Liberals’ Disregard for Community has Generated a Worldwide Backlash
As US democrats introspect, with a mix of regret and anger, their lost election, they are prone to overlooking the worldwide currents they are caught in. Even highly educated Americans often fall into the cultural trap of not really knowing what’s going on elsewhere in the world (hey — we don’t have many neighbors!)
So, as democrats agonize over potential reasons for their loss (neglect of the white working class, 3rd party spoilers, the perceived archaism of the electoral college, etc.) nearly all of the answers they come up with point to the cultural conditions within the US. What they are missing is that the world as a whole is having some degree of “buyers remorse” with respect to globalism. This seems to be manifesting as a particularly noxious type of “ethnic nationalism” — aka, people seeking patriotic identity through race, and it’s not just whitey. The economist wrote a great piece on the resurgence of ethnic nationalism that’s happening in the US, many European countries, China, India and Russia.
Ethnic nationalists seek solidarity through citizenship and race, tend to be distrustful of immigration, have a reduced desire to compromise national goals for worldwide benefit, and (in Europe and the US) often hold a nostalgia for bygone decades due to the belief that “things were better in the past.” They tend to be older, and likely remember those decades they miss.
This begs the question — what exactly is it that these ethnic nationalists are missing? In the US, Trump propelled himself into the presidency with the mantra “Make America Great Again.” Many of my liberal friends retort with “America was never great,” pointing to slavery and the Native American genocide which, while fair, completely misses the point. People who want to “Make America Great Again” don’t hold some false idolization of the 1800s. They remembering what life was like 30 yeas ago, and they miss it.
And, I’d wager what they miss isn’t actually Jim Crow or Betty Crocker. I think what they’re really missing is community.
In the US, I think liberals fundamentally misunderstand how community minded conservatives are. For instance, many environmentalists wonder why so many conservatives anti environmentalism. Don’t they want to live in a clean world too? Well, actually many conservatives are surprisingly pro environment. However, they also value preservation of their communities. After googling on this exact topic, I found a blog post from a priest who speaks to conservative values on the environment:
When I interviewed Wendell Berry for Crunchy Cons, I asked him why he, a well-known prophetic voice against corporate and economic depredations of the natural world, would not openly stand with environmentalists, he said that it’s because they usually go too far in the other direction. That is, they make an idol of the natural world, and forget about the legitimate needs of human communities.
I think, for example, about what Sam M. keeps saying to us on this blog about fracking and western Pennsylvania, where he lives. Is fracking harmful to the environment. Possibly; it’s arguable. Is fracking good for the human community? Undoubtedly, says Sam, in that it brings jobs to a region that has been down and out, more or less, for a generation. A clean environment is a good thing — but so is a community that can sustain itself economically. These are rival goods that exist in tension. The problem that the more thoughtful people on the right (as distinct from the knee-jerkers) have with environmentalists is that so many of them treat environmental protection as an absolute good, and don’t see it as bounded by anything.
When I thought about it, many liberal misunderstandings of conservatism stem back to a disregard for conservative community cohesion. Liberals are about progress and improvement. Laudable goals to be sure, but often this progress decimates communities. Inner cities are gentrified into blandness while rural communities fade into ghost towns. Globalization has involved a centralization of life in the cities, which means the less affluent communities in cities get displaced while their rural counterparts get bled dry. Add to that the automated eradication of jobs and increased importance of a college education (which often involves a physical relocation of students) and many of these communities basically have no chance of survival.
And, while liberals with pay some amount of lip service to the value of community, many of the fundamental values they have work against stable camaraderie. In an interview with historian Thomas Frank, Tobita Chow explores the causes of how the democratic party shifted away from being the ally to organized labor and unions:
Frank … points to a decision by Democratic Party elites in the 1970s to marginalize labor unions and transform from the party of the working class to the party of the professional class. In so doing, the Democratic Party radically changed the way it understood social problems and how to solve them, trading in the principle of solidarity for the principle of competitive individualism and meritocracy. The end result is that the party which created the New Deal and helped create the middle class has now become “the party of mass inequality.”
