I’ve been struck by three observations I’ve come across in as many days.
The first was a comment by someone I don’t know, made in response to a post by a Facebook friend. The friend had (surprise!) criticized Trump; the comment challenged him to identify any way in which he, personally, had been harmed by Trump’s policies. The thrust of the comment was “you haven’t personally experienced a problem, so your criticism is unjustified.”
The very next day, I was watching “Morning Joe” while I was on the treadmill. The panel members were analyzing (okay, pontificating over) the Democratic Presidential field. During the discussion, Scarborough asserted that voters are ultimately motivated by their own interests, by what they believe the candidate will do for them, personally, not by “big ideas” or “abstract” policies or principles.
I wasn’t sure why, but both of these opinions nagged at me. Then my older granddaughter posted a meme that clarified the reason for my discomfort: it said I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.
That post crystalized what bothered me.
There clearly are people–probably more than most of us want to admit–who base their actions and their votes solely on their perceived personal self-interest. That self-interest may be financial, but in the age of Trump, as I’ve repeatedly noted, it is more often cultural.
Such people cast their ballots for candidates they believe will favor their tribe, however they define that tribe. It might be bankers or fossil-fuel investors–but it is more often white Evangelical Christians or white people generally.
Other people, not so much.
Are children being caged at America’s southern border? Well–as a Fox “personality” put it–they aren’t our children. Is the minimum wage far below the level of a living wage, with the result that working Americans need to hold down two or more jobs just to pay the rent? Well, I’m doing okay, so why should I care? Are millions of people unable to access even minimal healthcare? I have health insurance; if others don’t, it’s probably their own fault.
It isn’t just that these people are a lot like “it’s all about me” Donald Trump–less obvious or crude about it, perhaps, but similarly self-engrossed. It’s that there is a great irony in their perception of where genuine self-interest lies.
As Alexander Pope wrote, “no man is an island.” He was so right.
If my neighbors have the plague, and it goes untreated, I’m likely to catch it too. If they’re too impoverished to maintain their properties, the value of my property will suffer a decline. If those who live in my city are unable (or unwilling) to pay reasonable taxes, my car will be damaged by driving on streets filled with potholes, there won’t be enough police to keep my family safe, and numerous public amenities that I use and enjoy will be shuttered or limited. If significant numbers of children in my city are consigned to substandard schools, live in homes with un-remediated lead paint and/or contaminated water, my business will have problems finding both workers and customers.
The (very obvious) point is that my well-being depends upon an extensive physical and social infrastructure. Humans are inextricably interdependent– which is why enlightened self-interest requires attending to those “abstract policies” that affect the wellbeing of others.
Enlightened self-interest requires us to care for others.
The fatal flaw of plutocracy is not that some people have more than others. It is that some people, when they have a great deal, no longer see themselves as part of an interdependent social fabric, no longer realize that the problems of their fellow-citizens inevitably and adversely affect them.
They’re wrong–and their wake-up call is coming.