NowThe following remarks were delivered by Senator Chris Murphy at a conference held by the conservative journal American Affairs, Employ America, and the Federation of American Scientists on December 7, 2022.
First, I want to thank Julius Krein for the invitation to participate in today’s conference. The conversation you are having today about securing supply chains, rebuilding domestic manufacturing, and navigating an era of deglobalization are critical.
But I think we all understand that the challenges America faces aren’t really logistical. They are metaphysical. And the sooner we understand the unspooling of identity and meaning that is happening in America today, the sooner we can come up with practical policies to address this crisis.
Whether he fell backwards into it or not, Donald Trump tapped into this feeling of American exhaustion and helplessness that defines large swathes of our country today, especially those areas that are far away from the evergreen economic abundance of America’s handful of mega-cities. Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton captures this constituency when he describes a long vanished “blue collar aristocracy” that once dominated middle America. Families where one parent worked and only one parent needed to work in order for that family to have enough money to eat, have a roof over their head, go on a vacation or two each year, and make sure the kids got enough education to have a chance at doing better than their parents. There was power in being able to know that one good job could do all that. It gave you control and agency and meaning.
This was also a time where local economies, local industries, and local newspapers were essential to one’s identity and sense of belonging. In western Connecticut, you can visit the Silver City and the Hat City and the Brass City and the Hardware City. These small cities were proud of what they made and the people of those cities were proud to be associated with the hard work of making those things. They got their news from robust local papers that connected the residents to each other and created a sense of community. Because workers only needed one job to survive, they had time to belong to social clubs and churches and civic organizations, where even more sense of community was formed.
It was a time when in person connection was ubiquitous. People interacted on streets and front porches. The telephone changed everything, but there was only so much that could get done on the telephone. People still invested in, and had time for, in person interaction.
Unfiltered nostalgia is dangerous, and so I understand all the things about the mid century that we shouldn’t reminisce about. Most Americans — including women, African Americans, immigrants — had few rights. That’s the defining injustice of this era. Production was pretty inefficient, and that came with economic costs. And in the era before interstate highways, the internet, and social media, it meant that lots of people had limited existences and were denied the ability to connect with people of like interests and identity who did not live near them.
It was during this time, during and after the Second World War, that a school of economic and cultural thought emerged that sought to improve upon the model that built the blue collar aristocracy and provide a bulwark against the creep of the primary competing economic model of the time — communist socialism.
The idea was dubbed neoliberalism. Neoliberalism argued that barrier-free international markets, rapidly advancing communications technology and automation, decreased regulation, and empowered citizen-consumers would be the keys to prosperity, happiness, and a strong democracy.
Slowly and methodically, American leaders, cheered on by the domestic private sector, began to implement this vision in the decades after the Second World War. Americans settled comfortably into this new paradigm, ready and eager to reap the bounty. For a time, it arrived in spades. But then, somewhere around thirty years ago, the project started to fray at the edges.
The good paying jobs — the ones that had created that early and mid-twentieth century blue-collar aristocracy — were shipped overseas, and the jobs that replaced them had lower pay, fewer benefits, less hours, and less opportunity for advancement.
Technology, over time, became so complicated, and advanced at a pace so dizzying, it no longer felt within our control. Social media connected us, but also bred resentment and societal fragmentation. Automation and online commerce ended up erasing our local economies, our local meeting places, and our local news sources.
And finally, the relentless commercialization of everything not tied down, and the resulting unceasing consumer culture, delivered some prosperity, but not much fulfillment. As citizenship gave way to consumerism as the primary way we define ourselves as Americans, our identities got swallowed up by the antiseptic, profit-obsessed economy.
The ultimate result is today’s metaphysical epidemic of American exhaustion. Most prominently, that exhaustion manifests itself as two insidious emotions: loneliness and anger.
All over our nation, people of all ages are feeling a greater sense of disconnectedness from society and culture than at any time prior in our history. In the 1970s, surveys showed only 10 percent of Americans reported feelings of intense loneliness. Today, that number is 36 percent, with young people reporting feelings of severe isolation at startling levels of over 60 percent. It’s not coincidental that feelings of loneliness are increasing at the same time that rates of self harm — most prominently suicide — are increasing too.
There is also an explosion of anger in America today, and that’s the primary emotion that Donald Trump tapped into. The lack of ready access to positive identities (family, place, or institution) makes negative identities — those built on hatred and distrust of others — more attractive. The newly isolated become supple targets for demagogues, like Trump, who offer up scapegoats to blame for the decay of these traditional sources of meaning.
America was shocked in 2017 when a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville drew thousands, and then was effectively condoned by the President of the United States, who noted that there were lots of “good people” present. But this should not have been a surprise. Loneliness and anger are driving people to dark and dangerous places, where they find meaning by connecting with others who feel their same sense of anger and displacement.
The quickest antidote to the failures of neoliberalism — the quickest way to establish economic agency and healthy institutions and connection to place, is to invest in responsible economic nationalism — the commitment to an industrial policy that strengthens key industries within the borders of the United States.
And in the past two years, you’ve seen the promising bipartisan overlap on an agenda of economic nationalism. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set about the work of rebuilding America’s roads, rails, and power lines to be able to attract lost jobs back to America and bring our transportation infrastructure up to modern standards. The CHIPS Act restarted the American microchip industry. The Inflation Reduction Act — while passed with only Democratic support — supercharged the domestic renewable energy industry, with one estimate suggesting the law will create nine million new energy jobs over the next decade.
There is a metaphysical benefit to economic nationalism as well.. It can build the kind of full time good paying jobs that create economic agency for families. And it can help restore the health of communities that have been gutted by the disappearance of the local industries that once provided definition and meaning.
But rebuilding American industry isn’t enough. Government should consider more direct subsidies for community institutions, like local newspapers and civic clubs — to help keep them at the center of community life. Government must also be less complacent about the modern monopolies that put so many local businesses out of business.
We should also acknowledge that while technology has provided immeasurable benefits, it is not without its faults. We need to hold social media giants and big tech companies accountable for the harm their products can and have caused. Technology should serve us, not rule us.
The good news is that a pro-family, pro-community platform of economic nationalism along with some healthy tech regulation is not only good politics — it’s good policy. We can revive American industry and create good-paying jobs in every part of the country — not only in the coastal cities that have long benefited from a monopoly on investment. We can rebuild the institutions we lost to globalization and strengthen the community ties that once kept us tethered together.
The signs are clear, and we shouldn’t be afraid to see them: the postwar neoliberal economic project is nearing its end, and the survival of American democracy relies on how we respond.