The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy

The main source of meaning in American life is a meritocratic competition that makes those who struggle feel inferior.

Matteo Colombo / Getty

What is happening to America’s white working class?

The group’s important, and perhaps decisive, role in this year’s presidential election sparked a slew of commentary focused on, on the one hand, its nativism, racism, and sexism, and, on the other, its various economic woes. While there are no simple explanations for the desperation and anger visible in many predominantly white working-class communities, perhaps the most astute and original diagnosis came from the rabbi and activist Michael Lerner, who, in assessing Donald Trump’s victory, looked from a broader vantage point than most. Underneath the populist ire, he wrote, was a suffering “rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”

That cuts right to it. The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth.

This system of categorizing Americans—the logical extension of life in what can be called an extreme meritocracy—can be pernicious: The culture holds up those who succeed as examples, however anecdotal, that everyone can make it in America. Meanwhile, those who fail attract disdain and indifference from the better-off, their low status all the more painful because it is regarded as deserved. As research has shown, well-educated white-collar workers also sink into despair if they cannot find a new job, but among the working class, the shame of low status afflicts not just the unemployed, but also the underemployed. Their days are no longer filled with the dignified, if exhausting, work of making real things. Rather, the economy requires—as a white former factory worker I talked to described it—“throwing on a goofy hat,” dealing with surly customers who are themselves just scraping by, and enduring a precarious working life of arbitrary rules and dead-end prospects.

And the work people do (or don’t do) affects their self-esteem. When I was talking to laid-off autoworkers in Michigan for my book about long-term unemployment, I met a black man in Detroit who told me his job at the plant had helped heal a wound—one going back to his parents’ choice, when he was a baby, to abandon him. (As is standard in sociological research, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) “My job was like my mother and father to me,” he said. “It’s all I had, you know?” Then the plant shut down. Now in his 50s, he was back on the job market, scrambling for one of the few good jobs left for someone without a college degree. In his moments of weakness, he berated himself. He should have prepared more. He should have gotten an education. “It’s all my fault,” he said—the company was just doing what made business sense.

For less educated workers (of all races) who have struggled for months or years to get another job, failure is a source of deep shame and a reason for self-blame. Without the right markers of merit—a diploma, marketable skills, a good job—they are “scrubs” who don’t deserve romantic partners, “takers” living parasitically off the government, “losers” who won’t amount to anything. Even those who consider themselves lucky to have jobs can feel a sense of despair, seeing how poorly they stand relative to others, or how much their communities have unraveled, or how dim their children’s future seems to be: Research shows that people judge how well they’re doing through constant comparisons, and by these personal metrics they are hurting, whatever the national unemployment rate may be.

When faced with these circumstances, members of the working class often turn inward. I witnessed this coping mechanism among the workers I got to know in Michigan. One of them, a white former autoworker, lost her home and had to move to a crime-infested neighborhood, where she had a front-row view of the nightly drug deals and fistfights. “I just am not used to that anymore,” said the woman, who grew up in poverty. “I want out of here so bad.” Interestingly, she dismissed any sort of collective solution to the economic misery that she and others like her now confront. For instance, she had no kind words to say about the union at her old plant, which she blamed for protecting lousy workers. She was also outraged by what she called the “black favoritism” at her Detroit plant, whose union leadership included many African Americans.

This go-it-alone mentality works against the ways that, historically, workers have improved their lot. It encourages workers to see unions and government as flawed institutions that coddle the undeserving, rather than as useful, if imperfect, means of raising the relative prospects of all workers. It also makes it more likely that white workers will direct their frustration toward racial and ethnic minorities, economic scapegoats who are dismissed as freeloaders unworthy of help—in a recent survey, 64 percent of Trump voters (not all of whom, of course, are part of the white working class) agreed that “average Americans” had gotten less than they deserved, but this figure dropped to 12 percent when that phrase was replaced with “blacks.” (Among Clinton voters, the figure stayed steady at 57 percent for both phrases.) This is one reason that enacting good policies is, while important, not enough to address economic inequality. What’s needed as well is a broader revision of a culture that makes those who struggle feel like losers.

One explanation for why so many come to that conclusion in the first place has to do with the widening of the gulf between America’s coasts and the region in between them. Cities that can entice well-educated professionals are booming, even as “flyover” communities have largely seen good-paying factory work automated or shipped overseas, replaced to a large extent with insecure jobs: Walmart greeters, independent-contractor truck drivers, and the like. It is easy to see why white voters from hard-hit rural areas and hollowed-out industrial towns have turned away from a Democratic Party that has offered them little in the way of hope and inspiration and much in the way of disdain and blame.

It should here be emphasized that misogyny, racism, and xenophobia played a major role in the election, helping whip up more support for Trump—as well as suppress support for Clinton—among the white working class. To be sure, those traits are well represented among other groups, however savvier they are about not admitting it to journalists and pollsters (or to themselves). But the white working class that emerged in the 19th century—stitched together from long-combative European ethnic groups—strived to set themselves apart from African Americans, Chinese, and other vilified “indispensable enemies,” and build, by contrast (at least in their view), a sense of workingman pride. Even if it’s unfair to wholly dismiss the white working class’s cultural politics as reactionary and bigoted, this last election was a reminder that white male resentment of “nasty” women and “uppity” racial and other minorities remains strong.

