In a column recently published in the NY Times, Robert Reich, - UC Berkeley professor, author and former Secretary of Labor, - wrote about his experience while in an airport to catch a flight. A well-dressed man approached him and said: “You are a Commie dirtbag,” actually using an unprintable profanity. Reich was taken aback, but decided to respond as civilly as he could.
“You’re wrong. Where did you get your information?,” he asked the man. “Fox News. Bill O’Reilly says you’re a Communist,” the man replied and walked away irritated.
“It’s rare that I’m accosted and insulted by strangers, but I do receive vitriolic e-mails and angry Facebook posts,” wrote Reich. “On the Internet and on TV shows, name-calling substitutes for argument, and ad hominem attack for reason.”
“Scholars who track these things say the partisan divide is sharper today than it has been in almost a century. The typical Republican agrees with the typical Democrat on almost no major issue. If you haven’t noticed, Congress is in complete gridlock.”
Reich points out that some of issues that most divided the country in previous generations are significantly less incendiary today. Being called a communist feels almost quaint and archaic now. The Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union no longer exist, and even so-called communist governments like China and Vietnam have embraced market economies.
But, in the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) destroyed the careeers and livelihoods of many Americans with their unsubstantiated accusations of being communist agents and spies. A decade later, pitched cultural battles were fought in the shadows of the Vietnam War, with one side shouting, “Make love, not war,” and the other, “America, love it or leave it.”
Segregation and the struggle for civil rights truly divided the country for generations, including a very bloody Civil War in which 600,000 soldiers died. Some Jim Crow segregation laws were only repealed in the 1960s. Until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1967, 16 states still had anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial sexual relations and marriage. While discrimination and prejudice are still with us, we’ve come a long way, including the presidential elections of Barack Obama.
“True, we disagree about guns, abortion and gay marriage, but for the most part have let the states handle these issues,” writes Reich. “So what, exactly, explains the national distemper?”
“For one, we increasingly live in hermetically sealed ideological zones that are almost immune to compromise or nuance. Internet algorithms and the proliferation of media have let us surround ourselves with opinions that confirm our biases. We’re also segregating geographically into red or blue territories: chances are that our neighbors share our views, and magnify them. So when we come across someone outside these zones, whose views have been summarily dismissed or vilified, our minds are closed.”
It’s ironic that less than two decades ago we thought that the Internet would bring us closer together and turn our planet into a kind of small village. Without a doubt, digital technologies have empowered citizens and democracies. But, as we’ve been learning, these empowered citizens express lots of different opinions, and while their diverse opinions contribute to civic engagement, the ensuing dialogues are often anything but civil. The Internet is now amplifying voices who previously struggled to be heard, and helping like-minded people to find each other and self-organize as activist communities who share a common interest or passion. Our technology-mediated, free-for-all conversations are just as likely to polarize the discussions as to bring us together.
We should not be surprised. Humans are social animals. Our social impulses lead us to work together and establish communities, towns, cities and nations. But our evolution has also channeled these social impulses into forms that are tribal in nature, that is, we affiliate with our own kind and against the others. We’ve evolved to develop strong feelings of identity for our specific ethnic, national or cultural group, and to feel quite distinct from the members of other groups. In our minds - and perhaps in our genes - our own group must successfully compete for the resources needed to survive against the other groups around us.
We are thus battling two major conflicting forces. Our affiliative social side brings us together and enables us to form increasingly civilized, sophisticated societies, improve our lives and standard of living, and achieve major accomplishments in science, technology, culture, arts, economics, politics, and many other areas of human endeavor. But to the degree that it continues to express itself in tribal forms, that same impulse gives rise to conflicts that drive us apart.
Throughout our history, changing demographics have exacerbated such tribal conflicts, and they are doing so again today. The US population is growing fastest among minorities as a whole. Most of the US population gains in the decades ahead is coming from immigrants and their US-born descendants. Almost 97% of residents of the 10 largest American cities in 1900 were non-Hispanic whites. In 2006, non-Hispanic whites were the minority in thirty-five of the fifty largest cities.”
