The much-ballyhooed "anger" of primary voters who cheer Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is not just the usual election-season revival of contempt for the powers-that-be. Their anger reflects an understanding that they are done for.
Many in those raucous crowds know that the America they expected to provide them some prosperity and security is dead and gone. And with it, their vision and hope. More to the point, that America will never return again in ways that will magically reinstate their original pursuit of happiness. Not in their lifetimes. Not ever. Their loss is terminal. Nobody knows this better than unemployed and unemployable coal miners who recently voted in West Virginia.
The myriad changes such angry Americans have experienced are all too well documented: the wholesale departure of manufacturing jobs sent offshore to low-wage countries, robotics and a digitized workplace here at home, economic and environmental obsoleting of fossil-fuel jobs, the disappearance of pensions and healthcare benefits, the stagnation of middle-class wages, the sudden revolution in sexual expression and relationships, the browning of America--the list goes on and on.
Sadly, America has shown little knack for designing and implementing long-range strategies and programs--and even less for dealing with the unintended consequences they might yield. For all the gains produced by huge initiatives like Emancipation or the New Deal or the Great Society, they also yielded byproducts which reflected our inexperience with trying to engineer social change, that least understood and most slippery of all good intentions.
Worse, proposals for mitigating the impact on these individuals through things like job-retraining, community college investments, portability of retirement plans, tax credits for manufacturing communities, and expanded credits for child care have largely gone down to defeat.
Most cruelly, change-victims' hope is devastated when mass media misinform the public about proposals to help them. A classic example: Hillary Clinton's proposed $30 billion program to support and re-train coal miners is the best-kept secret in America, because the media relentlessly repeated word bites out of context to make it sound like she personally was out to kill their jobs and companies.
In reality, she offered a far-sighted, sympathetic, multi-faceted program of support for them precisely because (as she said), in America's massive shifts in energy choices "...we are going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." The "we" is all of us, but you'd never know that from the media coverage. (The media are equal-opportunity distorters of fact and truth, also misrepresenting Republicans' words and stances in their never-ending quest to inflame audiences' volatile emotions.)
Few of the angry voters asked for these disruptive changes that seem to doom them. Change has been imposed--some would say inflicted--by forces well beyond their control. When individuals are caught up in change that shakes their foundations, five gnawing questions spring forth:
• Why did we have to change?
• What exactly is going to change, and what is going to stay the same?
• Will there be a place for me in the new order?
• Will I be supported to succeed and prosper in this changed situation?
• Will I be honored for my contributions in the past that helped us get this far?
In the absence of answers, those who have lost vision and hope now know the truth: they are dying of a terminal condition. They are dead people walking.
And that is the real cause of their anger. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross sought to explain this for us in her classic 1969 book On Death and Dying. When confronted with a terminal illness, she noted, the dying typically experience a series of reactions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes the stages evolve in just that sequence, sometimes they overlap, sometimes they recur--but all are nearly inevitable. She later came to recognize that these same confounding mindsets take root in people who aren't themselves physically dying but are experiencing other kinds of loss: a loved one dies, or a marriage ends, or a harsh rejection occurs, or one loses a job or economic security.
This is not to overlook the fact that some are, indeed, physically dying of this terminal loss of vision and hope. Recently, stunning research by Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University revealed the significant increase over the past fifteen years in mortality rates among middle-aged white non-Hispanic Americans ostensibly in the prime of life--a trend that is to be found among no other cohort in the U.S. or Europe. These Americans are dying at accelerated, disproportionate rates--an unexpected half million deaths of those 45-54, especially among the less-well educated--from self-controlled causes like suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction (the latter two having been dubbed "chronic suicide" by Karl Menninger). The self-inflicted mortalities documented by Case and Deaton have properly been described as "deaths of despair". http://wws.princeton.edu/faculty-research/research/item/rising-morbidity-and-mortality-midlife-among-white-non-hispanic
With the loss of vision and hope comes depression, the completely predictable and inevitable consequence of such loss. Is it any wonder, then, that many of the terminally afflicted seek solace from mind-altering substances or credulously swallow miracle cures from candidates who confidently promise simplistic solutions. Is it any wonder that they also get angry. It is not only the elderly who may rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Our fellow Americans' howl of anger is a national alarm, if we but listen to it. They are the canaries in our darkened mineshaft. For too many, the vaunted American pursuit of happiness is a bitter impossibility. And with the tumultuous changes that will continue to remodel America in the next few decades, benign neglect and economic Darwinism will be both economically and morally intolerable.
In 2017, a new President and a fresh Congress will assume responsibility for addressing the unbearable pain created by these irreversible changes, as well as for enabling the electrifying innovations that change has always stimulated in Americans. Never in our lifetimes has it been more urgent for elected officials, from compassionate conservative to bleeding-heart liberal and everyone in between, to prove that they are capable of collaborating on behalf of their fellow citizens and our country as a whole. To do any less is to mock the words of Abraham Lincoln: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."