As I contemplate the vitriol, anger and violence that is foisted upon us during this Presidential Campaign, I need to make sense of it in my own heart and mind. What is driving a significant portion of the American population to turn their backs on the values that built this country such as inclusion, tolerance, and embracing community? How did we fall this far?
It is too easy and a bit demeaning to say that uneducated people are being manipulated by a glib talking politician in order to garner votes. I feel there is something deeper going on. I believe that people are frightened and their sense of security has been eroded. Jobs have been lost. Incomes have been slashed and the community has been divided. In some sense – people may feel as if they are faced with the “prisoner’s dilemma”. The prisoner’s dilemma is when the police arrest two suspects for a crime and put them into separate interrogation rooms. The police tell each that the first to confess will get the best deal. In essence the suspects are encouraged to turn on their friend in order to make it better for themselves. Isn’t that what we are seeing? People are told to turn on “them” – immigrants, Muslims, protesters – in order to protect themselves. This false choice of the prisoner’s dilemma far predates the recent political campaign season.
There are three charts that vividly display what may be driving this sense of insecurity. The first is from a recent Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program briefing. Here it shows a precipitous drop in good paying manufacturing jobs in the United States with a steep decline occurring since the year 2000. The second chart - also recent - is from the Wisconsin Budget Project. Here, we see that 89% of the new jobs generated between 2010 and 2013 in Wisconsin were in very low paying positions; those earning under $10.00 an hour. In order to understand the prisoner’s dilemma we have to link the two charts. In simple terms – we are losing well paying jobs and in return, the majority of jobs we are creating are low wage. This fact is brought home by another chart from the Wisconsin Budget Project showing that the majority of people living in povert are working.
A Quaker friend of mine recently stated that “great anger comes from great pain.” I believe what we are seeing in America today is more of people speaking out of their pain and fear than anything else.
Here’s an idea. Instead of preying on this fear why don’t we simply try to heal the pain and address the reason for the fear?
I just got back from an eco-tour of Costa Rica where I learned that in 1948, this country eliminated its military and used the money saved to provide education and health services for all citizens. The results are pretty remarkable. The CIA World Fact Book says that “Costa Rica has made tremendous progress toward achieving its goal of providing universal access to education, healthcare, clean water, sanitation, and electricity”. Their adult literacy rate of 98% far and exceeds that of the USA where 14% of citizens can’t read. And, their life expectancy is about on par with ours.
So what would happen if we began to spend our money on alleviating the source of pain and anger in America? Would our political discourse be different if we were subsidizing low wage jobs or increasing the minimum wage? Would we be afraid of the “others” if we felt that our children were getting a good education and could afford college or career training? If the cost of food, childcare, housing and healthcare didn’t take such a big bite out of our paychecks, would we be a more tolerant society?
These are all political decisions we make on our priorities as a people. Right now we are spending $600 billion on the military and $47 billion on incarceration (state and federal combined).
The country we want to be starts with each of us becoming the person we want to be. Am I content to be a prisoner of my own fear or am I willing to listen to those who are not like me and to support those public officials that support the common good and who do not advance their personal agenda by dividing us as a people.
We can take our cue from Thomas Merton – a Catholic monk who said that the essence of the universe is “mercy, within mercy, within mercy”. If we start with mercy – for ourselves and for others – I don’t think we can go too far wrong as a country.
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.