Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is It Fin de Siecle for America?

The theory goes that America's demise will be triggered by the disconnect between its ruling elite and the middle class they have all but discarded.   In previous posts we have examined, at length, the critical role a healthy, robust and expansive middle class serves in a modern, affluent democracy.   This is a wisdom that has been all but forgotten by America's ruling class.

I recently stumbled across an interesting article in The Globalist asking whether America's middle class is at a turning point.   The editor identifies three aspects of modern American society that are seriously out of kilter with the times.  The first is energy use patterns and the failure of America to adopt European and Japanese policies that make energy conservation "a core ingredient of a modern lifestyle."

The second aspect of American life that needs to be reconsidered is the spatial dimension of community. The American Dream, such as it stands today, is to live in one’s own home, preferably with at least an acre of land around it. Over the last couple of decades, that has been a leitmotif both of the homebuilders’ and construction industry associations, as well as the Republican Party and evangelical churches.

The latter two supported this trend because they believed, quite correctly, that the more people move away from cities, the more conservative they become. Europe and Japan, income inequality is also trending — albeit slightly — in the same direction as in the United States, meaning that the rich are getting richer.

But there is an increasingly vehement public debate underway in both Japan and Europe about the implications of these trends. Vast differences remain in the degree of imbalance in income distribution in both Europe and Japan as compared to that in the United States.

Where this matters in a very real-life sense is that the elites in Europe and Japan do not feel nearly as removed from the fate and plight of the middle class as is the case in the United States.
...Unfortunately, judging by the state of play in the U.S. capital, elites do not seem to be concerned about what is going on elsewhere in the world. It seems there is a blind faith in adhering to traditional mindsets — without making any preparations for a backlash or significant slowdown.

The third dimension of American life that needs to be re-examined is the acceptance of public policy as a mutual self-restraint mechanism. Today’s Washington and New York suffer from an almost royalist sense of propriety. Certain subjects are simply deemed improper topics for polite conversation. These matters include questions of a long-term strategy for society, social fairness — and the very purpose, and need for, public policymaking.

The same is true for key matters of national security and foreign policy alliances. All too quickly and all too often, engaging in such topics is deemed inappropriate, perhaps because it might lead to dissonance or opposing viewpoints.

But a society whose elites are not just losing, but consciously abdicating, their sense of the need for self-examination and critical review is in for a hard time. The ability to have meaningful conversations around the twin capital cities’ formal (not family) dining tables, as well as on the cable TV talk shows, is always an indicator of a society’s preparedness — or the lack thereof — to cope with future challenges.

What remains unclear is how - or when - America's social, economic, and political ruling elite will reform, not the middle class, but themselves. When will they reconnect with their own society instead of using wealth and power to insulate themselves from it? Eventually their unhealthy dominance will end but it may leave their entire society gored and bloody.

Joe Bageant makes a sage observation in his book Deer Hunting with Jesus.  He describes the rift between the working poor and newly wealthy in his home town, noting that these local elites have transitioned from members of society to become instead members of the economy.


Steve said...

Nothing illustrates the brain cramp of many Americans than tax on gas. They cant understand how a $2 tax on gas makes Europeans more wealthy, while in America it is a oil companies who benefit most and by extension Saudi Arabia.

The Mound of Sound said...

I was having a laugh with Nadine that all North America needs today are zombies and vampires. At one point we were talking about modern society and I mentioned sitting in a busy mall foodcourt and just watching people walk by. I was truly astonished at the number of youth walking along, oblivious to their surroundings, absorbed in looking down at their phones while they texted. She said, "there you go, they've already got their zombies."

Owen Gray said...

Neil Postman foresaw this situation decades ago.

In his book, "Entertaining Ourselves to Death," he predicted that Americans would eventually seek solace in their films and TV shows, and abandon any discussion of public policy.

The elites have made hay in that environment.

The Mound of Sound said...

Unfortunately, Owen, it is in the "discussion" of public policy that the roots of political power take hold. When we don't embrace lively and regular discussions we forfeit our power and it is readily snapped up by others.

Since the Reagan era, America has not only seen an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class to the richest of the rich but, along with it, the same sort of transfer of political power.

Remember when Bush appeared at a white tie and tails dinner and, looking out at the guests, announced, "you're my base, the 'haves' and the 'have mores'"? Some may have taken it as a joke in bad taste but he wasn't joking.