When the Shell Cracked
The Fragmentation of America
Robert M. Herzog
I. Are we living permanently in Humpty-Dumpty land, or is there a path to rejoining the pieces?
We have recently been treated to multiple, sharply contrasting visions of America. The Democrats’ perception of themselves, and their assessment of Republicans. The Republicans’ representation of themselves and their view of Democrats. The viewpoints driving Black Lives Matter, contrasted with armed militias roaming public streets. If we were writing a term paper, the next phase would be: compare and contrast. Whew!
From Donald Trump to Black Lives Matter, from grotesque income inequality accompanied by the desiccation of middle and working classes, leading to the adventitious rise of both populism and progressivism, the schisms, upheavals, and ruptures of current society have deep-rooted historical antecedents.
It wasn’t always like this, and the sustainability of the nation, its political heritage, stability and well-being, and world position, are at stake.
In the Everyday Physics column in the Wall Street Journal of April 11, 2020, the physicist Helen Czerski marveled, around Easter time, at the strength of the egg. Yes, the strength. It seems that an egg is at once extraordinarily strong and profoundly weak. (Yes, this article goes on to talk about America).
The shell is very strong when compressed, with the pressure evenly distributed, but an egg can bear a load only if it’s smoothly distributed. If you strike the egg shell at a single point, it cracks. And once it cracks, the shell’s strength is gone, because it relies on the whole structure being intact. The shell is too brittle to withstand a pointed attack (which is good for the chick trying to hatch, but not so good if you want to maintain the structural integrity of the egg.
So…a single piece of eggshell is fragile, but the whole shell is far more than the sum of its parts.
And thus the times we live in. When did the shell of America begin to crack? It was extraordinarily resilient as it fought to victory in two fronts in WWII, and then created an unparalleled era of post-war sustained growth and prosperity.
In retrospect, there were clearly tensions building within the edifice, but they tended to be countervailed by a balancing out so as to keep the shell intact. Racism was insidious and pervasive, but its pressures had not yet built up to the boiling point, suppressed by the history of powerful repression and an economy that once seemed exuberant enough to elevate all while in fact masking the differentials of those who continued to suffer.
There were the classic political tensions between parties, but Eisenhower was a genial, generally popular figure, and disagreements maintained a civility that was not polarizing. The Senate and his own party ended up restraining McCarthy. Around the world we asserted power in foolish ways, but none had the impact or blowback of later fiascos. The Korean War was distant and lacked the import of failure on an epic scale or casualties that undermined the nations’ faith in itself, its leaders and its capacities.
II. When the Shell Began to Crack
While there are probably many possible contenders, I would argue the first crack in the shell, that began to reveal America’s vulnerabilities and portend its rupture, was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For a generation complacent in military might, economic growth, and the accompanying domestic security, his killing was a stunning blow, the strike at the single point of the shell that begins its structural demise. It was shocking, in and of itself, and for the currents of inner turmoil it exposed, as conspiracy theories on left and right began to abound in a world where media was increasingly capable of giving them velocity.
There was no counter balancing force to offset the impact of his death. Instead, Johnson ran a reelection campaign that stoked cold war fears, the famous ad of an atom bomb exploding behind Barry Goldwater’s image, as duck and cover routines in classrooms fostered in children an underlying tension that was hard to mitigate. We were on edge, 15 minutes away from devastation at any given moment.
The combination of circumstances, political and psychological, propelled us headlong into a crevasse that ran along and generated major fault lines in the US shell — the Vietnam War. Not only did it expose the limitations of the country’s imagined ability to project, or inflict, its power abroad, but the divisions around it also created a cultural divide that still resonates. The very concept of America as a place of confluence of ideas, cultures, ideologies, ethnicities, eroded under the division about the war, the conduct of governance, and the widely varying versions of popular cultural, splitting the country into those whose hair length, sexual attitudes, and relationship to authority had become irreconcilable.
