Instances of frustration, discontent and tribalistic disagreements dividing America are all around. There are protests and riots in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, calls for abolishing the police from millennials who prioritize identity politics and social justice, demands to upend how police are portrayed in TV shows and movies. Then, there are double standards which condemn a person protesting their barber-shop being locked down but praise those protesting racial injustice. What is the cause of this American angst?
First, for almost 50 years the American two-party system has functioned like an influence peddling racket. The two parties in this system, the DNC and GOP, force voters to constantly choose between the lesser of two evils rather than present an option that would represent their concerns. This system has gotten worse with time. For example, the DNC transitioned from a kind of light influence peddler in the time of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, to an absolutely all-encompassing influence racket by Bill Clinton’s first administration. By then, the DNC had abandoned working people and become a party prioritizing wealthy interests that didn’t have the public interest at heart. This created a system in which two teams were battling for a larger share of the influence peddling pie, while as a whole, the system functioned to exclude the interests of the everyman. They were shut out, and constantly sold out by one or the other party. Each party pays lip service to the people but policy never works substantially in their favor.
Take the Democrat National Committee (DNC), who since the early 1990’s has been dominated by Washington-based fundraisers, analysts, and pollsters. Their focus is on raising campaign money from corporate and Wall Street executives and getting votes from upper middle-class households in “swing” suburbs, rather than fighting for working class issues. Previous Democrat President’s, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, ardently pushed for free trade agreements without providing millions of blue-collar workers who lost their jobs a means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.
Clinton and Obama also allowed antitrust enforcement to decline – resulting in large corporations have growing far larger, and major industries becoming more concentrated. Increasing trade and a decline in the power of unions alongside this concentration, meant political and economic power shifted to big corporations and the wealthy, to the detriment of the working class.
One case that serves as an example is the 1999/2000 debate on the trade agreement with China, cited as one of the most important agreements of Bill Clinton’s presidency. One of the most heavily lobbied issues in recent history, business and labor groups clamored for the support and attention of a few dozen undecided Congress members in the run up to the vote. Opposing the bill were labor unions like the AFL-CIO, while those in support were business lobbies, including the US Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable, who spent nearly $10 million on TV, newspaper and magazine ads in support of the bill. Reportedly, this was the most ever spent to influence a single Congressional vote at the time. Chamber of Commerce President, Thomas Donohue, remarked that “We are sending so many people at these members (for lobbying) that they can go home each night and tell their children they’re famous.” According to news reports, the Clinton administration made many gestures to wavering members of Congress in the final days before the vote. The most publicized instance was promising to continue to send business to a Northrop Grumman Corporation defense plant in Grand Prairie, Texas, the largest employer in the district of Rep. Martin Frost, a senior democrat who was undecided on the Chinese trade agreement. The day after the administration made the pledge to Northrop Grumman, Rep. Frost announced he would support the China bill.
Making the case against the China Trade agreement, opponents argued that American manufacturers, attracted by the low wages and virtually non-existent labor and environment standards in China, would move their businesses there, at the cost of American jobs. Labor Unions also pointed out that China commonly used slave labor in violation of international treaties. Environmental groups relayed that China was one of the world’s worst polluters, and not likely to adopt Western-style protections in the near future. Opponents noted China had a long trend of violating agreements on trade and other matters and could not be trusted. For example, in 1995 China had promised to reign in its illegal duplication of US-computer software programs, movies, music and other “intellectual property.” Yet, bootlegging and illegal production of these items increased a lot in the late 1990’s and China seemed unwilling or unable to stop it. Additionally, human rights groups highlighted China’s consistent refusal to allow dissent of any kind from the Communist party line.
The Clinton administration argued on the contrary that the 1999/2000 US- China trade agreement would actually be the best opportunity in history for American businesses. With a growing economy and huge population of 1.2 billion citizens, Clinton argued that China was an untapped market for American goods – agricultural products, consumer goods, services, and manufacturing equipment. After much to-ing and fro-ing between the White House and wavering House members, an amendment added by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans allowing Congress to monitor Chinese actions on human rights, labor standards and religious freedoms, (notably less concerned about the fate of American workers), allowed the bill to pass.
The same sort of corporate interest first campaign had occurred in the earlier Clinton effort to secure passage of the NAFTA agreement in 1993. Here, Americans fears about NAFTA surrounded the issues highlighted by Ross Perot. That is, jobs would be lost as production moved to Mexico which had lower labor and environmental costs and where companies would therefore be able to increase their profits.
