Tuesday nights, my wife and I watch Finding Your Roots on PBS. It’s one of our favorite shows. Every week it’s the same thing. Famous people with a common theme are walked through their ancestry by Harvard’s Skip Gates. Before their eyes the reality of a lost past is revealed and a story unfolds that explains why any of the guests are where they are.
Gates does a good enough job with the history for technophiles like me to be satisfied. And the research and storytelling are extremely well done. It’s an hour spent scratching my narrative building itch.
There’s a common thread observed in the reactions of the guests as they walk through the tracks in which American history runs. Under the stories of immigration or war or slavery, there’s a remarkable consistency.
Life was hard in the not so distant past. And it was unimaginably hard in the distant past. Brutally so.
Though there’s a bit of self-selection in the exact details of the stories told, it’s an unmistakable reality. Not that long ago, people had less. America produced less. Justice across differing demographics was terribly administered. And life for all but a lucky few was eked out off the land or in brutal urban working and living conditions.
Spending some time with the lives of the people of the past enables an important reflection. Things are better than they used to be. It’s not close. And they’re better for many reasons. None more so than the inescapable truth that the American economy has grown in productivity and output for centuries.
This growth has brought us from an agricultural society to one based on industrial manufacturing and now on to a post-industrial services economy. At each point along the way, combinations of productivity gains, technological advancement and growth have given us more than we’ve ever had.
Today, the most common health concerns for our poorest Americans are related to obesity, not starvation. 2/3 of Americans in our lowest income bracket have smart phones. And 98% of Americans have access to high speed internet. That our poorest Americans have things that make their lives better is something to celebrate as a society, not resent. It signals that we’ve been effective at enabling a baseline standard of living.
We are not a people free of injustice, however. And there are no shortfalls of causes to invest in to ensure an equally bright future as our present conditions should warrant. But we should be honest in our assessments of where we are on the arc of our American society. We are a people who have never had more abundance. And though the distance between those with the most and those with the least has increased, in real terms, we’ve got more at both levels and every level in between. Anyone who argues otherwise is difficult to take too seriously.
In 2016, Americans were convinced otherwise.
Donald Trump won the election convincing some portion of us that it was all going to come crashing down around us if we didn’t turn to him for safety. Safety from the hordes amassing on the southern border. Safety from a media that was out to destroy our country. Safety from ISIS. Safety from the swamp of government. Safety from liberals who want to ruin the American way of life.
Bernie Sanders, if not for a pre-ordained candidate in Hillary Clinton, would have been Trump’s opponent. He had his own message of crisis; that we were in a crisis of inequality. That the path to mobility was no longer available. And that our youth had no future under a rigged game aimed at benefiting the elite.
Trump and Sanders were the two sides to the 2016 coin. A crisis coin the American people craved after eight years of a boring, Eisenhower era Republican Barack Obama whose most outlandish achievement was a conservative healthcare reform plan. Obama was a slow de-escalation of wars. A slow recovery from the recession. And never a word uttered out of turn by anyone.
When America chose its new president in 2008, we didn’t need much convincing that we were in crisis. Hope and Change was a sufficient message. In 2016, America craved crisis.
Yesterday, Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the 2020 presidential election. Make no mistake, Sanders is a crisis candidate with a crisis message. And while his particular message of crisis resonates more with those of us still anchored in liberal societal beliefs, it’s still a specific sort of crisis. And I’m afraid it simply isn’t the right one for 2020.
The crisis of 2020 is the current trajectory of the executive branch of the United States Government and the nature of divisive, unproductive rhetoric that comes all the way from the top.
The American people are going to have a referendum on the standard for American government leadership in 2020. Politics aside, whether we tolerate Trump-like figures going forward will be determined by whether or not 45 gets two terms. One of the messages the Trump political machine pushes effectively to the base and even more dangerously to the undecided electorate that will determine the winner, is that the alternatives to Trump are socialist lunatics that want to plunge America into an EU style crisis.
No one sets up that straw man quite like Bernie Sanders.
Sanders is a dedicated public servant. And I think his presence in American politics effectively represents a needed argument. But if someone’s got to go into the lion’s den in 2020 and come out in one piece, I’m not sure Bernie’s the one to do it. Undecided Americans will be too easily convinced that today, our most dire problems won’t be solved by further distribution of resources and a message that expands the distance people have to travel to find an alternative to Donald Trump.
Whether they’re right or not, has little impact on 2020.