Abu-Ghazaleh Shares Insights with Bruce Stokes on The Economic & Social Pain of America (4)

[28-03-2021 01:52 PM]

By Talal Abu-Ghazaleh

In his 1976 Inaugural Address, U.S. President Jimmy Carter closed with his “belief in in an undiminished, ever-expanding American dream.” Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden must contend with the economic and political reality that for many Americans that dream is unfulfilled.

Trumpism and the January 6 insurrection in Washington was a manifestation of many Americans’ frustration with the accelerating pace of economic, technological, and social change during their lifetimes.

In his inaugural address, Biden promised that: “my whole soul is in…Bringing America together”. To do this, he must help his fellow citizens better deal with looming job displacing, income undermining technological change and the growing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of American society. This is the biggest domestic challenge the U.S. has faced since its Civil War.

Erik Erikson, the German-born psychoanalyst, observed in 1950 that America “subjects its inhabitants to more extreme contrasts and abrupt changes during a lifetime or a generation than is normally the case with other great nations.” Little did he know what lay ahead.

In the last half century, trade’s share of the U.S. economy nearly tripled, while the share of the workforce in well-paid manufacturing jobs fell by two-thirds. Income mobility slowed dramatically. Someone born in 1940 had a 90% chance of making more money than their parents. Those born in 1984, who are now middle aged, have a 50% chance. At the same time, the portion of the American population that is non-white tripled, as did the portion that is foreign born. This is more demographic change than in any similar span of U.S. history.

A significant share of the American people has a great deal of difficulty adapting to the rapidity of this transformation. Two-thirds of Republicans believe that since the 1950s, American culture and way of life has changed for the worse. A majority believe America risks losing its identity due to immigration. And six-in-ten Republicans think whites are discriminated against.

Biden has a plan to address Americans’ economic pain: a higher minimum wage, massive new job-creating government spending and buy America. If he is successful, this will stem the economic bleeding and sooth some of the immediate political backlash. But the pace of economic change, driven by automation and robotics, is only expected to accelerate, with up to a quarter of the American labor force likely to be displaced over the next two decades.

The United States has a terrible track record helping workers adjust through job retraining. The Biden administration can learn a lot from Germany and Scandinavia. But Washington must spend more money, gain the cooperation of business and organized labor, and overcome a societal ethos that places the responsibility for economic adjustment on the individual.

This may be changing. Polling shows that Americans expect the government to slow the pace of job-destroying automation and take care of displaced workers through a guaranteed income. This will face bitter resistance from conservatives who oppose expensive government action and those who welcome technological change. But it may be necessary to head off an inevitable political backlash that could make past anti-globalization politics look tame by comparison.

In the end, purely economic initiatives, while necessary, will not be sufficient to quell the unrest sparked by the demographic transformation now rending American politics. Helping the significant minority of the public who fear growing diversity to come to terms with their new societal reality is a daunting challenge. These people vote and they vote in larger percentages than the Americans who embrace diversity. They produced Donald Trump and could re-elect him or someone like him.

This threat means America cannot wait for such voters to slowly come to terms with a more diverse society. The pace of their acceptance must be accelerated to avoid even more fractious politics. It will require an unprecedented national conversation about race, ethnicity, and gender. Fear of the unknown drives many prejudices. Studies show that the strongest anti-immigrant sentiment is in counties with the fewest immigrants. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter and Me-Too movements, these conversations have begun. But the Biden administration must find more ways to bring disparate groups together to listen to each other with respect, to come to know each other, and, hopefully, to be more accepting of each other. New England has a tradition of town hall meetings, where neighbors discuss their communities’ challenges. It is a form of civic engagement that has never caught on elsewhere. But some variant of it is now needed. And Europe, with its citizen assemblies, might provide a model.

As Biden observed in his inaugural: American history “has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we're all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.” Overcoming that history to achieve the American ideal will be even harder than he thinks. And the world has a stake in his success.

* Bruce Stokes is the executive director of the Transatlantic Task Force and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He was the director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, and is a former international economics columnist for the National Journal, a Washington-based public policy magazine. He is also a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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