The Americans That Are Drowning

This election is not going as anyone expected. The reason is not because of the rise of any one candidate; Trump's appeal reflects more than anything the reality that large numbers of Americans are hurting badly, and vibrantly angry as a result. Why is that, and what can we do to help?

A note on history: we're in the midst of a historical transformation, part of the great Industrial Revolution. Historians cite certain milestones in this long-term process: the first wave, sparked by the introduction of mechanical power with James Watts' steam engine; the second wave at the turn of the century with the rise of electric power and the gasoline engine. We are now in the third great cycle of the industrial revolution: computerization. This transition is so vast it changes everything.

Thus, while creating a massive burst of progress, it also produces major social disruption. This has been true in the past as well; think of the unions or the Populist movement.

As in the earlier periods, some will be left behind, especially those without a college degree. Right now the group feeling this most are white males, with unprecedented, extremely high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol addiction.

But the great American political tragedy today is that no one is speaking up for them, albeit with some efforts to help, not nearly enough. The Democrats are making the smart bet on the future: they're courting minorities, college-educated whites, women. This is a fractious coalition, but a winning one.

At least they're trying to help others, since they believe in using government to assist those in need, but they're hamstrung by Republican opposition in the legislature. Universal health care is a powerful example of their successful efforts. Donald Trump, the Republican's iconoclastic front-runner, has declared Obamacare has "gotta go." Yet, he fully recognizes the important function this serves in America today, maintaining he would "repeal and replace [it with] something terrific... everybody's got to be covered... I am going to take care of everybody."

The Republicans should be championing the group displaced by this computer wave, trying to do as much as they can for these people. There is precedence for this: the great Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, fought for and passed the Second Reform Act of 1867, extending the franchise to urban workers for the first time. Disraeli argued to recalcitrant peers that since they claimed to be the stewards of the British people, they should be helping their countrymen.

But today the Republican establishment has ignored these Americans, offering instead endless tax cuts for the rich, industrial shutdowns that send jobs overseas, and the turmoil of nativism. During the Democratic debate on December 19, the three candidates on stage mentioned the term "middle class" fourteen times; during the Republican debate four days prior, the term did not come up once from any of the nine participants. Some pundits have predicted the demise of the GOP; hardly likely, but they do run the risk of becoming a long-term minority party. Ben Shapiro, Senior Editor-At-Large of the ultra-conservative Breitbart News titled a column, "Is The Republican Party Over?"

Yet this change is massive, historic, inevitable. While bad decisions have been made to make it worse, no one person or group is responsible. It's bigger than that. It's also irreversible -- better get used to it, and learn to deal with it or it will roll over you. Industrial jobs are just not coming back. Ever.

And the tragedy? As my friend the writer Allen Rucker, born and raised in Oklahoma, put it in an email: "They are in the backwaters of history and they are drowning." In the long run we can't save them. But we can alleviate the pain of this transformation.

What can we do, right now, to help these individuals? A list would include:

  • Infrastructure improvements: badly needed, paid for by government, using the private sector to offer good jobs

  • Tax reform: this should be revenue neutral. Tax the rich at a higher rate and lower rates proportionately on the middle class. This won't bring in nearly as much revenue as some progressives promise, but whatever it is, this move will still pump some money into the economy and ease burdens on the suffering classes.
  • Adapt Obama's idea of making an AA degree the baseline. Utilize the creativity of the junior colleges; it doesn't have to (but can) be a classic liberal art program.
  • Let me give you a powerful example of what can be done. Several years ago, Cypress College, a two-year institution in Cypress, CA saw a need in the community and innovated, starting one of the few programs in the nation in mortuary science, granting an AA degree. There are only two others in the biggest state in America. This program is so successful it has over 100 students, and has been cited repeatedly in HBO's Six Feet Under just to give the show legitimacy.

    But that wasn't enough. Students wanted to go further; in order to be a funeral director you need a four-year Bachelor's degree. Cypress College responded in admirable fashion; building on their excellent track record, they applied and won certification for a unique progression in California higher education. By the 2017-2018 school year, up to 15 community college districts will be allowed to grant four-year degrees at one of its colleges for an academic program not offered at the University of California and California State University systems. The Orange County Register reported, "The mortuary science program at Cypress College was recently selected by North Orange County Community College District trustees as the district's applicant for a statewide bachelor's degree pilot program... the nearest universities that offer a bachelor's degree in the major are located in Oklahoma and Minnesota...." Here is a program that is making a difference.

    Computerization is a historical change, bigger than any one group. But millions of our fellow Americans are in pain, and all some politicians are offering is help for the rich and puffed-up verbiage. More can and must be done.