Opponents pointed out that while a lot of the workers who suffered from displaced jobs were reallocated to other jobs in different sectors, a lot of these jobs were in the service industry, an industry which pays wages that are only four-fifths of that of a job in the manufacturing sector. Moreover, factory closures have a large impact on the prosperity of a community. It seemed that for the NAFTA passage, public opinion was disregarded in favor of big business and commercial interests who aimed to bring about more favorable trading conditions.
The Trump Presidency presented a challenge to these influence peddlers who treat public policy as a means to bolster their own re-election campaign coffers or status among the elites. Trump renegotiated trade agreements with the NAFTA partners and China on the basis of reciprocal trade, and as a result US investment in China has dropped dramatically, investment in Southeast Asia has shifted, and more companies are aiming to keep supply chains and jobs in the US. The exposure of Chinese duplicity on the Covid-19 virus only served to heighten the salience of Trump’s efforts to bring the production of vital medicines and goods back home.
Still, the influence peddlers and elites remain determined to do anything to restore the order that used to exist, hence? Eliminate Trump.
The second source of American angst is the lack of trust and attention economy that has blossomed in the digital age. In previous times, knowledge and trust would reside in public records, newspapers, government files and journals. When the integrity of these people and instruments is cast into doubt, an opportunity arises for a new class of political figures and technologies to emerge. Today, the truth is more likely to be found in hidden archives of data, rather than in publicly available facts. This has been affirmed by Obamagate, scandals such as tax payer money being used via a slush fund to compensate victims of sexual harassment perpetuated by members of Congress, the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the leak of the Iraq war logs – to name a few. The truth was out there, just not in the public domain. Moreover, nothing turns voters against politicians faster than the appearance of corruption, that politicians are exploiting their power for their own interests not the public’s.
You could say a new type of heroic truth-teller has emerged. One who calls out the rest of the establishment – whether that be government agencies, newspapers, business, political parties, or anything else. The problem is that everyone has a different heroic truth-teller because people are preoccupied by different priorities. How else can we explain the support for such politically diverse people as President Trump, Chelsea Manning, or Christina Blasey Ford? The attention economy on social media shows us our enemies behaving at their most outrageous, cementing tribal allegiances. This helps explain much of the false reporting and vitriol against President Trump; substantial amounts of people see him as a heroic truth-teller, and similar amounts disagree.
A third cause of American angst surrounds the lingering inequities between the different races which make up the American populace. African-Americans have often felt that civil rights efforts have always been the easy symbolic kind rather than offering meaningful opportunities. Here again, President Trump, has shook up the status quo by taking on landmark breaking Criminal Justice reform with the First Step Act, and the creation of opportunity zones to help African Americans revitalize their communities.
By comparison, the Clinton era Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, an enormous $30 billion dollar (£21bn) package that was the largest crime-control bill in US history has been criticized for decimating communities of color by quashing the opportunities of former inmates returning to society and even accelerating mass incarceration. One part of the Crime Bill stripped all Pell Grant funding for college education for prisoners, even though education is seen as an effective tool against former prisoners re-offending. President Clinton also promoted a “one strike, you’re out” policy for evicting public housing tenants if they or their guests were involved in any criminal activity, causing a jump in evictions and making it more difficult for former inmates to find housing.
When the 1994 Crime Bill was being drafted, Elizabeth Hinton, assistant professor of history and African and African American studies, at Harvard, said that the US Sentencing Commission already knew that punitive criminal control and prison policies were disproportionately affecting people of color, and that policy choices that “both Democrats and Republicans have made since the Civil Rights Movement have consistently replaced social welfare policies with punitive measures.” “The Clinton administration knew that the criminal justice system was deeply unfair and biased against African-Americans, and chose to expand that system”.
The Trump Presidency has aimed to alleviate many sources of American angst, but the established order and those who oppose him are not going to go down quietly, kicking, screaming, lying and scheming to prop up their priorities and maintain their power.
Carol King received a first class BA (honors) in History and Politics from Stirling University, along with an exceptional commendation for a study on US public opinion and Foreign Policy. She also completed a year of study at University of London before taking up a Graduate Proctor Fellowship at Princeton University. She further completed a MPhil in American Politics at Dundee University. Aspiring to be a writer/commentator on American politics, she now writes for UncoverDC.