A new establishment is emerging in US society as a result of these demographic changes. Previously disenfranchised groups are no longer willing to stand by while others make important decisions that affect their lives, and those of their families and communities. More than ever before, they now demand a seat at the table.
“These changes help explain why Americans are so divided, but not why they’re so angry,” writes Professor Reich. To understand that, we need to look at the economy.”
“Put simply, most people are on a downward escalator. Although jobs are slowly returning, pay is not. Most jobs created since the start of the recovery, in 2009, pay less than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. This means many people are working harder than ever, but still getting nowhere. They’re increasingly pessimistic about their chances of ever doing better.”
Our economy is in the midst of historical changes as we transition from the industrial economy of the past two hundred years to an emerging digital economy that we barely understand yet. In particular, we know that digital technologies will have a major long term impact on employment, skills and wages, but we don’t understand what jobs will be like in this new digital economy.
In their 2011 book, Race Against the Machine: How The Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee write:
“[C]omputers are now doing many things that used to be the domain of people only. The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications. Perhaps the most important of these is that while digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people, or even a lot of them, worse off.”
“And computers (hardware, software, and networks) are only going to get more powerful and capable in the future, and have an ever-bigger impact on jobs, skills, and the economy. The root of our problems is not that we’re in a Great Recession, or a Great Stagnation, but rather that we are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring. Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind. So it’s urgent that we understand these phenomena, discuss their implications, and come up with strategies that allow human workers to race ahead with machines instead of racing against them.”
What are the implications of living through such major social and economic changes? Has the country ever gone through similar volatile times in the past? Given that the future is so unpredictable, can we at least look at our history for some guidance?
“Explanations for our current political volatility abound: toxic partisanship, the ever more fragmented and strident news media, high unemployment, economic upheaval and the clamorous upwelling of inchoate populist angst.”
“But the political instability of our own time pales when compared with the late 19th century. In the Gilded Age the American ship of state pitched and yawed on a howling sea of electoral turbulence. For decades on end, divided government was the norm.”
The Gilded Age is the name given to the era of rapid economic and population growth following the Civil War. It was a time of major industrial and technological advances, including railroads, steel and factories of all sorts. The telephone and electricity were both invented and initially deployed during this period.
The country faced major challenges. Foremost among them was navigating the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and from a rural to an increasingly urban society; managing the labor unrest in this new industrialized, urban economy, as workers worried about their jobs, pay and working conditions; absorbing millions of immigrants; and recovering from the wounds of the Civil War.
How do these challenges compare to those we now face? Some are similar, some are new. Among our most critical challenges are once more navigating an economic transition, this time to a post-industrial digital economy; dealing with the high unemployment resulting from the structural changes the economy is going through; and coming up with a reasonable immigration policy. Other challenges are more unique to our times, such as increased global competition, high healthcare costs, and environmental issues.
“What’s instructive to us now is the similarity between the Gilded Age’s combination of extraordinary social and economic dynamism and abject political paralysis,” writes Kennedy. “In the face of all those challenges, like our Gilded Age forebears, we have a political system that manages to be both volatile and gridlocked - indeed, it may be gridlocked not least because it is so volatile. And, like their 19th-century forebears, today’s politicians have great difficulty gaining traction on any of those challenges. Now as then, it’s hard to lead citizens who are so eager to throw the bums out at every opportunity.”
As was the case in the Gilded Age, we’re living through times of rising income inequalities and economic disparities. And, as Professor Reich observes:
“Political scientists have noted a high correlation between inequality and polarization. But economic class isn’t the only dividing line in America. Many working-class voters are heartland Republicans, while many of America’s superrich are coastal Democrats. The real division is between those who believe the game is rigged against them and those who believe they have a decent shot.”
“Losers of rigged games can become very angry, as history has revealed repeatedly. In America, the populist wings of both parties have become more vocal in recent years - the difference being that the populist right blames government more than it does big corporations while the populist left blames big corporations more than government.”
Our divisions and anger will take time to work out. The optimists among us look back at the vast changes we’ve adapted to through our history, and feel that our economic, social and political systems are flexible enough to do so again. Let us all hope that we are right.