Several hundred people turned out for the latest Gatherings Initiative event, which featured local author and professor at UC Davis Sasha Abramsky, author of Jumping at Shadows: the Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.
The talk took place on Sunday afternoon at the Davis Senior Center and was followed by a panel discussion led by Davis City Councilmember Lucas Frerichs which included: Mindy Romero, UC Davis Center for Regional Change; Sandy Holman, Culture Co-op/United in Unity; Kate Laddish, Democracy Winters; and Anne Kjemtrup, Davis Muslim Hands.
Professor Abramsky talked about the rise of demagogic, fear-based culture. He said that when a new leader normally comes in, we tend to work out an arrangement whereby we cooperate even when we disagree. “When cooperation proves impossible, at some point you move from cooperation to opposition,” he said, and then at some point where opposition becomes impossible, “you move from opposition to active resistance.
“The amazing thing about this moment is that trajectory happened in about ten seconds,” he said. “As soon as Donald Trump got elected, it became absolutely obvious that we were in a historically unique moment.”
The question is how we got to this moment, and he started his discussion in 2008 with the aftermath of the Great Recession. But he said that “the headline numbers began getting better.
“When you just looked at the headline numbers about five years out from the Great Recession, the headline numbers were looking pretty good,” he said. The key question is “how does a country with headline numbers as America’s, a country at the peak of its political power, its diplomatic power, and its military power, a country which has more economic resources than any other country in human history, how does that country fall prey to the politics of fear and politics of demagoguery in a way that we saw in the last election season and the way that we’re now living in the consequences of today?”
He asked how a country not in the midst of any sort of political, economic or military collapse can “vote for a demagogue.” He said, “A man who looked at Muslims and said, they’re the reason for your problems. A man who looked at Mexicans and said, they’re criminals or build a wall against them.”
He said there is nothing unique about this in human history, “but it normally occurs at a moment of complete national collapse.”
For Professor Abramsky, the question of how this happened lies in a combination of factors. First is economic anxiety, which he said was not just present since 2008, but actually went back decades and affected people at the bottom of the economy.
Second was this “petri dish of fear and anxiety” which he attributed to factors like terrorism, rapid cultural change, rapid technological change, sexual identity changes – “all the things that have been occurring over the last 30, 40, 50 years and for many people are scary.
“When you put it all together,” he said, “suddenly you have a combination of events that creates a fear-based political culture.”
The headline numbers, he said, “that’s all true,” but it’s not the full story. The problem is “that stubborn poverty remains.” While we may have 4.3 percent unemployment nationally, we have 14 percent poverty. “That’s by an extraordinarily cautious measure of poverty,” he stated.
He said that one in five kids lives in poverty in the United States, and in some cities the African American rate is closer to one in three kids living in poverty.
“Just extraordinary numbers,” he said.
And there are millions of Americans in “deep poverty” who are unable to buy food, get health care, and get basic needs. “When you see those numbers and then you hear the stories of those people in poverty, suddenly the economic anxiety starts to make more sense.
“For the people at the bottom of the economy, they’re not wrong,” he said. “They’re lives are heading in reverse.”
He said that whites with no more than a high school degree, “your life expectancy in the last decade hasn’t just risen at a slower pace than that of other demographics, it’s actually gone down. It’s gone down by about five years.” He said, “That creates an extraordinary stress if people’s lives are being truncated to such an extent. That’s not happening in any other Western Democracy.”
He said, “Is it any wonder that that particular group was very very susceptible to the politics of fear, the politics of anxiety, the politics of demagoguery?”
Professor Abramsky cites Yale Political Scientist Jacob Hacker who calls this “a great risk shift.” “Even though on average we’re getting wealthier, we’re doing so in such an unequal way that for tens of millions of Americans, they’re not seeing the benefits of economic growth because those benefits are going up the economic ladder to the very very top, the 1 percent.
“But the further down that pyramid you go, the less you see economic benefits occurring,” he said. He said for the bottom 20 percent, “your real wages peaked in the Nixon era. That’s a long time ago.
“In between for the last 45 years, year in and year out, the bottom quintile has seen its real income go down,” he said. The next quintile has seen its income stagnate. “So for the bottom percent of this economy, at best they and their families have been running in place for the last four and a half decades. And at worst their standard of living has been imploding.”
Later he argued that for 45 years “we’ve managed to underplay the consequences of poverty. And now what’s happened is all of this is leaping the range.” All of the anxiety and uncertainty, not just among the poor but also the wealthy, that is created by an unequal society “has been unleashed.”
He said, “All of the rage of poverty or that fear of the poor has generated has coalesced. And all of these streams have come together in our current political moment, to pave the way to demagogy.”
After Professor Abramsky finished speaking, a panel discussion, moderated by Davis City Councilmember Lucas Frerichs, discussed how the social justice themes of the presentation relate to our lives in Yolo County and Davis.
—David M. Greenwald reporting