and Windsor were filled with happy, well paid “somewheres” who left high school and joined the big, local employer for a career ~ 40 years working for the same company was common ~ which brought them a family home in a Screen Shot 2020-07-22 at 12.50.32suburb and maybe a cottage or a boat, too. They were the backbone and the sinews of the country. The “anywheres,” and there always were a few, were better educated and thought it normal, even in the 1960s, to move from job-to-job, from company-to-company and even from country-to-country.

Professor Chua explains that Michael Lind “also begins his story in the 1960s. By the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the ongoing threat of communism had produced a kind of settlement in developed Western countries between the economic elites and the working class. In this system of power sharing, which Lind calls “democratic pluralism,” mass-membership political parties, legislatures, unions, churches, and civic associations gave the working class economic, political, and cultural clout that counterbalanced the professional management class’s influence over the corporate sector, universities, the judiciary, and the executive branch … [I remember this world well and my family stradled both sides ~ one grandfather was a small farmer who was quite literally broken by the Great Depression and the drought of the 1930s and the other was a doctor, as was one of his sons who went to medical school during the Great Depression] … But as the threat of war and communism receded, elites – both conservative and liberal – began a “revolution from above.” Animated by a belief in free markets and “technocratic neoliberalism” (an ideology celebrating rule by “all-wise, altruistic experts”), these elites ground down the institutions that supported the working class. Big business undermined unions by moving (or merely threatening to move) factories and supply chains overseas in response to demands for higher wages and other benefits. Academics and activists celebrated the social and cultural contributions of immigrants and minorities and denigrated those of native-born white Americans. “Under technocratic neoliberalism,” Lind writes, “. . . the boss class pursues the working class after the workday has ended, trying to snatch the unhealthy steak or soda from the worker’s plate, vilifying the theology of the worker’s church as a firing offence and possibly an illegal hate crime to be reported to the police.

She further examines Michael Lind’s views, saying that the working class, some of whom I have described as at least potential ‘blue collar Conservatives,’ is neither monolithic nor unified. “If it were, Lind points out, “the overclass . . . would lose every election.” Instead, national working classes are divided along many cleavages, including race, religion, region, and, “most important,” the divide between “old-stock” whites and “recent immigrants and their descendants,” creating a “split labor market,” in which elites can play subgroups of the working class against one another. The result is a managerial technocracy that sits atop a divided working class. It is no surprise that the working class distrusts the experts, whose do-gooder or high-minded initiatives so often seem to come at the working class’s expense, be it the “war on coal,” free trade, or taxes on goods such as soda and cigarettes. This class chasm has been visible throughout the pandemic, perhaps most prominently in protests against stay-at-home orders, which many working-class and middle-class Americans see as destructive overreach promoted by Democratic politicians, liberal media outlets, and alleged experts who can’t be trusted … [and] … As frustration has mounted over the years, it has erupted in populist movements. According to Lind, however, without funding and expertise from elites, these movements almost inevitably fail or get co-opted by opportunistic demagogues, such as Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Italy’s Salvini. All purport to give voice to a marginalized working class, advocating economic nationalism, opposing free trade and immigration, and deliberately “using crude and belligerent language”—a symbol of their rejection of elite sensibilities … [but she says Michael Lind is not a populist] … “Populism,” he writes, “is a symptom of a sick body politic, not a cure.” Both “technocratic neoliberalism and demagogic populism represent . . . highways to the hell of autocracy.” Nevertheless, at some points, Lind sounds as angry as the members of the working class with whom he obviously sympathizes. He writes caustically well. One characteristic takedown is worth quoting at length: … [Lind writes that there is a] … common view among transatlantic elites interprets the success of populist and nationalist candidates … not as a predictable and disruptive backlash against oligarchic misrule, but as a revival of Nazi or Soviet-style totalitarianism. One narrative holds that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime, by cleverly manipulating public opinion … is responsible for Brexit, the election of Trump in 2016, and perhaps other major political events. A rival narrative …  [holds that] demagogues can trigger the latent “authoritarian personalities” of … white working-class native voters, many of whom, it is claimed, will turn overnight into a fascist army … [and] … The reductio ad absurdum of this kind of mythological thinking is the adoption of the term “Resistance” by domestic opponents of President Donald Trump, which implies an equation between Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans and the heroic anti-Nazis of the French Resistance.

So, Professor Chua gives us, at some length, two competing views of the cleavages that are so visible in America. What does she think? Is it partisan political affiliation or is it class?

