Let’s talk politics. I don’t do this much on the blog, because it’s a toxic substance and has to be handled with care. But there’s no doubt that Heartlands had its origin in concerns about the political direction of the country. And there is no way to talk about these strange days of rural America without dealing with the role they are playing in the current Great Divide.
My own taste in political thinkers runs to thoughtful iconoclasts who don’t lean with the prevailing winds. I like people who search for the larger contours of our present moment and different frames for viewing the scene.
Edward Luce is such a person and I have just gotten around to his 2017 book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. I highly recommend it. Luce is a British-born, American-based columnist for the Financial Times. He also served as a speechwriter for the Treasury Secretary in the Obama White House. But don’t expect hopey-changey from this guy.
Luce is horrified by a political landscape which allows unprincipled populist blowhards to rule the day, but he isn’t surprised. For Luce, liberal democracies have been on the retreat for awhile now, and Trump is the symptom, not the disease. The comfortable, urban, wealthy elites of the West have been divorcing themselves from the anxious, rural, working class for some time now. And the the divide is only getting worse.
In four brief sections of a 200-page book, Luce offers a breathless ride through his thesis. In the first section, “Fusion,” he takes on globalism—how it has enriched so many in developing nations but also how it has forced down wages on the Western middle classes. Urban centers have flourished even as they have begun to grow more and more disconnected from the nations around them. London is not responsible for Brexit any more than Chicago is responsible for Trump, but they share so much in common with each other and so little with the hinterlands for which they used to be magnets. “To the West’s economic losers,” Luce says, “cities like London and Chicago are not so much magnets as death stars.” (48)
Buckle your seat belt. It gets worse.
The second section, “Reaction,” charts “the degeneration of Western politics” in which the optimism that accompanied economic growth curdles into the angry, divisive movements that seek a scapegoat and a nostalgic return to a more secure past. When progressives saw this movement and slapped easy labels like ‘racist,’ ‘regressive,’ and ‘whitelash’ on it, it only fed the divide. Something that became all to clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when MAGA Americans, who were otherwise sympathetic to the outrage over the overt racism, felt they were being asked to sign on to an agenda that equated their support of Trump with the same overt racism. “To write off all those who voted for [Trump] as bigoted will only make his job easier,” Luce notes. (97)
The third part, “Fallout,” looks at the foreign policy implications of the United States’ declining power in the world. The chaotic world that takes the place of Pax Americana is a frightening one to consider as Luce tells it.
Finally, in the fourth part, “Half Life,” Luce sketches, all too briefly, an ambitious plan to combat the decline of the democracies—one which would require a recognition by both right and left that we can’t keep ‘playing to the base’ no matter how righteous it makes us feel. Some new common narrative must take the place of the Great Divide.
There have been a lot of books out there that try to explain what’s going on in the Heartlands. I’ve highlighted a few in this blog, such as Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land. Add J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to that list as well.
But Luce’s book pulls back the lens so that we can see that the change is not just out here, but everywhere. And a shaming moralism is no way to point the way to a brighter future for those who feel left behind. “If politics is persuasion, these are dangerous tactics,” Luce says. “There is a thin line between convincing people of the merits of a case and suggesting they are moral outcasts if they fail to see it.” (188)
There’s a theological argument to make here as well, which is not in Luce’s bailiwick. It’s no more complex than the Golden Rule. In seeing the world through the eyes of the other, we recognize a humanity that transcends our political assumptions. Reading, and shuddering along with, Edward Luce, I wonder if we still have eyes to see.