Who can appeal to the people who feel the most like they’ve gotten a raw deal?.. Beto O’Rourke is one possible Democratic candidate for 2020 who seems to understand the power of talking to people who think they’ve gotten a raw deal.Over the past few years, I have spoken to hundreds of people, like Ms. Womack, who define themselves as middle class but are seriously economically challenged. In their lives, an illness could mean bankruptcy. I talked to many people who had college degrees, were convinced they were on the right path, yet were shaken by their endless debt — from the cost of their graduate degrees, caring for an elderly parent or paying for a child’s medication.
Sometimes their professions had contracted, resulting in a loss of jobs. Sometimes it was because their work had become irregular and they had no union to negotiate for them. Health care and education cost far more than they once did and wages were barely inching up. As a result, they had personal pain — and ire — that many politicians didn’t take seriously enough.
After all, what I have called the “middle precariat” vote — or what could be called the anxiety vote — gave us this president, and now it has also given us a Democratic House. It is a powerful force.
Any Democrat who wants to win the White House in 2020 is going to need to harness the power of these voters. Indeed, the race has very much started, including the recent announcement of a presidential campaign exploratory committee by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has already started to emphasize how the middle class is “hollowed out.”
One of the first challenges is getting people to admit they are struggling financially, and to talk publicly about it. This can be hard for members of the middle class, a group that has a real sense of stigma about financial floundering. They are hobbled by a long-held obsession with privacy and don’t always acknowledge what is troubling them, according to research by Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist at New York University.
The second — and most basic — way of addressing the anxious middle-class vote is by acknowledging people’s suffering. At rallies, ask people with student or medical debt to raise their hands, so that they don’t quietly carry it with them for their lives, afraid to speak because they don’t want to admit they need help.
Candidates and politicians should follow the example of New York’s new Democratic congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who acknowledged that she wouldn’t be able to pay the costly rent for a Washington apartment until her government paychecks start coming in. They should openly discuss the tendency of many people to blame themselves for their professional and financial distress. Donald Trump jumped on this discomfort in 2016, after all, and made it part of his rhetoric, even though, of course, he had no intention of changing much.
“They have imbibed this idea that your economic well-being is traceable principally to your own efforts,” Ms. Shenker-Osorio said.
As a result, what the electorate doesn’t need to hear are Horatio Alger stories of how candidates worked their way up from humble origins, with the implied moral that anyone can make it in America with enough hard work. These kinds of tales can insidiously lead middle-class people today to blame themselves more for not flourishing.
Instead, the new Congress and candidates of the future should tell voters that it’s O.K. to be mad about being in debt, that this is a savage society we now live in. They could talk about their own experience of debt, be it student or medical, or the debt of someone in their family. (What makes this a bit harder is how unrelatable, and depressing, the wealth of our Congress still is: in 2015, it was majority millionaire.)
To win the anxious middle-class vote, politicians must offer real solutions for the challenges in the lives of these voters, especially on health care and education. One example of this is the scholarship program that Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York put in place: 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year will qualify to attend tuition-free at colleges in the New York State and New York City public university systems. Though not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction.
It is important to get these voters beyond the shame of debt, perhaps by allowing student debtors to be able to declare bankruptcy related to student loans, something that is nearly impossible to do now, and obtain debt forgiveness.
An actual “Medicare for all” proposal would get at the heart of what is a real challenge for many. Michèle Lamont, a sociologist at Harvard who specializes in culture and inequality, told me that her work found that when candidates promote a policy like Medicare for all, even if it doesn’t come to fruition they are signaling that they understand voters’ need for solidarity and give voice to their hopes and difficulties by making them visible.
A few possible Democratic candidates for the 2020 nomination, from Bernie Sanders to Beto O’Rourke, seem to understand this possibility, and have been attempting to redirect Americans’ anger toward fighting for the things they need, like reasonably priced education and health care. Mr. Trump, no doubt, will continue to mine this territory in a re-election campaign, despite his role in fueling our neglect to begin with.