The sixties split the nation into those that questioned authority, pre-existing cultural norms, one’s place in society. and those that wanted to reassert the primacy of seemingly more halcyon days. In order to do so, they moved towards the consolidation of wealth and economic power buttressed whenever possible by their ability to control the government as well as business. In this way they reinforced the shell by sustaining their race and class’s position for the decades to come. In the process, they have destroyed the elements of the shell that held it and US society intact.
III. The Progression of Destruction
The sharp pecks on the American shell post WWII emerged from a contradictory epoch of unparalleled growth and wealth creation coupled with immense failures. We lost the Korean War. We lost the Vietnam War. We for all practical purposes lost the War in Iraq. And the War in Afghanistan. We lost the War on drugs. Seeping in the interstices, we lost the War to retain a viable middle class and a social structure that was cohesive. We lost the War to end racial prejudice, and we lost the War to uphold the Constitution providing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, undercut by failures to provide economic security, healthcare and just plain dignity for huge subsets of our society.
Furthermore, we have allowed an antiquated method of choosing our national leader to survive. Born to give slave states a disproportionate impact on national politics, the electoral college has proved to be a disaster, eviscerating the notion that all votes are equal, and supporting the interests of a tyrannical minority over the interests of the majority, in politics, in our juridical system, and in the laws and policies that govern the land.
It is neither accident or coincidence that the two presidents who were elected with a minority popular vote have been such disasters. They represented moneyed interests capable of winning the Electoral College but incapable of providing leadership for other than their own interests. They succeeded in increasingly transferring wealth and exploiting working class social issues while just plain screwing them economically. From the failure and horrible fallout of the War in Iraq to the catastrophic consequences of not addressing the pandemic with national measures, we have seen what it means when narrow interests install ill-equipped people to our highest office.
IV. The Decline of Good Jobs and the Middle Class:
The decimation of the middle class, and in general people with jobs that provided them with security, destroyed the forces that tended over time to pull the country back to a moderate center.
Five factors conjoined to decimate the America worker and the middle class.
1. The pursuit of the cheaper good, enabled by
2. Globalization, coupled with
3. Profit maximization as the corporate mantra, coupled with
4. Distribution of profits to investors only, undermined by the
5. Use of debt in acquisitions
One major factor in driving the loss of a viable middle class and solid job base was facilitated and accelerated by what I would call the Walmartization of the country, the unbridled pursuit of the cheaper goods, at the expense of any other quality, that anything was worth paying less for goods. When an individual saves a dollar on a shirt, the economic system can more than lose it in the decline in tax revenues from fair pay to an American worker, to the local as well as national coffers as well as local disposable income supporting local service providers in turn providing jobs and paying taxes, the multiplier effect. We lose the further leavening of people who take pride in their work, based on their ability to provide for themselves and their families, and create a climate of grievance and resentment.
2. Globalization: Good for Capital, not so much for Labor
Globalization represents the relentless pursuit of capital to find the cheapest source of production. When it was built around a logic of producing goods where the resources to make them, if fairly priced, led to the greatest market efficiencies, it made sense. As did the uses of technology and transportation modalities to reduce aggregate costs. However, globalization has devolved into a rapacious pursuit of capital to find and exploit the cheapest labor globally, good for profits to owners but terrible for labor, that is, to most citizens. We support the equivalent of slave labor around the globe, and the annihilation of environmental and safety standards in the production of the cheaper goods, and the profits from making them. At the same time, given both the logic and the relentless pace of globalization, we failed in addressing in any efficient or productive manner the impact of shifting manufacturing and production sites, the loss of jobs, and the need to provide genuine support and realistic training for workers affected.
