So often and so easily, politics mistakes effects for causes. Effects, after all, are easier to spot and easier to denounce. They are in your face. Causes are more subtle, hidden in the gray shades of countless past choices. Addressing them is invariably messy and complicated and requires some measure of compromise. Politics cannot be done at the drive-through window.
All of which makes Sara Miller Llana’s cover story this week of the utmost importance.
Today, the West is struggling to cope with a deep emotional angst among its working classes. There are other factors, too, behind “Brexit,” the rise of American hyperpolarization, the unparalleled success of France’s Marine Le Pen, and the growth of populist movements in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere. But a common thread is a sense that a new class of elites is today’s winner, and it is most interested in helping disaffected minorities. Everyone else is getting left behind.
It is easy just to stop there. The tremendous political change this trend has wrought in the past few years is enough to feed 100 CNNs. In its populist incarnations, the trend appears to threaten the values that have undergirded Western social order since World War II – values such as cultural and economic openness and centrism.
Yet all the while, in the United States at least, one of the core questions continues to go almost entirely unaddressed.
Why are so many people so scared and frustrated? What is the cause?
One crucial answer is as seismic as the effects we see on our television sets and Twitter feeds. The Western world is undergoing a fundamental change in its economic structure, Sara writes in her cover story. The jobs that once sustained the Western working class are disappearing and evolving into new forms, and too many Western workers are not keeping up.
As these workers fall further behind, remaining unemployed for months or years at a time, the effect is a corrosion of hope.
“[W]ork is about much more than production, economic growth, and dollars and cents,” writes Michael Strain, a conservative economist. “Work harnesses our passions by channeling them to productive ends. Work gives us a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, and allows us to provide for those we love. Our unemployment crisis is therefore also a moral and spiritual crisis – a human crisis.”
Mr. Strain sees a role for some targeted economic stimulus, along with creative thinking about the minimum wage, tax credits, and flexible work arrangements. The European countries profiled in the cover story see a larger government role in ensuring a safety net and retraining for workers cast off by the new economy.
The real need is to address the sense of helplessness and lack of self-worth that a job so often remedies. The policies are less important than the commitment to addressing the need. That begins with the courage to identify and honestly address causes, however difficult that might be, rather than remain in the caffeinated spin cycle of effects.