Monday, July 25, 2016

Doesn't Individual Agency Still Matter?

Have you heard about it yet?

It's the new non-fiction book by J.D. Vance about why poor white people seem disproportionately enamored by Donald Trump's candidacy for president.  Entitled Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, it's become an instant best-seller and a topic of conversation across several prominent conservative websites.

And while I haven't read the book, I'm struck by how it helps to represent the eagerness with which a certain segment of American conservatism is trying to figure out the hold somebody like Trump has secured across a vast stretch of of a mostly white, mostly less educated, mostly poorer cross-section of the electorate.

And it's not just the legions of faceless, nameless middle Americans who are gushing over Trump.  Evangelical blue-chips like Focus on the Family's James Dobson are eroding their credibility by championing the billionaire developer.  They're twisting Scripture and invoking platitudes about a religious Americanism that brazenly defy orthodox theology.  Churchgoers across the country are lapping it up, fretting amongst themselves about what is going to happen to our country if people don't overlook Trump's glaring flaws and vote for him anyway.  And people like me who are voting third party this year?  Many conservatives who've reluctantly decided for Trump say we're throwing away our vote, and saying we're part of the Hillary problem.

Actually, if Democrats weren't so busy fighting amongst themselves, they would see that all of this hand-wringing by Republicans actually spells deeper trouble for Hillary than whether or not the Russians helped expose the DNC's obstructionism towards Bernie Sanders.  These past eight years have not been kind to this country socially and economically.  More single women are raising families than ever before.  Wages for all but the One Percenters have been stagnant.  Even with a black man in the White House, racism seems worse now than when the Obamas first moved onto Pennsylvania Avenue.  The wars started by George Bush and his neo-cons have spiraled out of control and out across the Middle East like Whirling Dervishes.  Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - of all things - at the start of his presidency, Obama has instead presided over an incessant drumbeat of terrorism and bloodshed.

People are afraid.  Americans are watching their paychecks purchase less and less, and we're watching Europe being bombed by disgruntled Muslims.  Our government is currently fixated on existential topics such as men using the women's restroom, while voters want to see genuine progress on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy and national security.  It doesn't matter that Trump has no concrete plans for how he's going to strategically and effectively address the problems he clearly can identify.  Shucks, we all know what the problems are.  Yet both Trump and Hillary seem more preoccupied with name recognition than policy creation.

Which is where Vance, the author, chimes in.

One of the reasons Vance says he wrote his book is to provide a bit of a kick to the American electorate's rear end.  In one of the more provocative interviews he's given during his book's publicity tour, Vance is asked by's Rod Dreher if voters will even tolerate being told that many of their problems aren't the fault of their own government:

"We’re no longer a country that believes in human [individual]agency... To hear Trump or Clinton talk about the poor, one would draw the conclusion that they have no power to affect their own lives.  Things have been done to them, from bad trade deals to Chinese labor competition, and they need help.  And without that help, they’re doomed to lives of misery they didn’t choose."

In other words, our elections have turned into one big "look what you've done against me" and "what can you do for me?" parody of self-reliance that actually perpetuates the notion that, contrary to what many conservatives say they believe, the government holds the key to a better life.

So we get really afraid when we consider that people like Hillary could be at the helm of the entity that supposedly influences our lives the most.  And that fear makes people like Trump practically salvific in terms of his audacity to suggest that, first, America is a decrepit morass of dysfunction (which, as the world's largest economy, we're obviously not - yet, anyway); and second, that all it will take is one loud-mouth CEO to build walls and renegotiate contracts, diplomacy and civil rights be damned.

Of course, other countries have had leaders like that in the past, and what usually ends up happening is some sort of upheaval, when the ordinary people realize that their individual liberties have become diluted by the person they hoped would do the opposite.

When it comes to the concept of "individual agency," that scenario is what our elections are supposed to help us avoid.

(That's another reason I'm voting Third Party.)

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