It’s no coincidence that our national political conversation continues to be toilet talk—and I don’t just mean whatever comes out of Donald Trump’s potty mouth. The headlines keep piling up over the pissing match between Republicans and Democrats regarding who can use which bathroom. It’s not an insignificant issue—but by pitching another battle in the endless culture war, our political gentry can energize their own bases without having to address all those messy economic issues that Bernie Sanders won’t stop preaching about. And that would lead to more uncomfortable conversations for both parties about why income inequality, poverty rates, and college tuition keep ballooning as the Dow Jones, corporate profits, and CEO salaries rise—no matter which party is in control of the White House or Congress.
Liberals, of course, are quick to blame it all on conservatives. By now, most lefties have endured enough toilet training in the vernacular of partisan politics to feel revulsion at the mere mention of “trickle-down economics” (aka “voodoo economics” and “Reaganomics”). Hearing it immediately conjures up images of Ronnie cutting taxes for old white rich guys. (“Trickle down” also evokes a symptom of a prostate problem that the GOP should really see a doctor about.)
Trickle-down policy, once valorized in the hallowed halls of Milton Friedman’s University of Chicago, is now tainted enough that establishment Democrats feel empowered to yank far-left liberals by the lapels like some kind of political Ghost of Christmas past, wag a spectral finger, and warn of the dangers of returning to this rich-get-richer brand of capitalism. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who regularly trots it out as a rhetorical punching bag on the campaign trail.
“They want to go back to trickle-down economics on steroids,” she said of her Republican opponents during a campaign speech earlier this year. “For heaven’s sake, why would we go back to the failed policies that dropped us into the ditch that the Republicans dug for our country?”
It’s a good line because it’s true—after all, real-life American Scrooges are totally cool with fucking over Tiny Tim and keeping the Christmas turkey for themselves. The whole “rising tide raises all boats” theory of economics doesn’t actually work as a fair means of distributing wealth, especially when the “tide” in this case selectively flees to foreign waters or hides itself in international tax havens. The more appropriate nautical metaphor? While a large portion of Americans are drowning in the sea of stagnant wages, trickle-down economics adjusts its monocle and occasionally stoops over to toss them tiny life rafts while pouring Cristal for the gentry on the decks of their luxury yachts.
But before we shout an “Amen!” to Hillary’s oh-so-bold stance against the Republicans’ enduring welfare programs for billionaires, let’s remember that the Blue Team (especially the Clinton/Obama/Emanuel supergroup) support their own version of trickle-down economics—a strain only slightly morally superior to the GOP.
Like Republicans, Democrats are happy to wallow in free-market trough of neoliberalism, a political philosophy that refuses to question the role of the market as the central force in our lives. Under neoliberalism, planning and developing the world we want takes a back seat to letting capital shape it for us. People aren’t active citizens as much as pliant consumers whose main expressions of political thought are funneled through consumer choice—when we’re not voting with our wallets for the companies and organizations we like, we’re literally casting ballots for two brands of the same shit that keep reducing the wealth, autonomy, and freedoms of most Americans.
In the Democrat’s version of neoliberalism, the majority of resources are distributed according to people’s abilities rather than according to people’s needs. It rewards the new meritocracy—the top 20 to 30 percent of the population who’ve adapted and shined under our transformed information and global economy. Not coincidentally, the meritocracy is also made up overwhelmingly of the Democratic parties’ pillars of financial and philosophical support: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, academia, the mainstream media, and the “creative class.” If you went to a decent four-year college, learned to code, navigate complex financial instruments, can speak in marketing drivel, design an app, record a podcast, crunch numbers, perform a TED talk, do whatever the fuck “consulting” and “solutions” companies do; if you move to a “green zone” or upper class suburb, if you’ve grown a beard to make yourself appear working class but the only tool you touch is a MacBook—don’t worry, the Democrats are here to keep gaming the system for your benefit.
Things aren’t so peachy in America’s ever-expanding underclass. If you’ve never attended college, live in a poverty-stricken neighborhood or community, are stuck in the service industries, don’t have many “marketable skills”—well, sorry, you’re fucked by both major parties in terms of wages and benefits. You can work at Target, drive Uber, or get a re-education. Those are, more or less, the options.
This is one of the major themes of Thomas Frank’s latest book, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? Frank has a name for it: “liberalism of the rich.” “It has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth,” Frank told me in a recent interview. “Once diversity has been achieved and the brilliant people of all races and genders have been identified and credentialed, there is no further grievance against the system. It’s about a more perfect meritocracy, a system where everyone gets an equal chance and the truly talented get to rise to the top. It’s concerned with managers, not the managed.”