Middle-class and poor voters have more in common with one another today than they do with the economic ultra-elite. And if they can continue to organize into coalitions, they could be truly powerful forces. Maybe they’d take to the streets most weeks and shut down our cities on a more regular basis, like they do in France.
Then again, maybe the people we elect can express our pain for us instead, so we wouldn’t have to.
But in a cult of personality, truth is replaced by belief, and we believe what the leader wishes us to believe. The face replaces the mind.
.. The transition from democracy to personality cult begins with a leader who is willing to lie all the time, in order to discredit the truth as such. The transition is complete when people can no longer distinguish between truth and feeling.
.. Cults of personality make us feel rather than think. In particular, they make us feel that the first question of politics is “Who are we, and who are they?” rather than “What is the world like, and what can we do about it?” Once we accept that politics is about “us and them,” we feel like we know who “we” are, since we feel that we know who “they” are. In fact, we know nothing, since we have accepted fear and anxiety — animal emotions — as the basis of politics. We have been played.
.. The authoritarians of today tell medium-size lies. These refer only superficially to experiences; they draw us deep into a cave of emotion. If we believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim born in Africa (an American lie with Russian support), or that Hillary Clinton is a pedophile pimp (a Russian lie with American support), we are not actually thinking; we are giving way to sexual and physical fear.
.. These medium-size lies are not quite the big lies of the totalitarians, although Mr. Orban’s attacks on George Soros as the leader of a Jewish conspiracy come rather close. They are, however, big enough that they help to disable the factual world. Once we accept these lies, we open ourselves up to believing a whole raft of other untruths, or at least suspect that there are other, vaster conspiracies.
.. We imagine that we make choices as we sit in front of our computers, but the choices are, in fact, framed for us by algorithms that learn what will keep us online. Our online activity teaches machines that the most effective stimuli are negative: fear and anxiety.
.. As social media becomes political instruction, we prime ourselves for politicians who reproduce the same binary: What makes us afraid and what makes us feel secure? Who are they and who are we?
.. The empty heterosexual posturing, the shirtless photo ops, the misogyny and indifference to the female experience, the anti-gay campaigns, are designed to hide one basic fact: A cult of personality is sterile. It cannot reproduce itself. The cult of personality is the worship of something temporary. It is thus confusion and, at bottom, cowardice: The leader cannot contemplate the fact that he will die and be replaced, and citizens abet the illusion by forgetting that they share responsibility for the future.
The cult of personality blunts the ability to keep a country going. When we accept a cult of personality, we are not only yielding our right to choose leaders but also dulling the skills and weakening the institutions that would allow us to do so in the future. As we move away from democracy, we forget its purpose: to give us all a future. A cult of personality says that one person is always right; so after his death comes chaos.
Democracy says that we all make mistakes, but that we get a chance, every so often, to correct ourselves. Democracy is the courageous way to have a country. A cult of personality is a cowardly way of destroying one.
If you find this difficult, talking to yourself in the third person can help. LeBron James famously did this when, in an ESPN interview, he announced his decision to join the Miami Heat, saying: “I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”
Watching this interesting interview was psychologist Ethan Kross, who decided to explore James’ use of “self-distancing” by conducting seven studies, which found that forgoing the use of first-person language can actually enhance your ability to regulate your thoughts and feelings. And when it’s done in light of a future anxiety-inducing event, it can help you view it as less threatening.
While it may feel unnatural to speak to yourself in the third person, using self-distancing might help you to be kinder.
Now, Get to Work! (And Be Kind to Yourself)
Even if you never find yourself under pressure to score the winning goal of a game, you can take a page out of the pro athlete’s playbook and leverage your self-talk to score big wins in your career.
What you think informs what you do; science has shown that time and time again. With that being said, it’s important that you gain an understanding of and control over what you tell yourself. To recap, here are four ways to do that:
- Recognize anxiety as a normal response to a stressful situation.
- Challenge your negative thoughts. If you need some free tools to do this, check out this automatic thoughts worksheet.
- Speak to yourself the way you would speak to your best friend.
- Get in the habit of positive self-talk.