3. Profits Above All
The shift in the management priorities of corporations was a debilitating blow to the economic fabric of the nation. Once springing from their communities and conscious of their relationship and obligations to their workers and communities, and to the society that enabled them to operate and, particularly, flourish, a shift in perceptions of the role of management and the responsibilities of the corporation, that the purported role of a business was no more and no less than generating returns to its owners — shareholder and by spillover, management, gave license to unbridled greed. Given purported validation by adherents of the economist Milton Friedman, over the past decades, corporations shifted operations to the cheapest sources of foreign labor, decimated unions and worker protections, and abandoned the communities, and country, from which they sprang.
When business placed the primacy of shareholder return, and extravagant rewards for financial players as well as upper management, above any other considerations, the nation lost the cohesiveness and comfort of long term job opportunities.
it took some decades after the insidious expansion of the corporation as devoid of any other responsibility but providing shareholder return to articulate the notion of the triple bottom line, one that measured success not just by profit but also by contributions to society. The TBL had to be overtly articulated because it was needed to make explicit what had once been implicit, in the conduct of business and the codes by which people engaged in transactions with their fellow man or woman conducted themselves. Ironic that it was money that drove the Supreme Court decision in Citizen’s United to treat corporations as people, following on corporations abandoning the elements that make a citizen human — compassion for and recognition of others.
4. Profit Distribution
Concurrent with the primacy of generating profits for owner, corporations now most pointedly return over 90% of their profits to their investors and managers, leaving their workers out of the distribution equations. This pattern of distribution further redistributes wealth to the narrow band of the wealthy, sustaining and furthering the cycle of horrendous wealth inequity in the country.
Imagine for a moment where half of corporate profits were returned to their workers, in the form of higher wages as well as sharing. A wealthier working and middle class would be more stabilizing, better able to focus on improving education and healthcare, rather than having to fight for scraps and being resentful for perceiving that some people were getting for free what they were paying for, such as healthcare, or that immigrants were threatening what employment they did have — that is, amenable to myths that skewed their votes towards those who most screwed them economically while feeding the anger the created.
Threading through the demise of the American worker’s social contract is debt, that is, the lavish piling on of debt that financial firms employ in making acquisitions. Debt cripples a company’s ability to weather a storm, manage adverse market conditions. It places management effectively in the hands of people disconnected from company heritage, community bonds, and long term vision. Instead it is ruled by accountant mentalities governed by pecuniary interests. The use of debt as a means of acquiring companies may have led to more job losses than globalization, as spates of bankruptcies and businesses shutting down can attest to. Equity ownership has a level of integrity, of connection to the operations of a business related to function and contribution, that debt lacks and destroys.
V. The Implications of the Loss of a Leavening Middle
These forces had serious, probably intended consequences. Eliminating a potent middle class has enabled populists to dominate the political sphere, imposing their economic and moral sanctions on an increasingly vulnerable population more susceptible to manipulation given their anger at their confounding plight. Not paying local wages to generate local taxes undercuts the ability of local governments to provide decent services, with catastrophic results ranging from mordantly subpar education to bad water to susceptibility to being pressured to accept bad environmental policies and projects.
The middle class had been the moderating influence in America exerting a strong gravitational center that kept the divides within boundaries that while shifting protected the nation from straying too far from the center. The destruction of the leavening force of a middle class that pulled the country back to the center, with the growing and huge disparities in income, wealth and, crucially, access to power, is fomenting an increasing inequitable, and potentially unstable, nation and planet.
With the decline in the middle class, the loss of manufacturing jobs, videos displaying the horrendous deaths of young black men, the obdurate polarization and politicization of cultural issues around abortion, guns, climate, devolving into mask wearing, and the enormous and growing differentials in wealth and living styles for the wealthy and everyone else, the multiple point attacks on the American shell infrastructure simply overwhelmed it.
VI. The Plunder of Inequality
The cracks deepened under the rapacity of accruing and consolidating wealth extending ever deeper into the government, as every Republican administration moved to reduce taxes for the wealthy at the expense of everybody else, adding to the national debt while diminishing the ability of government to provide critical services. As middle class income relatively declined, the version of politics that favored less government was able to effectively limit government services through decreasing tax revenues. The economy boomed, for example, during the Clinton years, with no apparent need to reduce taxes to bolster it, but cutting taxes was the first and major achievement of the Bush Junior administration, building on the reductions ingrained by Reagan and Bush senior, and of course followed on by Trump and his enablers.
