For millions of Americans—especially those who don’t live in the high-income urban mega-economies—it feels like life itself is unspooling.
This sense of dislocation is what Donald Trump’s politics of grievance seized upon when he launched his campaign for the presidency in 2015. He offered easy scapegoats—immigrants, Muslims, and economic elites—to blame for the loss of meaning and economic autonomy felt by many Americans. He signaled an intent to break America apart from the world economy and the international order. He railed against the technology companies that had seemed to replace families and churches as the new enforcers of moral order. Tragically, it worked. And frankly, given that Trump is running even with President Joe Biden in a hypothetical 2024 matchup, it’s still working.
In essence, what Trump is attacking is neoliberalism. Economic neoliberalism underpins the past 70 years of Western economic and cultural order. Broadly speaking, neoliberalism argues that barrier-free international markets, rapidly advancing communications technology and automation, decreased regulation, and empowered citizen-consumers are the keys to prosperity, happiness, and strong democracy.
Though it contains the word liberal, neoliberalism was devised by libertarian-conservative economists and political scientists as an alternative to the state-controlled command economy favored by Communists and other authoritarians. In the decades after the Second World War, Americans settled comfortably into this new paradigm, ready and eager to reap the bounty. For a time, it arrived in spades. But then, about 30 years ago, the project started to fray at the edges. The newly global economy moved America’s well-paying jobs—the ones that had created the U.S.’s early- and mid-20th-century blue-collar aristocracy—overseas, but the jobs that replaced them offered lower pay, fewer benefits, and less opportunity for advancement. Technology, which had promised to make our lives easier and more connected, started to get so complicated, and advance at a pace so dizzying, that it no longer felt within our control. Social media joined us, but also bred resentment and societal fragmentation. Automation and online commerce erased our local economies, our local meeting places, and our local news sources. And the consumerism that was supposed to fill our lives with the material rewards necessary for happiness instead left many feeling empty as our cultures and identities got swallowed up by the shapeless, antiseptic, profit-obsessed international economy. [Continue reading…]