There is near unanimity among progressives these days that 2016 was a flat-out political disaster. With the Trump-Pence crew on its way in, conservative GOP majorities in both legislative chambers (and about two-thirds of state legislatures), and even the Democratic opposition too often reflecting a corporatist, neoliberal mindset, many would agree that traditional thinking can no longer go unquestioned. At a minimum there surely must be a willingness to look at the big picture—not only to determine what has caused events to unfold the way they have, but also to consider how things can be turned around.
From a political standpoint, big-picture thinking can be especially useful when turned to the future in an effort to seriously contemplate what a better society might look like. While such futuristic visions will inevitably vary, most of the optimists among us would surely envision a world of advanced technology working for the betterment of all, with the result being more widespread prosperity and less suffering. This would be a society where average citizens enjoy a high quality of life: personal freedom, security, and a social and economic environment that realistically allows for meaningful and creative day-to-day living.
The idea that technology should improve the lives of all isn’t just dreamy or hypothetical, since to some extent we've all seen it play out. Even the poorest sectors of most developed societies, for example, usually enjoy basic technologies—electricity, indoor plumbing, and access to modern transportation—that even royalty couldn’t have imagined a few generations ago. Today’s poor still face far too many disadvantages and injustices, but for practical purposes many of the technologies they utilize, though nonexistent not long ago, are now considered necessities of life. If a home without electricity wouldn’t be considered fit for occupancy today, this standard of living is evidence of our advancement as a society.
But despite the importance of technological advances, Americans have largely abandoned the notion of quality of life in their political thinking and discussions. We may take for granted that everyone should have indoor plumbing, but we nevertheless forget that “progress” is supposed to mean that life gets easier for everyone. We should realize that this blind spot in our political thinking has tremendous implications.
In American culture, advertising will often portray people enjoying comfort and luxury, but usually in a context that implies that an abundant, carefree lifestyle is an attainment reserved only for a special few. Ads condition us to accept that retirement security awaits not everybody, but only those who belong to a certain desirable class (which includes clients of the financial firm being advertised).
If we accept this kind of advertising pitch and the values underlying it—and too often we do—the social outcome is predictable. This is the American dream in 2017, a society where virtually everyone must work like a dog while most will have little to show for it: little or no net worth, no economic security, no guaranteed health care, no ability to afford higher education, etc.
We’ve allowed this to happen because we’ve taken the demonization of entitlement too far, forgetting that the core purpose of technological progress is improved quality of life. If we rejected institutional dominance and the rat race it delivers—if we were instead politically and culturally focused on quality of life—we would demand that progress must be defined by a general population that sees consistent improvement in quality-of-life factors.
And quality of life is not defined by enjoyment of a few bells and whistles that previous generations didn’t have—flat-screen televisions, smart phones, etc. Instead, given the remarkable progress that society has made, is it so outrageous to say that average men and women should be working fewer hours and enjoying more vacations? (The United States currently ranks dead last in providing paid vacations.) Or that nobody should have to stress over being able to put a roof over their head? Or that higher education and basic health care should simply be available to all? Isn’t this what progress is supposed to be all about?
Though it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, Americans should understand that the lack of universal benefits such as health care often arises not from any deep-rooted belief in rugged individualism, but from an ugly heritage of prejudice. When universal health care was spreading widely in the developed world in the twentieth century, it was blocked in the United States by segregationists who opposed the idea of racially integrated hospitals and other health care facilities. Surely we can do better now.
The entire argument against wider entitlements would be more credible if the United States were a nation of class mobility, where hard work necessarily translated to prosperity, but such is not the case. In today’s America, the poor tend to stay poor and the rich tend to stay rich. As economist Paul Krugman has said, in this country “smart poor kids are less likely than dumb rich kids to get a degree." This would change if we adjusted our values to see a college education as a right (go ahead, call it an entitlement if you wish—it's not a dirty word), not as something that only families of a certain economic class ("successful" families, if we accept the standards of the advertising and financial industries) can afford.
Another important element that needs to be added to the conversation, from a humanistic and progressive standpoint, is the value of universal benefits as opposed to safety-net benefits. From a political standpoint, whenever possible, it is best for benefits that run to all, not just to a certain class of people. This is why Social Security has been difficult for right-wing politicians to attack and dismantle—because everyone enjoys its benefits, so defense of the program is not a divisive matter. Programs that run only to the poorest, while certainly necessary at times, are more likely to build resentment from those on the economic ladder who fall just outside of qualifying. It's much better to open the door for all, as with Social Security, thus creating a sense of common interest.
Today’s America has no such togetherness. Instead, despite rapidly advancing technology, Americans are a people for whom security and peace of mind are elusive, and thus every sector of society feels the anxiety and stands ready to point the finger of blame at others. It’s ironic that we carry computers in our pockets that would have been unimaginable to our great-grandparents, but as we do so in an atmosphere of negativity.
The idea of rethinking entitlements makes even more sense when we realize that, despite our prosperity as a society, huge segments of the population have a net worth of zero or less. Having no savings would be less troubling in a society that provides the basic necessities of living for all—health care, education, security in retirement, etc.—but it is disastrous in a society that is more akin to the Hunger Games, where everyone is on their own in some sort of sick contest for survival. And most troublingly, the figures for personal wealth are worse in the United States than in most other developed countries, even though those other countries generally provide more social benefits. No wonder the anxiety level is so high here!
Finally, it might be worth considering why quality of life has not been more of an issue in American politics. If there is one power center that affirmatively resists efforts to ensure more widespread benefits for the general population, it would be the corporate sector that would be expected to subsidize it in various ways, from paying higher taxes to giving employees more time off. Thus, suppression of this issue, through divisive politics, lobbying, litigation, propaganda, and any other means, has been a major priority for corporate interests, which of course control both major parties.
As progressives await the Trump presidency and ponder the future, perhaps the answer is as simple as getting people to think about their own interests, and the future that might be.
Latest book: Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason