“Our Miserable 21st Century,” Nicholas Eberstadt’s tour de force in the February issue of Commentary is essential reading for anyone interested in Trump populism’s appeal to alienated working and non-working classes. GDP is down, work rates are down — so while unemployment has fallen, it doesn’t take into account those who have dropped out of the workforce altogether. Eberstadt says that, . . .”for every unemployed American man between 25 and 55 years of age, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work. The folks who are suffering have lost faith in American institutions” and they think that the country is “headed in the wrong direction.” Family breakdown, growing health problems, alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, and the growth of a “criminal class.” Death by self-destruction seems to be a growing phenomenon. One fifth of all men between 25 and 55 are on Medicaid, a Medicaid that can be easily be used to support drug habits. Eberstadt goes on at length telling this grim tale all of which leads to the “emergence of a malign new nationwide undertow, pulling downward against social mobility”. Those who Eberstadt says are in a “bubble” of ignorance about all of this need to wake up.
This book isn’t out yet, but it looks like a promising explanation for the new populism. Author Joan Williams says, “the working class is, in fact, the elusive, purportedly disappearing middle class. They often resent the poor and the professionals alike. But they don’t resent the truly rich, nor are they particularly bothered by income inequality. Their dream is not to join the upper middle class, with its different culture, but to stay true to their own values in their own communities–just with more money.” Eduardo Porter of the Times obviously got an advanced copy and has taken to furthering Williams’ theory.
One long term solution — skills training — is obvious but gets little traction from policy-makers. The current Foreign Affairs has a piece on the subject that makes a terrific defense of this approach. Ever since the “college for everyone” mantra came to dominate higher education apprenticeships and skills training have been relegated to a back seat, leaving the non-college educated, and even some who are, with few job prospects.