Perhaps there was a time, an indeterminate moment, when the balance of effective power in this country shifted, from those who incorporated care about others into their worldview, to those who thought only of money and the power to accumulate it. Perhaps it coincided with the shift in corporate governance, to no longer focus on being social citizens but rather only to focus on profits and returns, for shareholders and management. Perhaps it was the confluence of the two, with the rapacious focus on money in the private sector spilling over to the public sector, where huge sums helped elect and sustain those who would support and promulgate the narrow field of interest.
VII. Where we are today
That is what we are living through now, the polarization of Trump, the enabling of his cruel, hurtful antics by supporters at the highest levels who are joyous and satisfied with a fragmentation that leaves them wealthy and with judicial and legislative bodies who deliver for them, supported at the mass level by those who have been repeatedly screwed, seduced by the appeal that they can seek vengeance for their perceived losses, appealing to cultural prejudices that outweigh other considerations, even economic. The eruption of fundamentalism that eradicates the possibility, even the interest, in compromise, the politicization of science around climate change and now Covid, the rapacious pursuit of wealth at the expense of others, the frequent reports of a young black man ending up dead in a confrontation ignited by a white police officer — that is what happens when a society’s infrastructure is weakened and broken by pinpoint attacks on the shell that needs to bind it.
VIII. The coming battles
Our next War must be the War on Inequity. To rebuild the nation on its core principles, we need to counter the sharp attacks that have corrupted the shell of a society founded on the principles of social, cultural, religious and economic freedom and tolerance.
The battle grounds to recreate a positive, sustainable shell for America are being defined for us. We must fight the battle for providing healthcare for all. We must fight the battle to restore a moral credibility on the world stage. We must fight the battle that builds a healthy infrastructure to support a viable economy. We must fight the battle, as is being defined by the rhetoric, that the level of income inequality and all it brings, in higher mortality, despair, and lack of productivity, is repugnant and not sustainable, as much as we like to believe in the sanctity of American durability.
We must fight domestically and abroad the notion that killing the “other” is a solution to anything other than producing unending violence and disruption. We need to fight the battle so that the planet’s resources of food and material are distributed equitably around the globe, along with access to decent education and mobility. We must fight the battle that restores science, common sense and common decency to our approach to climate change and the interconnectedness that leaves us so vulnerable to pandemics, in part by fighting the battle that gives demagogic stupidity an equal place in the public sphere, supported by narrow interests who will build shelters in New Zealand to house their families when threatened by the results of their radically self-interested pursuits.
In today’s environment it would be impossible to discuss the framework, the shell of America, without discussing fighting the battle of race. Since slavery and racism were built into our Constitution and founding moments, they are embedded in the structure, the original shell, of the nation. In that sense the powerful, well-deserved attacks on them today can hopefully remake an American shell that is more just and stronger, by acknowledging and addressing the horrendous, multi-generational systemic destruction of lives and opportunity that is an integral element in the country’s legacy.
Unless we address the vast disparities that affect health and well-being, unless we find common ground in the historical values of family and community and service, we will move to ever sharper divisions and disparate outcomes. The dangers of such trends can be found in history, in the dissolution of nations and the end of empires.
To foster this pursuit, I would propose we join in a Universal Pledge to Humanity, supplementing whatever national ones people may subscribe to:
I pledge allegiance to the planet earth, to the respect of life for all its people and whatever faiths they choose, to one globe, united, with health and well-being for all.
If you found this of interest, check out more of my perspectives on America, how we got to where we are and what we can do about it, in my new book, Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America, which ranks highly on Amazon in Political Commentary and Historical Essays. I’d love to hear what you think about it. https://amzn.to/2H4SmDz