Not surprisingly,” she says, “the books differ sharply when it comes to prescriptions. Klein’s proposals are fairly conventional. He advocates, for example, eliminating the Electoral College, giving congressional representation to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., and eliminating the filibuster, arguing that these measures would enhance democracy and thereby dampen polarization (and, incidentally, favor Democrats) … [while] … Lind, by contrast, rejects many of the most familiar reform ideas and calls for radical structural change. He dismisses proposals to expand access to higher education and encourage entrepreneurialism as “neoliberal panaceas,” noting projections that the fastest-growing jobs in the future will be concentrated in service-sector roles that don’t require college degrees. Besides, as he notes in a powerful passage, such ideas err in “offering workers the chance to become something other than workers, as though there were something shameful and retrograde about being an ordinary wage earner.” What is perhaps more surprising for someone championing the interests of nonelites, Lind also opposes massive redistributive measures, such as a universal basic income, on the grounds that such proposals are unrealistic and, in any event, designed to “anesthetize” the working class without actually giving workers more power.

Regular readers will not be surprised to find that I tend toward’s Michael Lind’s view, at least in so far as I agree 1050350650_0_84_1024_637_1000x541_80_0_0_ef677fea674d4a71aec8bb5e1511cc0ewith his ideas that many progressive policy proposals “err in “offering workers the chance to become something other than workers, as though there were something shameful and retrograde about being an ordinary wage earner.”

Amy Chua tells us that “The COVID-19 crisis has vindicated both books. Dispiritingly, responses to the pandemic have split along party lines, just as Klein’s account would predict, with Americans retreating into their political mega-identities. One’s partisan affiliation and views of Trump almost completely determine one’s ideas about who is to blame for the failure to contain the coronavirus and when lockdown orders should be eased … [and, simultaneously] … The pandemic has also brought into ugly relief the class divisions that shape Lind’s vision. The wealthiest Americans have retreated to their vacation homes, golfing and meditating and working remotely while in quarantine. Service-sector employees who can’t survive without weekly paychecks 349de40b-9759-49dd-8b99-a6bf36f02588have paid a much higher price. At the same time, the United States’ suddenly exposed dependence on other countries for antibiotics and medical equipment makes Lind’s warnings about the dangers of globalized supply chains and the collapse of domestic manufacturing seem darkly prescient.

But she concludes that in the final analysis “one cannot fully understand the pandemic’s consequences in the United States, the politics surrounding it, or the country’s destructive broader political dynamics without seeing how class and ethnic divisions interact with and sometimes catalyze each other. Consider how the death rates for COVID-19 have been markedly higher among minorities than among white Americans. Although African Americans represent only around 30 percent of the populations of Chicago and Louisiana, they account for roughly 70 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities in both places. In the United States, anything with a class dimension—any policy, any event, any disaster that has adverse effects on the poor—will necessarily have a racial dimension and the potential to amplify racial tensions … [and] … Above all, the pandemic has revealed that the United States is reaching a systemic breaking point. Amid the chaos, it increasingly seems that the country might be on the road to a violent political reckoning. In their timely examinations of this dysfunction, Klein and Lind offer important tools to navigate its fault lines in the period of soul-searching to come.

In fact, Amy Chua seems to be returning to her thesis in “World on Fire” that market (economic) dominance can create ethnic, racial or class violence. She seems to be suggesting that there is an identifiable racist element in how communities respond to the COVID-19 crisis. That’s not a uniquely US notion: even some Canadians want to find that sort of outcome. There seems to be a firm belief, held by Professor Chua and some others, that there is a “dominant class,” sometimes based on race, as with e.g. the ethnic (but long-established) Chinese in the Philippines and Malaysia, the Indians in Fiji, and whites in America, which means that there must be a “dominated class,” too: ethnic Filipinos and Malays in their own country and “racialized Canadians” or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour) in North America (and in Europe, too?). She seems to fear that the cleavage between classes and ethnic groups is growing and will lead to violence. If she’s right that is bad news for Canada.

In my opinion, whatever happens in the USA will spread to Canada. The elephant’s twitches and grunts cannot be ignored. Although the demographics are vastly different ~ Canada is far less racialized than is the USA but it is growing faster, due almost entirely to immigration from non-white countries ~ the issues always cross the border. Toronto is far more like Chicago or New York than it is like Edmonton or Halifax. On the other hand, on the plus side, Americans seem, generally, content with their situation in which non-Latino whites remain only a very slim majority, but that, no matter what Donald Trump tries to do, will not last beyond the middle of this century.

I must return to an oft-stated point of view: Canada must prevent the rise of a permanent precariat. Canada must address the dignity deficit that exists and is growing. We must see and affirm that in our country, in our society, there is nothing shameful in being a wage earner.  It must be possible to ensure that Screen Shot 2020-07-23 at 07.23.16workers ~ even minimum wage earners ~ are always better off than those who depend on society’s support and assistance. A job must always be the gold standard ~ we need to import one big American idea: the best social programme is a job. Race and class and, above all, partisan political preference must matter less than earning one’s own way.


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