A key lesson we have learned from this election is how easily fear and vulnerability can be manipulated and turned into hate. Our job – post-election – is to address the vulnerability and in that way, drive out the hate.
Wall Street Journal columnists Peggy Noonan wrote a fascinating article discussing how the pervasive feelings of vulnerability and lack of a sense of fair play is driving the political and cultural unease we are witnessing not only here in America but across the entire western political landscape. Noonan breaks the world down between those who are protected – the rich, the powerful, the secure - and those who are unprotected. She states that “the protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it.” The protected, because of their security and influence can “impose any reality” onto the unprotected because they are insulated from the consequences of their policies. The protected can disinvest in education because they have the money to send their children to private schools. The protected can ignore climate change because they can move to where the impact will be minimized. The protected can oppose a living wage and healthcare for all because that will affect them only in their ability to earn more profit. The protected can argue for cutting social security because investments will cover their retirement.
Viewed through this lens of those who are vulnerable and those who are protected, the phenomena of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders becomes clear. People are sensing a basic unfairness in life today and they are seeking change. There is a growing awareness that elected officials and multi-national corporations don’t understand these dynamics - or worse - that they do understand but don’t care. They are protected.
What we are experiencing now is not unlike the tone of the country during the 1930s according to a sobering article recently published by the Guardian news outlet. In the article – “The Big Con: what is really at stake in this US election” - we are reminded that America was at a boiling point in the 1930s and what saved the country was a set of policies to protect the unprotected which came to be known as the New Deal. The article chronicles the dire way of life for the average citizen during that time. It discusses the political unrest across America bubbling up from farmers in Iowa and spreading across the great Midwest coupled with mass protests by labor organizations and others in the cities; each in their own way protesting the failure of the government to protect them while laissez-faire capitalists grew ever richer. The article outlines how the New Deal policies created a new social contract: a “mixed economy” that combined the power of the labor movement with an effective government under the backdrop of a free market. This new social contract, according to the authors, “saved capitalism” and, one could argue it also saved the American democracy.
The “Big Con” article concludes with the observation that since the 1970s, “40 years of well-funded, highly organized laisses-faire proselytizing and government-bashing have done a number on the American mind” and has eroded the foundation of the social contract of the New Deal. This dynamic has brought us back to the point where the gap in wealth inequality is worse now than at any time since the 1930s. In many ways, we are back to where we started nearly 90 years ago.
We have allowed ourselves to be divided by our own fear and vulnerability. We have allowed those who are protected to create policies and a cultural and political infrastructure that protects only themselves and ignores the plight of the rest of us.
Somehow, we need to get back to an America which cherishes the sense of the common good; which understands that all citizens must benefit from a thriving economy. We must find our way back to an America with a big heart; one that embraces the ethic that when we care for the most vulnerable among us - all of us will benefit.
The roadmap to get us back to an America that works for everyone is simple, but the journey may be hard. Here’s the simple plan: Protect the Unprotected. In every decision, at every level the default should be to protect the unprotected. In every personal encounter; in how we speak, think and feel our own individual default should be to protect the unprotected. And, just as importantly we need to demand of our elected officials that their primary mandate is to protect the unprotected. If we do that; if we focus on protecting the unprotected there will be no fertile soil in which others can manipulate fear and vulnerability in the future. We will all have become our brother’s keeper. And in doing so, we will have saved our democracy, helped ourselves and nourished our very souls.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.