As an outsider looking in, America’s social, political, economic and environmental systems all appear to be in acute crisis. At their heart is the growing inequality and sense of disenfranchisement amongst the population. This election season has done nothing to inspire me with confidence that America will become more equal after November 8.
The 2016 presidential campaign has in many ways brought the weakness of the American political system into sharp relief. Donald Trump has built his campaign on the exploitation of the social, economic, and racial anxieties of, predominantly, white men without a college degree. And inequality has been acknowledged by Hillary Clinton to be a significant national concern.
Yet neither candidate has acknowledged that growing inequality, which is at the heart of the country’s anxiety, cannot be addressed without radically rethinking how the political, economic, social and environmental systems interact in complex and unpredictable ways.
As the US becomes a more unequal society it raises deeply disturbing questions about the interaction of class and race. It occurs in rural towns and concentrates in cities. Its causes are many, and defy easy or politically attractive solutions. Economic vulnerability is both a consequence of, and contributor to, the systemic crises in America’s political, economic and social systems. It leads to more crime, violence, poor mental and physical health, and deepening political disengagement.
The economic aspect of inequality is obvious. Since the adoption of widespread neo-liberal economic policies and deregulation in the 1970s, both income and wealth inequality have increased dramatically. Wages have stagnated while the cost of living has continued to rise for most Americans. Despite the growing gap between the 1% and everyone else, the language of class is still surprisingly absent from the candidates’ political rhetoric.
Yet inequality is also about race. While much has been made of the white working poor supporting Donald Trump and the grinding poverty many rural whites endure, equal attention must be paid to the horrific levels of poverty and disenfranchisement in African American and Latino communities.
Alongside the economic explanations of inequality, social and environmental factors also need to be analysed. Communities experiencing income stress overwhelmingly experience higher levels of mental and physical health problems, which place greater strain on America’s inadequate health care system. Entrenched racial discrimination in the housing system has led to generational poverty in many cities.
The environmental costs of inequality are numerous. An astonishing number of Americans live with food insecurity and lack access to fresh or healthy food options. Again, this exacerbates poor mental and physical health in these communities. It also has broader implications for the country’s agricultural system - it rewards mass farming of commodities like corn, which is converted to high fructose corn syrup and used in everything from tomato sauce to cereals. America’s obesity epidemic is one the many consequences.
Yet despite the scale and magnitude of the problem, the political class seems unable or unwilling to do anything. The partisan division in Congress has resulted in a completely dysfunctional House and Senate. This is the case at both a national and state level. It’s unrealistic to think that either Trump or Clinton would be able to unite Republicans and Democrats to deal with such complex issues.
Take the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, for example. The lead contamination of the city’s water was the result of multiple failures at the political and environmental level. It has exacerbated already entrenched poverty in the city and added another health problem to a community already dealing with food insecurity, which in turn contributes high levels of obesity, diabetes, and heart problems.
And we know now that Flint is just one small example of the lead contamination of water supplies across the entire country. Addressing the issue requires massive investment and modernisation of America’s water infrastructure. Given the political failure to fix Flint’s water supply, it’s difficult to see how the political class could mobilise on a national scale.
While Hillary Clinton was right to make the crisis a political issue and draw attention the problem, fixing one issue won’t solve Flint’s other social and economic concerns. Indeed, Flint has already fallen off the radar. It’s not clear it will be a priority beyond its use as a political football during election season.
What gets lost in talking about these issues, whether it’s academics or journalists or politicians doing the talking, is the fact that we are speaking about people’s lives and well being. The white working class is made of individual humans with countless motivations and fears, desires and prejudices that no statistical analysis or polling data can convey. Likewise, the black urban poor, or the legal and illegal immigrants whose personalities and individual stories can never be captured in the broad categories to which we consign them.
America’s problems are rural and urban. They are about class and race and gender. They are about health and the economy. These problems are about our environment. Neither Trump’s brand of racist populism, nor Clinton’s commitment to the status quo will likely alter this reality after November.
Authors: Kumuda Simpson, Lecturer in International Relations, La Trobe University