Politics & Policy

Helplessness and Rage Can’t Become the New American Consensus

Trump supporters shout at anti-Trump demonstrators in San Diego, Calif., in May. (Reuters photo: David McNew)
The language of personal responsibility is falling from conservatives’ lexicon.

In one of the paradoxes of modern life, America is deeply polarized in part because it is increasingly united around a common idea: that life is getting worse, and it is someone else’s fault. The unity is in the notion that life is getting worse. The polarization lies in the allocation of blame.

Hence much of the desperation surrounding the 2016 election. Every cycle we hear that this election is the most important in our lifetime. Rarely in modern times, however, has rhetoric reached the heights of 2016. This is a “Flight 93 election”? “Charge the cockpit or you die”? Really? And it’s not just rhetoric. We see rioters looting cities because of rumors, and at political rallies thugs are beating not just protesters but also even, on occasion, random citizens who dare show their face at the wrong place and the wrong time.

Americans feel helpless. They feel as if their lives and fortunes are in the grip of forces they can’t control. And there are reasons for their feelings. It’s true that middle-class and working-class Americans are sliding farther and farther behind America’s upper middle class. It’s true that wages have stagnated and declined (at least until a promising increase this year). It’s true that poverty is becoming “sticky” — that millions of Americans who are born in poverty will die in poverty.

But here’s the core problem with this feeling of helplessness. It’s fundamentally false. In fact, aside from circumstances such as debilitating illness or disability, it’s almost entirely false. The great, empowering privileges of American life are still available to every citizen — privileges that are more potent than the supposedly almighty “white privilege” that allegedly taints our culture.

The first privilege is parental privilege. If you get married, stay married, and wait to have children until you’re married — all things within the joint control of you and your spouse — then you dramatically increase the chances not only of your own prosperity but of your kids’ as well. Poverty in married households is extraordinarily low compared with that in single-parent households, and children who grow up in stable homes do better on virtually every measure of economic and emotional well-being.

Next, there is educational privilege. Not only does virtually every American have the opportunity to stay in school, all have unprecedented access to financial aid to start (and finish) college. Combine a married family with a college degree, and you’ve not only created a firewall against poverty, you’ve taken the key steps to achieving the American Dream. The data are clear: Married, educated families do very, very well in modern America. In fact, they do so well that the upper middle class is “larger and richer than ever.”

And that brings us to the final privilege — class privilege. A married, educated family simply has a greater margin for error. Kids who make mistakes can fall back on the considerable resources of their parents. They live and work with other families who provide connections when jobs are lost. They have friends that can help in the case of financial emergencies. There are choices that can lead to profound downward mobility, but just ask still-prosperous doctors and lawyers who’ve endured, say, bouts of drug or alcohol rehabilitation how much resources can help a person bounce back even from catastrophic mistakes.

None of this is original. All of it has been thoroughly explored from left and right in books such as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Searing first-person memoirs such as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy bring the data to life, putting names and faces with the terrible statistics. But the challenge of our time is to teach a culture that there is no political solution to what is at its core a cultural problem — a problem in the human heart.

We live in a time when the one unforgivable sin is judgment.

For a long time now, smart folks have scorned the notion that any given person can “have it all” — that there is a perfect state of bliss where they can be empowered at work without making any sacrifice at home. We know there are tradeoffs. It’s time now to drill into the culture that you can’t “do it all” — that instant gratification can yield permanent consequence and that the price of self-indulgence can be too high to pay.

Consider, for example, the incredible cost of divorce. For an ex-husband and ex-wife to do as well as they did under one roof, they have to enjoy greater economic opportunity than they did when married — all in the midst of personal emotional turmoil that brings many people to their knees. It’s simple — two households are far more expensive than one.

#related#We live, however, in a time when the one unforgivable sin is judgment. Who are we to tell others what they should do with their lives? Their choices are their choices, and they’re still entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else. Right? But one can never repeal the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The person who predicts the awful consequences of family disintegration and lack of self-discipline is no more culpable for the outcome than is the weather forecaster for the tornado that sweeps through town.

So here we are — in an era when even alleged conservatives feel that it’s too cruel to tell families to take primary responsibility for their own prosperity. When “our” people start to suffer from the same social maladies — because they make many of the same choices — as “their” people do, it’s remarkable the extent to which the language of personal responsibility drops from the political lexicon. “We built that” is so 2012. Now, it’s “I alone can solve.”

Do you feel helpless? You’re not. Do you believe the 2016 election will represent a turning point in your life? It won’t. Your rage is misplaced. In America you still have far more control over your destiny than the government ever will, and even the best nation with the most virtuous elite can’t truly fix what you choose to break.

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