While Our Neros Fiddle…

In his Phoenix rally, Donald Trump doubled down on his appeal to racism–both through a self-serving (and inaccurate) defense of his remarks after Charlottesville and in a coy reference to a potential pardon for notorious Arizona racist Joe Arpaio. It was red meat for his supporters.

The question is: who are those supporters?

I have previously expressed my belief that Trump’s election owed much more to racial resentment than to economic distress. But I do understand the connections between cultural and economic anxiety.

It is true that Trump voters on average were better-off financially than Clinton voters (and it is also true, and worth repeating, that there were three million more of the latter than the former), but as sociologists will confirm, economic anxiety is not the same thing as economic deprivation. And multiple studies confirm that anxiety and insecurity trigger bigotries and other behaviors that are suppressed in less tumultuous times.

A recent Economist article describes an academic inquiry that illustrates the connection:

LAST year over 102,000 people died in nearly 50 armed conflicts across the world, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a think-tank. Much of this violence is caused by tensions between ethnic groups—two-thirds of civil wars have been fought along ethnic lines since 1946. Yet historians differ over whether cultural differences or economic pressures best explain how tensions explode into violence.

A new study by Robert Warren Anderson, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama suggests that, historically, economic shocks were more strongly associated with outbreaks of violence directed against Jews than scholars had previously thought.

The research cited an intriguing example: some 57% of people living in medieval England relied on farming, and a decline in average temperatures of only a third of a degree increased the probability of a pogrom or expulsion by 50% over the next five years. In other words, incidence of violence against Jews weren’t caused by religiously-motivated anti-Semitism. That animus was undeniably– and constantly– present, but its eruptions were triggered by social and economic ills.

Echoes of these patterns are discernible today. Many economists have linked the weather—particularly droughts and heatwaves in agricultural economies—to outbreaks of intercommunal violence in developing countries. Another paper published last year, by Carl-Friedrich Schleussner and his colleagues, found that between 1980 and 2010 23% of civil wars coincided with climate-related disasters in countries with deep ethnic divides. Global warming may worsen this problem further. The lesson of history is that better political institutions can help soothe tensions.

If better political institutions can soothe tensions, it stands to reason that worse political environments can encourage them.

The emergence of the so-called “alt-right” (and no, Mr. Trump, there really isn’t such a thing as an “alt-left”) is widely attributed to Trump’s barely-veiled encouragement of racism and other forms of bigotry, the expression of which was preceded by the years of GOP “dog whistles” that have become one of the party’s routine political tools in the wake of Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

The success of that strategy required both pre-existing bigotry–mostly latent, but undeniably potent–and an increase in appeals to social and/or economic anxiety.

Social anxiety in an age of constant and accelerating change is a given. There isn’t much lawmakers can do about that. But they can ameliorate economic insecurity. Legislators can strengthen America’s porous and inadequate social safety net; they can expand access to healthcare; they can make the tax code simpler and fairer; they can raise the minimum wage; they can fashion rules to ensure that the water in our cities remains lead-free and drinkable and the air breathable (and they can require Scott Pruitt’s EPA to abide by those rules).

In short, lawmakers can remove a significant number of the uncertainties that feed economic anxiety. They can also act responsibly and constitutionally, sending a reassuring signal that America’s institutions are functioning properly. None of that, however, is happening.

Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned. Congress could give him lessons.


  1. Doctor Kennedy:
    Paul Ryan (and all Congress people) need to read this from your blog today:
    “Social anxiety in an age of constant and accelerating change is a given. There isn’t much lawmakers can do about that. But they can ameliorate economic insecurity. Legislators can strengthen America’s porous and inadequate social safety net; they can expand access to healthcare; they can make the tax code simpler and fairer; they can raise the minimum wage; they can fashion rules to ensure that the water in our cities remains lead-free and drinkable and the air breathable (and they can require Scott Pruitt’s EPA to abide by those rules).”
    To Make America Great Again we need more revenue which is raised by taxation. That revenue source must be the carpetbaggers who have not paid enough, who have exploited our resources too long, and who have had too much power for too long.
    Let’s go, Paul Ryan, you’re in a position to lead us to greatness by serving all of the people from your office of Speaker of the House. Forget Trump, forget the GOP, remember the USA. Be a mensch!

