Roberto Rivera

What Next?

03/10/16

Roberto Rivera

Daniel 5 tells the story of what turned out to be literally the party to end all parties, at least for the man throwing it. The Babylonian king Belshazzar throws a feast for his nobles, and, after a few too many goblets, he orders that the sacred vessels from the temple in Jerusalem, which his father Nebuchadnezzar had sacked and burned, be brought out to serve as wine glasses of sorts.

Huge mistake. A disembodied hand appears and writes four words on the wall: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. Neither Belshazzar nor his guests can read the handwriting, much less interpret the message. That task falls to Daniel, who proceeds to give Belshazzar the bad news: “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. . . . You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. . . . Your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

The biblically inspired phrase “the handwriting is on the wall” has entered common usage, but, as is sometimes the case, it has come to mean almost the opposite of what the Scriptures meant. In current usage, it means that the outcome of a course of action is plain to see, whereas in Daniel, Belshazzar and his guests knew that something was happening but weren’t sure what it was, much less why it was happening.

Recent political events have brought the story of Belshazzar’s Feast to mind. It’s obvious—or at least it should be obvious—that something momentous is happening. But “what?” and “why?” isn’t clear, at least not to me.

By way of seeking answers these questions, I have been reading a series of pieces by Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy. (H/T to my colleague and Jedi apprentice Shane Morris.) I agree with most of what Anderson has written about this election season. But something he recently wrote about a certain New York real estate developer caught my attention.

In the course of telling evangelicals why they must not vote for this person, Anderson wrote in passing, “I do not despair at the prospects of President Trump: If that is the judgment upon us, then I will meet it with as much good cheer and confidence as I can muster.”

While I’m against despair and all for good cheer and confidence, Anderson’s comment prompted two questions: One, who is being judged, and, two, for what? Anderson’s answer is that “Trump is a candidate for our time, a fitting judgment upon us who magnifies our sins and our vices. He may be a caricature; but he is a parody of us, a morality tale whose meaning we should heed.”

To borrow the old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” Whose sins and vices would president Trump be a punishment for?

For starters, calling Mr. Trump a “fitting judgment” overstates the control the average American has over American politics. As Mr. Trump’s detractors often point out, the majority of Republican primary voters have voted for someone besides him. If he manages to win the GOP’s nomination, it will be because of rules put in place by the party and decisions made by the other candidates, neither of which the average voter has any control over.

And if Mr. Trump should somehow be elected president, it will be, in large part, because the Democratic Party has coalesced around—shall we say?—a flawed candidate. Again, what control does the average voter have over this decision?

The other problem is that it pays short shrift to the grievances that are driving people’s choices in the ballot box. It’s easy for folks who traffic in numbers, words, and ideas—what Robert Reich dubbed “symbolic analysts”—to miss just how badly the working class is hurting. After all, our livelihood isn’t as vulnerable to being off-shored to a factory in Guangzhou, China or a call center in Gurgaon, India. For us, globalization, free trade, and neoliberalism in general have worked out well.

That’s not true for people living in places like Galax, Virginia. A recent piece in Politico describes the devastating impact that these policies have had in rural communities throughout the South, and the rest of “flyover country” as well. As writer Mason Adams sums it up, “The rural South is haunted by empty factories and warehouses that symbolize the once-dominant businesses that have long since departed for more profitable locales. Economic instability has left those who haven’t fled to the metro areas feeling anxious and unrepresented.”

The standard response to stories like this one—word salad featuring ingredients like “in the aggregate,” “economic growth,” and “comparative advantage”—brings to mind John Maynard Keynes’ quote: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Faced with the hollowing-out of entire communities (see books like “Methland” and “Dreamland”) the commentariat, which is the very model of modern symbolic analysts, resorts to theory.

I include myself in that observation. One of the pitfalls in talking about culture and worldview is the tendency to fall into the “every problem looks like a nail” trap. We are so busy looking for bad ideas at work that we overlook more straightforward possible explanations for why people act as they do.

While the Scriptures tell us that “man shall not live by bread alone,” it’s equally true that he can’t live without bread. It’s unreasonable to expect people to ignore their economic concerns indefinitely, especially when the social conservative/GOP alliance hasn’t delivered on the culture war side of the equation.

None of this should be taken as an endorsement of the vehicle they have chosen to express their concerns. Even if Trump weren’t—shall we say?—such a flawed candidate, the fact is that, as both Michael Lind of New America and my brother (who has forgotten more about the workings of the global economy than most of us will ever know) will tell you, the age of robust economic growth, e.g., growth in excess of 4-5 percent annually for a sustained period, is probably over. We have entered a period when 2 percent will make us the envy of many industrialized nations and 3 percent is reason enough to pop open the champagne. (Another valuable resource on this subject is Tyler Cowen’s “The Great Stagnation.”)

Lind spells out the bad news about what this means for families: “Of the top 10 jobs of the next decade, only registered nurses and general and operations managers require education beyond high school and limited training. And with the exception of registered nurses, with a median annual wage of $66,640, and general and operations managers, with a median annual wage in 2014 of $97,270, the other occupations with the most job openings pay between $18,410 a year (combined food preparation and serving workers) and $31,200 a year (customer service representatives).”

Thus, if a non-college-educated married couple got jobs in the two fields most likely to be hiring—food preparation/service and customer service representative—their combined starting income, $49,610, would be nearly 10 percent less than the median household income.

No wonder people are angry. As I wrote previously, while I worry about where that anger will lead, I understand the anger.

Which brings me back to Daniel, handwriting, and judgment. Many people are taking a long hard look at the political arrangements and alliances that have been in place since the late 1970s and are not liking what they see. They believe that something needs to be changed. Mene. Mene. They see the lack of results on the cultural front, and even worse, the way our erstwhile allies cave at the slightest pressure from business interests in places like Indiana, Arizona, Arkansas, and South Dakota.

Combined with their own economic situation, and the lack of attention paid to it, the status quo is definitely found to be wanting. Tekel.

Which leaves us with Upharsin, as in “what’s next?” I don’t know. All I know is that while it’s true that hard times can bring out the best in some people and small groups—I have experienced this personally in my own life—hard times have also been the setting for social upheaval throughout Western history. I am not entirely sanguine.

Sixty-five years ago, the poet Langston Hughes asked:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
Or does it explode?

We may soon have our answer from a group very different from the people Hughes had in mind.

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