[Thomas Frank:] That was an essential point that I try to make in Listen Liberal: that there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. A meritocracy really is every man for himself.
Don’t get me wrong. People at the top of the meritocracy, professionals, obviously have enormous respect for one another. That is the nature of professional meritocracy. They have enormous respect for the people at the top, but they feel very little solidarity for people beneath them who don’t rise in the meritocracy.
Look at the white-collar workplace. If some professional gets fired, the other professionals don’t rally around and go on strike or protest or something like that. They just don’t do that. They feel no solidarity because everything goes back to you and whether or not you’ve made the grade. If somebody gets fired, they must’ve deserved it somehow.
From a conservative point of view, the liberal world must seem like a cold ass place, and I’m inclined to agree. Liberals place the value of personal excellence above the value of communal solidarity, and they are willing to let people starve if they can’t compete at an international level. My own experience of being a programmer for a decade in the new worldwide economy has been emotionally crushing.
I have worked, at times, seven days a week for ten hours a day. After culling my hours due to exhaustion and inability to sustain such a schedule, I have been told by my superiors at multiple companies that even though my programming output was adequate (sometimes even impressive, earning compliments from our investors) my unwillingness to work more than 40 hours a week showed a lack of devotion to the company. I have been expected to put my dating life and family life on hold for the benefit of the companies I worked for. Facebook, as an example of a tech firm (I never worked there), has a doggy daycare and will pay for female employees to have their eggs frozen, but does not have a human daycare for working parents. I can’t imagine sending a stronger message that natural life, that family life, that community — that the normal constraints of the human body — are insignificant in our dystopian capitalist future.
By the new world order, if you can not compete on an international level, though natural or unnatural means, you have no right to a happy life. My fellow tech workers live lives inundated with drugs — drugs to increase productivity (caffeine, adderall, cocaine) and drugs to numb the pain of working all the time (mostly alcohol and pot.) Only the very privileged (or, more conservative of my friends) have had children before the age of 30.
Many of us do not have any community or friends outside work (and, we’re always competing with our friends inside work.) Indeed, loneliness has exploded in modern life as we have been objectified down to our productivity. The number of close friends people have today is fewer than people had a few decades ago and no wonder. There is no true cooperation, there is only dog eat dog.
The progressive world order, with its unending demand for progress, has decimated community. And, for these old timers, no wonder they hark back to another time. No wonder they miss a time when they had friends to connect with, no wonder they miss when their kids would grow up and live next door. But the force of globalization is a behemoth so far gone that no number of Trump trade tariffs are going fix that beast. But people across the world remember when things were different, and they miss it.
And, yes, now things are getting dangerous. Many of these bitter people misattribute the things they’ve lost to other causes — like ethnicity — and they’re getting nasty about it. If we can just keep out the Mexicans, people think, maybe we’ll have enough jobs to keep our community alive. But it goes so much deeper than that, and anyway, more Mexicans are leaving than staying in our cold new world. But, it’s a tempting thing to reach for because it feels like maybe we can fix the problems we’re having.
But xenophobia won’t fix our loneliness.
To fix this problem, we’re going to need to devote some serious time and thought to maintaining communities around the world. It’s possible. At some point, there was a real chance that we were going to completely destroy all the nature, but then we created the national parks. We can preserve precious things, we can preserve things with historical value. We can preserve things that have value to people, and we should. We should protect our communities. Even if all the coal mining jobs go away, maybe we can find other jobs that will let people stay where they live and connect with the people they love. Maybe we can develop financial incentives to prevent gentrification, or to bring resources to failing rural communities.
Ironically, this is just the type of challenge globalization should be able to solve. We’re developing a workforce that can work from anywhere; why not have them work from the homes they grew up in?