Frank’s point about diversity is well taken. Liberals profess to be devoted to making things substantially better for women and minorities, but their solutions tend to involve flattening the forces of sexism/racism for the upper echelons of society so that the most talented of every gender, race, and sexual orientation can ascend to the heights of the new global meritocracy along with the rich white guys, while the working class and poor stagnate. Let’s just massage the wrinkles so that the smartest and savviest, no matter what gender or race, can more easily break into the top third of the ascendent meritocracy. What we really need, we’re told, is color-blind capital.
Hence why the New York Times—the old gray handmaiden of the modern Democratic party—posted a page recently called “The Faces of American Power.” It’s a massive chart plastered with the mugshots of more than 500 of some of the most powerful people in America from business, government, and the entertainment industry. It’s meant as visual evidence to show how minorities are underrepresented at the top of the top—only 44 of those the Times featured (less than 9 percent) are the faces of people of color. While it’s true that minorities and women are conspicuously missing from the Great Wall of White Dude on the page, the story ignores factors like social class and education. Nearly every single one of the “Faces of Power” earned four-year college degrees, and a high percentage of them earned post-graduate degrees, especially from some of the most elite and private schools in the country. Not pictured: “The Faces of American Powerlessness”—hundreds of millions of people essentially shut out from the spoils of the system who’re making less than a living wage.
Or look at the abject hypocrisy of the Democratic party’s sexy pal Hollywood. The headline-grabbing controversy of #OscarsSoWhite and the subsequent boycott by some of this year’s annual exercise in excessive back-patting remained a skin-deep skirmish between members of the top 1 percent of the movie industry fighting over which well-paid celebrities might win a golden trophy.
Nobody used the hashtag #OscarsSoInequal to protest Hollywood’s massive economic inequality problem. Consider that the movie industry racked up a record $38 billion in global box office earnings in 2015, but a disproportionate amount of that cash fattened the designer wallets of the Hollywood elite. The 34 highest-paid actors alone made a combined $941 million, including $80 million for a guy who cosplays as Iron Man. Movie studios and productions regularly employ low-paid, overworked freelancers and contractors—often without offering health care. And some gigs don’t pay, offering as an alternative form of compensation the promise of “exposure”—ironic given one meaning of the word is “a cause of death resulting from a lack of protection from the elements.” In other words, it pays to be Robert Downey Jr. and not the guy polishing his robot suit.
That the Oscars controversy brought about so much righteous anger instead of an outcry of support for workers who are twice as likely to be paid minimum wage or below as compared to the national workforce isn’t a surprise. Again, it’s a feature of postmodern liberalism’s obsession with a certain brand of identity politics, in which it’s more important to create symbolic equality than material equality for everyone.
It’s the product of the change of the moral and philosophical center of the Democratic party over the last generation—from the union halls of the working class to Ivy League colleges and MSNBC. From populist to elitist. “[Creatives] live in a world of abstractions and images . . . a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality,” said social critic Christopher Lasch in Revolt of the Elites. In the cloistered world of the humanities, social sciences, or the modern office building, many of society’s problems—racism, sexism, income inequality—can be fixed through altering the English language or through transcendent symbolic gestures. Representation is equivalent to (or more important than) reality itself. It’s why some on the left were excited about how Obama’s presidency could trickle down to the millions of African-Americans or what a Hillary Clinton presidency could now mean to women if she’s elected—never mind the politicians’ actual policies or philosophies.
Nothing illustrates this principle more than the recent announcement that Harriet Tubman’s visage would bump Andrew Jackson off the front of the $20 bill. Instead of changing laws to help people get more currency, the left is satisfied with shifting the identity of that currency. There’s an unspoken conviction that the new representation will help wealth somehow trickle down—but in the meantime, lots of overeducated, well-connected white people will soon have bank accounts full of “Tubmans.”
The Democrats would rather you not try to turn over capitalism’s applecart, which is why (at least before the emergence of Bernie Sanders) the donkey party had put forth so little energy toward real economic reform that would help the bottom half of wage earners. In the last few decades, Dems have done little to either preserve existing labor unions or create new ones (the biggest catalyst for the American middle class during the last century), or raise minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, or provide free college tuition, or reverse harmful free-trade agreements.
Instead the Democratic Party would rather you go ahead and exercise your dwindling participation in a democracy and vote for Hillary Clinton, who seems to live in a world in which Sanders’s ideas—free higher education, a single-payer health-care system, a guaranteed living wage—are fanciful pie-in-the-sky notions. And what else are you going to do—vote for the asshole from the other major party? Hah! Who needs new ideas when the other guy is always going to be worse?
A laughably appropriate metaphor for the state of things has emerged:
While liberals have focused their energies on who can poop in which toilet—and color-blind emojis and all-lady Ghostbusters movies—the economic shit continues to trickle down over all but the best, brightest, and luckiest of us.