  2. “Legislators can strengthen America’s porous and inadequate social safety net; they can expand access to healthcare; they can make the tax code simpler and fairer; they can raise the minimum wage; they can fashion rules to ensure that the water in our cities remains lead-free and drinkable and the air breathable (and they can require Scott Pruitt’s EPA to abide by those rules).”

    * This will not happen until the power of money is removed from elections and since the uber wealthy have managed to legalize unlimited free speech with their money, they will continue to own the politicians who will continue to gift the wealthy more and more power.

  3. At the heart of the problem is the unwillingness of the American citizens to do their duty to their country and VOTE. It is generally not a hard thing to do and it is certainly not too much to ask in return for the blessings of liberty. 120 million people decided they would rather complain about the outcome than take the time to go to the polls last November. We got what THEY deserved.

  4. The problem isn’t helped by the fact that Ryan and many in the House freedom caucus believe that economic anxiety is a good thing because Ayn Rand said so. Never mind that Ryan was raised in a very economically secure engironment, married a rich girl, and was financed and carefully groomed by his father-in-law for a cushy life in national politics.

  5. Our survival instincts came into play with this election before it was even over. So many swore they would leave the country if Trump was elected…where are they living now? Did they remain in their red states? LOL!

    When my “fight or flight” instinct kicked into action; I chose to stay and fight. Whether it is ethnic or economic we must continue fighting the status quo to gain control of what was once OUR White House. I believe it is the combination of ethnic and economic as well as the fact we seem to be fighting a combination of Revolutionary and Civil Wars; 21st Century style. We have been disappointed by election results in the pasat but learned to deal with it; this is a different can of worms, switching to Pence’s leadership disabilities will merely open a different can of worms. Congress doesn’t appear to even be putting out the effort to “fiddle” while the flames leap higher and nearer to all American butts (apparently unaware it is also their butts on the line) the exceptions at this time are Trump and the 1%.

  6. a recent economic policy inst.org, has a bought some daylight to the latest tax and wage scam in washington, Liz Rose,EPI, my ongoing crusade for a living wage is about to take a major hit. its HR 743. davis-bacon repeal act, congress.gov thares a story on the EPIs web, No free bridge. about the tax reform anf infrastucture bill to be discussed in very near future. the davis-bacon act was to insure workers got a local prevailing wage on fed and state jobs. in the piece, no free bridge, was a discussion and, facts on P3s, and wages.the need to pull this bill is needed to show solidatiry,and make a stand. the American worker in tired of wall streets run away train on inequality,and wage disparities. showing weakness now, will allow the monied interests to further collapse wages further in all construction. p.s. Ms Kennedy, there is a alt left, my personal lic plate..,alt left.. thanks…

  7. Labeling and ethnic definitions are typical of tribalism. We still live with a net-lithic instinct package of emotion-driven decision making while trying to manage almost 8 billion of us humans. It’s simply not going to work, and as resources dwindle, it will only get worse.

    I’m glad I’m old.

  8. jack smith

    Please take yourself to your local library and check out a book on the art of writing the English language.

    Thanks from all who would like to understand what the blazes you are trying to articulate.

  9. I think the Medes and Persians are already under the gates… just waiting for the knuckle bone to write…!

  10. It’s been clear the that for some time Americans have been dealing with the possibility of some frightening spectre that will require the saving of some of the population but not all. Remember Romney’s secret speech proposing focus on the 47% who would hire him at the has expense of 53% who could not afford him?

    The think of Trump as an extension of that thinking but aimed to towards how can the donor class actually benefit from the trauma.

    Unprecedented makes prediction impossible so exactly what, when and who remains obscured but it seems like everyone has a similar sense that life as we know it is not sustainable.

    Unfortunately for now we have a government totally unqualified to lead through a transition to a stable new place.