If you still find yourself resorting to unhelpful negative self-talk throughout your workday—take heart. The goal isn’t to completely eradicate negative thoughts from your mind, but to have your positive thoughts outweigh them.
The response to the 2008 economic crisis has relied far too much on monetary stimulus, in the form of quantitative easing and near-zero (or even negative) interest rates, and included far too little structural reform. This means that the next crisis could come soon – and pave the way for a large-scale military conflict.
BEIJING – The next economic crisis is closer than you think. But what you should really worry about is what comes after: in the current social, political, and technological landscape, a prolonged economic crisis, combined with rising income inequality, could well escalate into a major global military conflict.
The 2008-09 global financial crisis almost bankrupted governments and caused systemic collapse. Policymakers managed to pull the global economy back from the brink, using massive monetary stimulus, including quantitative easing and near-zero (or even negative) interest rates.
But monetary stimulus is like an adrenaline shot to jump-start an arrested heart; it can revive the patient, but it does nothing to cure the disease. Treating a sick economy requires structural reforms, which can cover everything from financial and labor markets to tax systems, fertility patterns, and education policies.1
Policymakers have utterly failed to pursue such reforms, despite promising to do so. Instead, they have remained preoccupied with politics. From Italy to Germany, forming and sustaining governments now seems to take more time than actual governing. And Greece, for example, has relied on money from international creditors to keep its head (barely) above water, rather than genuinely reforming its pension system or improving its business environment.
The lack of structural reform has meant that the unprecedented excess liquidity that central banks injected into their economies was not allocated to its most efficient uses. Instead, it raised global asset prices to levels even higher than those prevailing before 2008.
In the United States, housing prices are now 8% higher than they were at the peak of the property bubble in 2006, according to the property website Zillow. The price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio, which measures whether stock-market prices are within a reasonable range, is now higher than it was both in 2008 and at the start of the Great Depression in 1929.
As monetary tightening reveals the vulnerabilities in the real economy, the collapse of asset-price bubbles will trigger another economic crisis – one that could be even more severe than the last, because we have built up a tolerance to our strongest macroeconomic medications. A decade of regular adrenaline shots, in the form of ultra-low interest rates and unconventional monetary policies, has severely depleted their power to stabilize and stimulate the economy.
If history is any guide, the consequences of this mistake could extend far beyond the economy. According to Harvard’s Benjamin Friedman, prolonged periods of economic distress have been characterized also by public antipathy toward minority groups or foreign countries – attitudes that can help to fuel unrest, terrorism, or even war.
For example, during the Great Depression, US President Herbert Hoover signed the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, intended to protect American workers and farmers from foreign competition. In the subsequent five years, global trade shrank by two-thirds. Within a decade, World War II had begun.
To be sure, WWII, like World War I, was caused by a multitude of factors; there is no standard path to war. But there is reason to believe that high levels of inequality can play a significant role in stoking conflict.
According to research by the economist Thomas Piketty, a spike in income inequality is often followed by a great crisis. Income inequality then declines for a while, before rising again, until a new peak – and a new disaster.
This is all the more worrying in view of the numerous other factors stoking social unrest and diplomatic tension, including
- technological disruption, a
- record-breaking migration crisis,
- anxiety over globalization,
- political polarization, and
- rising nationalism.
All are symptoms of failed policies that could turn out to be trigger points for a future crisis.
.. Voters have good reason to be frustrated, but the emotionally appealing populists to whom they are increasingly giving their support are offering ill-advised solutions that will only make matters worse. For example, despite the world’s unprecedented interconnectedness, multilateralism is increasingly being eschewed, as countries – most notably, Donald Trump’s US – pursue unilateral, isolationist policies. Meanwhile, proxy wars are raging in Syria and Yemen.
Against this background, we must take seriously the possibility that the next economic crisis could lead to a large-scale military confrontation. By the logicof the political scientist Samuel Huntington , considering such a scenario could help us avoid it, because it would force us to take action. In this case, the key will be for policymakers to pursue the structural reforms that they have long promised, while replacing finger-pointing and antagonism with a sensible and respectful global dialogue. The alternative may well be global conflagration.