That’s why we need to spend 4 trillion dollars
I’ve spent the past few weeks in a controlled state of rage – and I’m not usually the angry type of guy. Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and others are trying to pass the most important legislative package in a generation, and what did I feel on my recent travels through five states? The same I feel in my social media feed and in my “most viewed” multimedia lists.
Have we given up on the idea that politics can change history? Have we lost faith in our ability to reverse, or even become concerned about, national decline? I hear more and more people accept that America is not as vibrant and youthful as it once was.
I can practically hear the souls of our ancestors screaming – those who have a basic belief that this will forever be the greatest nation on this planet, the new Jerusalem, the last hope on earth.
My ancestors were ambitious immigrants and understood where the beating heart of the nation resides: with the working class and the middle class, those portrayed by Willa Cather, James Agee and Ralph Ellison, and in “Honeymoon,” “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “On the Waterfront.” There was a time when the phrase “common man” was a source of great pride and compliment.
Over the past few decades there has been a redistribution of dignity – upward. From Reagan to Romney, Republicans have prized Wall Street entrepreneurs and CEOs. The Democratic Party was dominated by the creative class, who attended competitive colleges, moved to affluent metro areas, married each other and offered benefits to their children so that they could leap forward more.
There was a bipartisan embrace of a culture of individualism, which opens up a lot of space for people who have the resources and social support, but means loneliness and abandonment for people who don’t. Four years of college has become the definition of the good life, which has left nearly two-thirds of the country outside.
And so came the crisis that Biden was elected to address – the toxic combination of elite isolation and sinister populist resentment.
Read again Robert Kagan’s alarming Washington Post article about how close we are to democratic disaster. It talks about a group of people so angry at a lack of respect that they are willing to risk death from COVID if they can put a middle finger in the air against those they think look down on them. They are ready to set our institutions on fire because they are so upset with the people who run them.
Democrats’ spending bills are economic packages that serve moral and cultural purposes. It should be measured by its cultural influence, not just by some incorrect analysis. And in real, tangible ways, they will redistribute dignity down the line. They will support hundreds of thousands of jobs for home health care workers, child care workers, construction workers, metal workers, and supply chain workers. They will alleviate the humiliation that millions of parents face when they have to raise their children in poverty.
Look at the list of states that, according to a recent analysis of White House estimates by CNBC, could be among those states that get the most money per capita from an infrastructure bill. Many are places where Trumpian resentment rages: Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota.
In normal times, I see that many of the programs in these packages may be ineffective. I worry more about debt than the progressives seem. But we are a nation with a national rupture, and perhaps the most violent parts are yet to come.
These parcels say to struggling parents and warehouse workers: I see you. Your work has dignity. You pave your way. You are at the heart of our national vision.
This is how you strengthen a persuasive moral identity, which is what we all need if we are to be able to look in the mirror with self-respect. This is the cultural shift that good politics can sometimes achieve. Statecraft is the soul of the soul.
For years, there has been life almost officially accredited: Earn a bachelor’s degree, and move to those places where capital and jobs converge, even if it means leaving your community, your roots, and your extended family.
These were not desirable or realistic options for millions of people. On the other hand, these packages say: We support the choices you’ve made, in the places you choose to live.
This basic respect is the main rarity in America now.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.