That said, many Americans with more stable, better-paid jobs have blind spots of their own. For all of their professed open-mindedness in other areas, millions of the well-educated and well-off who live in or near big cities tend to endorse the notion, explicitly or implicitly, that education determines a person’s value. More so than in other rich nations, like Germany and Japan, which have prioritized vocational training to a greater degree, a college degree has become the true mark of individual success in America—the sort of white-picket-fence fantasy that drives people well into their elder years to head back to school. But such a fervent belief in the transformative power of education also implies that a lack of it amounts to personal failure—being a “stupid” person, as one of the white Michigan workers I talked to put it. In today’s labor market, it is no longer enough to work hard, another worker, who was black, told me: “It used to be you come up and say, ‘Okay, I’ve got a strong back,’ and all that,” but nowadays a “strong back don’t mean shit. You gotta have dedication and you’ve gotta have some kind of smartness, or something.”

This change in society’s understanding of merit has debased the worth of the working class, in ways that Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb first described in The Hidden Injuries of Class, a 1972 book that Lerner alluded to in his essay. Clinton—going beyond her campaign’s focus on the travails of the middle class and the array of unfair advantages held by “people at the very top”—spoke explicitly about the problems with judging others based on their (lack of) degrees, which she characterized as “educationalist elitism.” (There was some irony to Clinton’s position on this latter issue, given her husband’s success in pushing for job-retraining vouchers, lifetime-learning credits, and other measures predicated on the notion that America could and should educate everyone for the good jobs of the future.)

Her point about elitism may have been delivered as a matter of politics, but it is a practical concern too: As much as both liberals and conservatives have touted education as a means of attaining social mobility, economic trends suggest that this strategy has limits, especially in its ability to do anything about the country’s rapidly growing inequalities. Well into the 21st century, two-thirds of Americans age 25 and over do not have a bachelor’s degree. The labor market has become more polarized, as highly paid jobs for workers with middling levels of education and skill dwindle away. And as many have argued, advances in artificial intelligence threaten a net loss of employment (even for the well-educated) in the not-so-far-off future.

Surprisingly, even some workers I spoke to—all former union members—said they felt that people without a good education did not deserve to make a good living. How was it fair, one of them, a black former union official, asked me, that factory workers who didn’t finish high school could—thanks to their union-won wages—live alongside doctors and lawyers in the city’s wealthiest suburbs? “Here’s a guy that says, ‘I’m a doctor and I spent … $100,000 … for an education, for me to get this doctor degree,’” he said. “And you got a guy that moved out here that can’t speak plain English—he’s still barbecuing on the front porch. You know, it’s like, this has got to cease.”

There is a glaring contradiction at the heart of this viewpoint. The rules of meritocracy that these blue-collar workers say they admire barely apply to the very top levels of the economy. Groups of elite workers—professionals, managers, financial workers, tenured professors—continue to wall themselves off from competition. They still organize collectively, through lobbying, credentialing, licensing, and other strategies. But fewer ordinary workers have the same ability to do so: Unions have been crushed, the government steps in less often on their behalf, and local political machines—a traditional pathway for many poor immigrants to political power and even employment—have faded away. What has emerged in the new economy, then, is a stunted meritocracy: meritocracy for you, but not for me.

Where do people turn when left to the dictates of an economic system like this? One white worker in Madison Heights, Michigan, described himself as a conservative, but added that he didn’t care about party labels when choosing whom to vote for. “I want to see change. … I could care less if you’re a Republican or whatever,” he told me when I talked to him not long before the 2010 midterm election swept Tea Party candidates into office across the country. In any case, he no longer had the luxury of worrying much about politics. When I met him, he had lost his $11-an-hour job at a solar-panel manufacturer. His wife had left him soon afterward. She was working a low-wage job of her own, and, as he explained, “She’s tired of struggling, and she can do better by herself.” The man told me he was ashamed about having to rely on food stamps. “I’m dependent on the government right now. … That’s degrading, but I gotta eat.” As for unions, he’d become disillusioned with them years ago after a strike at the car-parts plant where he’d been working cost him and his coworkers their jobs.

One of the few things he could really depend on was his church. He volunteered on their Sunday-school bus, leading the kids in singing songs. “It helps to be around young people,” he said. For many of the jobless workers I interviewed, religion and tradition provided a sense of community and a feeling that their lives had purpose. No wonder, then, that a sizable proportion of white working-class America is skeptical of the faithless, lonely, and uncertain world that the cultural left represents to them. However exaggerated by stereotypes, the urbane, urban values of the well-educated professional class, with its postmodern cultural relativism and its rejection of old dogmas, are not attractive alternatives to what the working class has long relied on as a source of solace.