  11. Vernon, you nailed it. I am trying to prepare my kids for interesting times.

    That being said, the point being missed here is that the same people whose policies guarantee the insecurity that causes instability and violence are the ones who benefit from the violence. I have a friend who is highly placed in the making things go boom from a distance business, and man, business is booming for sure. He is an old pot smoking hippy guy who easily could have been an over the hill bernie boy, but surprise, surprise, he just wants to make ‘murica great again. After dinner with him and his wife I tried to politely question their priorities, and his wife said, “Big Booms, Inc. asked us to support Trump, and democrats didn’t buy us this Mercedes, did they?” [Names changed to protect the not so innocent.]

  12. Few things destroy one’s credibility than writing that is filled with typographical errors. That is enough to call into question anything the author has said. I would recommend that Jack Smith invest in a good dictionary and keep it next to his computer, so he can use it regularly.


    Just how can we citizens, who cannot vote on bills before Congress, overcome a congressional catch-22, in which law makers will never enact a bill that would take away Congress’s “right” to accept bribes…so long as the bribes are disguised as something else?

    HOW ABOUT AN ONLINE CITIZEN’S INITIATIVE to create a National Citizen’s Initiative and make the initiative Constitutional? Sure, we have no law that enables such initiatives to become the law of the land. But…but if an online citizen’s initiative were empowered by, say, 60 million signatures of registered voters, it would be a powerful incentive. It would then become even more powerful if in the next presidential election one or more of the candidates included our initiative in his or her platform.
    In political science, an initiative (also known as a popular or citizens’ initiative) is a means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters can force a public vote (referendum, sometimes called a plebiscite).

    Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland and 24 states in the United States have some version of a public initiative.

    The initiative may take the form of a direct initiative or an indirect initiative, and either may be limited to only a few specific functions of government, meaning that term limits and international relations are usually off limits.

    In a direct initiative, a measure is put directly to a vote after being submitted by a petition. In an indirect initiative, a measure is first referred to the legislature, and then put to a popular vote only if not enacted by the legislature.
    I think Dr. Kennedy is perfectly qualified to write the initiative. Someone else might have the qualifications to disseminate it on the Internet in a way that would expose it to the most people. And then, there would be the need to have highly qualified, charismatic people to act as spokespersons across the spectrum of American media. Capital would be needed and sponsors would come aboard.

    Our initiative would empower American citizens to curb corruption in Congress.

  14. Nancy – You have correctly diagnosed the problem, and one that I just blogged about this morning. The fundamental problem is that we have abandoned our elections to Big Money, an abandoment greatly helped by the holdings in Citizens United, a decision unlikely to be reversed soon due to the compostion of the court. Our only hope is to pass a law providing for public financing of the campaigns of those seeking federal offices, thus putting the Kochs and Mercers and their open checkbooks out of business and mitigating some of the disastrous effects of Citizens United while we await the opportunity (someday) of putting this decision (our second worst decision in Supreme Court history behind Dred Scott) where it belongs – in the dustbin of history.

  15. At the bottom line, on the streets and in the homes of common folks, there is fear.
    On the right, fear of the”other” is the driving force to their anger, hatred and misplaced feeling of being victimized by government when corporatism is the true suppressor.
    On the left and in the middle are those who fear an unstable and impulsive narcissist who thrives on chaos. Every day dawns with another crisis, deflection, distraction, projection from the DT administration.
    In the background of all the drama and hyperbole is the Congress, a totally ineffective and obstructionist group of mostly millionaires in thrall to the billionaires who continue to fund dark money PACs. Those PAC have a disproportionate influence on policy and regulation.
    We freedmen and women down in the dirt may get a few crusts of bread and some distracting circus entertainment occasionally, but we all know the big show is the carefully orchestrated fire in the palace.
    The worst part is that there doesn’t seem to be any end to the chaos in sight. It is exhausting and disheartening.

  16. JD; is there any way possible to count up and add every dangerous and/or ridiculous problem (not including war – YET) of all previous 44 presidents? It is my guess that he has caused more chaos and national and international problems than all 44 combined. Will that be his legacy; along with a Congress supporting his mentally unstable presidency?

  17. JD

    Add the following to that list of fears you write about: fear of the changing climate and all it portends to bring to our everyday lives, fear of over-population and dwindling natural resources, and fear of the corruption of institutions that use to be reliable bulwarks of society.

    We are heading downhill on a slippery slope… and I don’t think the breaks are working anymore.

Comments are closed.