I am for materialism. Let’s be comfortable. Let’s get more stuff. Let’s focus on acquisition. Searching for meaning in life? It’s about a better sofa and a bigger flat screen.
When I see one of those bumper stickers on a Prius that says, “Live simply so that others may simply live,” I drive very, very carefully. The last thing I want to do is have a fender bender with this person and have to meet and talk with her.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but what prompted me to write about it now was Thomas B. Edsall’s regular Wednesday oped in the New York Times this week. Edsall explored a question I often write about: Why do people vote against their own economic self-interest?
Blue collar voters would be much better off with the economic policies of Democrats and yet they’ve abandoned them for the other guys. Why? Because the GOP connects with them on social and cultural issues while the Democrats repulse them.
That’s it in a nutshell, but Edsall, as is his way, pulls that apart (“unpacks” it for those of you who are NPR listeners) in excruciating detail. His method is to quote academic researchers at length. That’s unfortunate because academics write like shit. His stuff would be so much better if he’d just summarize the researchers’ findings, but in any event it’s good stuff if you can wade through it, which I will do for you now.
Edsall references a piece written by a Cambridge PhD candidate named Rob Henderson, whose writing is pithy because he wrote it not for an academic journal, but for the New York Post back in 2019. The essay is entitled “Luxury Beliefs are Latest Status Symbol for Rich Americans.” Here’s the gist of it:
White privilege is the luxury belief that took me the longest to understand, because I grew up around poor whites. Often members of the upper-class claim that racial disparities stem from inherent advantages held by whites. Yet Asian Americans are more educated, have higher earnings and live longer than whites. Affluent whites are the most enthusiastic about the idea of white privilege, yet they are the least likely to incur any costs for promoting that belief. Rather, they raise their social standing by talking about their privilege.
In other words, upper-class whites gain status by talking about their high status. When laws are enacted to combat white privilege, it won’t be the privileged whites who are harmed. Poor whites will bear the brunt.
(I added the emphasis.)
Henderson and other academics quoted, less effectively, by Edsall made the point that, because the affluent have become very affluent they all essentially have all the stuff they want. So if there isn’t much difference between your BMW and your friend’s Lexus, how do you show your superiority?
The answer is a sort of self-flagelating moral olympics. You point out all of your “white privileges” and you discount any hard work that might have earned you what you have. (Of course, you don’t really mean that. You’re damn proud of your effort. That’s not the point. The point is to display your sensitivity to social injustice and to demonstrate your disdain for material things in a way that doesn’t require you to give up any of them that you really care about.)
There’s a fundamental dishonesty and snobbishness about this that blue collar voters can feel. ‘Yeah, you can disregard material things because you’ve got all the ones you want.’ And that’s why they react so viscerally against liberal Democrats. Trump embodies for them their disdain for these people.
We would be better off if we moved away from this emphasis on moral, cultural and social issues and focussed back on tangible things. Go to work. Earn some money. Buy a house. Fix it up. Get a car. Get a nicer car. Go on vacation. Buy a boat. Buy a nicer boat. Earn a comfortable retirement. Then you die. A life well-lived. You died of consumption and that’s just fine.
Of course, for many of us it’s not enough. And that’s fine too. My point is that we shouldn’t expect our politics or our political. social and economic systems to deliver meaning. Finding a purpose is an individual responsibility. I don’t know. Go to church or go to yoga or read or meditate or take drugs. Whatever you need to do to find meaning, go ahead and do it as long as it involves consenting adults and no animals are harmed.
The political problem in relying on government or the broader society to provide meaning for your life — beyond that it will surely lead to disappointment — is that it makes every issue existential. When everything is about fundamental values, compromise becomes much more difficult, if not impossible. But when the issues are primarily just about the distribution of resources in society, well, compromise is still hard, but it’s more achievable. You can, literally, take half a loaf.
At its most threatening, making government about meaning leads to fascism. Fascism offers a broader purpose for individual lives. It’s about blood and soil. I can’t think of a better argument against looking to government for meaning.