In turn, some well-off Americans show their contempt for working-class whites in particular by calling them deluded—zombies under the sway of right-wing myths, zealots obsessed with pointless cultural symbols like flags and guns, or captives of other myriad forms of false consciousness. Indeed, in trying to diagnose their predicament, Democratic politicians have sometimes trivialized it—President Obama, in recorded comments at a 2008 fundraiser about how working-class voters from small towns “cling to guns or religion,” and Clinton, in her leaked remarks to donors suggesting that half of Trump’s supporters were a bigoted “basket of deplorables.” (Mitt Romney, of course, also wrote off a wide swath of Americans in his 2012 presidential run when—speaking at yet another private fundraiser—he expressed disdain for the “47 percent” of Americans who were “dependent upon government” and felt “entitled” to assistance.) Even if Obama and Clinton’s words in context were more nuanced and empathetic than is often acknowledged, statements of this sort can feed the long-held view among the white working class that those preaching economic enlightenment from up high do not take their concerns seriously.

In 1981’s The Next America, the leftist intellectual Michael Harrington recognized this problem. “We radicals had mocked the old verities and preached a new freedom, only our negatives were more powerful than our creativity,” he wrote:

We proposed that men and women find their purpose within themselves, that they disdain all the traditional crutches, like God and flag. But were we then to blame because many seemed to have heard only that the old constraints had been abolished and ignored the call to find new obligations on their own?

In the absence of other sources of meaning, Americans are left with meritocracy, a game of status and success, along with the often ruthless competition it engenders. And the consequence of a perspective of self-reliance—Americans, compared to people in other countries, hold a particularly strong belief that people succeed through their own hard work—is a sense that those who fail are somehow inferior.

One possible answer to the question Harrington posed about how to ease his own generation’s populist rage is the notion of grace—a stance that puts forward values that go beyond the “negatives” of the narrow secular creed and connect with individuals of diverse political viewpoints, including those hungry for more in the way of meaning than the meritocratic race affords. It moves people past the hectoring that so alienates the white working class—and, to be sure, other groups as well—who would otherwise benefit from policies that favor greater equality and opportunity.

The concept of grace comes from the Christian teaching that everyone, not just the deserving, is saved by God’s grace. Grace in the broader sense that I (an agnostic) am using, however, can be both secular and religious. In the simplest terms, it is about refusing to divide the world into camps of deserving and undeserving, as those on both the right and left are wont to do. It rejects an obsession with excusing nothing, with measuring and judging the worth of people based on everything from a spotty résumé to an offensive comment.

While it has its roots in Christianity, grace is prized by many other religions—from Buddhism’s call to accept suffering with equanimity, to the Tao Te Ching’s admonishment to treat the good and bad alike with kindness, to the Upanishads’ focus on the eternal and infinite nature of reality. Grace can thrive outside religious faith, too: not just in the abstract theories of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, but also in the humanism of scientists like Carl Sagan, who, inspired by Voyager 1’s photograph of Earth as a tiny speck, wrote that this “pale blue dot” underscored the “folly of human conceits” and humans’ responsibility to “deal more kindly with one another.” Unlike an egalitarian viewpoint focused on measuring and leveling inequalities, grace rejects categories of right and wrong, just and unjust, and offers neither retribution nor restitution, but forgiveness.

With a perspective of grace, it becomes clearer that America, the wealthiest of nations, possesses enough prosperity to provide adequately for all. It becomes easier to part with one’s hard-won treasure in order to pull others up, even if those being helped seem “undeserving”—a label that today serves as a justification for opposing the sharing of wealth on the grounds that it is a greedy plea from the resentful, idle, and envious.

At the same time, grace reminds the well-educated and well-off to be less self-righteous and less hostile toward other people’s values. Without a doubt, opposing racism and other forms of bigotry is imperative. There are different ways to go about it, though, and ignorance shouldn’t be considered an irremediable sin. Yet many of the liberal, affluent, and college-educated too often reduce the beliefs of a significant segment of the population to a mash of evil and delusion. From gripes about the backwardness and boredom of small-town America to jokes about “rednecks” and “white trash” that are still acceptable to say in polite company, it’s no wonder that the white working class believes that others look down on them. That’s not to say their situation is worse than that of the black and Latino working classes—it’s to say that where exactly they fit in the hierarchy of oppression is a question that leads nowhere, given how much all these groups have struggled in recent decades.

Obama, a Christian, has hinted at his belief in grace quite frequently, mostly in urging people to be more tolerant of outlooks different from their own. After the Charleston church shooting in the summer of 2015, however, he was more explicit. In praising the parishioners who welcomed their alleged killer into their Bible study, and the victims’ family members who forgave him in court, Obama invoked grace—the “free and benevolent favor of God,” bestowed to the sinful and saintly alike. “We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other,” he said. “But we got it all the same.”

Indeed, as plagued by doubts and regrets as he was, the unemployed man I spoke to in Detroit could, in his moments of strength, find comfort in a perspective of grace. “I feel I ain’t got what I used to have,” he told me. “But I know I got God on my side. And maybe the stuff ain’t meant for me … I thank God for what I have, and that’s it.”

Really, though, the people who could learn from grace are the prosperous and college-educated, who often find it hard to empathize with those—both white and nonwhite—who live outside their sunny, well-ordered worlds. When people are not so intent on blaming others for their sins—cultural and economic—they can deal more kindly with one another. Grace is a forgiving god.