Unity. Joe Biden, in his first official speech as the 46th President of the United States, says the thing he wants to do, perhaps more than anything else, is restore a sense of unity in the United States. But in watching everything over the last few months, from Trump’s denial of the election results to the riot at the capitol building, and in reflecting on Trump’s full term in office, I think there are two issues that require immediate attention if Americans are to be unified again.
The first, is the massive slab of Americans whose working dignity and standard of living have been eroded over the last thirty years.
It’s a natural expectations for all human beings that we will have a slightly higher standard of living than our parents’ generation. Just think about how your parents lived, the things they considered luxurious that perhaps we take for granted. How often would your parents have money to eat at a cafe? Would they have travelled much overseas? Progress happens slowly, and we often don’t notice it in the moment. But most of us are fortunate to have a higher standard of living that when our parents were the same age.
But think about all of those millions of Americans, who grew up in the Mid-West in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps Dad only had a high school education but back then, that was more than enough for a good manufacturing job. Mum didn’t have to work, but the family could afford healthcare and a car and a house in the suburbs. Two weeks at a lake house on vacation every year. For tens of millions of Americans, that the baseline expectation.
But now they’re at the same stage of life, their own experiences are so different. As a result of all sorts of things... globalisation and the changing World, those same opportunities aren’t available any more. If you're in the mid-West, in your fifties or sixties with only a high school education, what’s the best job and the best life you could hope for? For many, the answer is low paid, low skilled, often undignified work. Maybe a job at Walmart or 7/11. Poor healthcare options. No vacation at the lakehouse.
Those people and those concerns have been forgotten and ignored by politicians of all stripes for decades. It’s little wonder they were so drawn to Donald Trump’s anarchic political style and his nostalgic message, even if his leadership didn’t actually do much for them. Those people felt heard by Trump and empowered by Trump.
I worry what will happen to those people and many others in an automated World in a few years when self-driving cars are the norm. What happens, then? How will they live fulfilling and dignified lives? The solution is incredibly complex... it means a total change to education and training and economic systems. I really think Biden needs to prioritise finding a way to empower those people.
I also think maybe the biggest continuing threat to democracy in the U.S, and to unity, is the state of the media. I mean that in the broadest terms; traditional media forms and social media. Biden didn’t mention it in his inauguration and I haven’t heard plans for any drastic reforms, but for me... that attack on the capitol was a calcifying moment. A moment that showed us with smashing glass and gunshots just how much people’s perceptions of the World around them are being manipulated by the way we access and consume information. Is the solution to ban politicians and Presidents from Twitter? Personally, I feel uncomfortable with the idea that a few silicon valley executives can pick and choose who they want to have platforms. But we can’t stick with the status quo, either. So much media, from cable news to Facebook, thrives on a model that neatly divides people into bubbles, stoking their fears, reinforcing their opinions, and provoking them. Do we break up big tech? Regulate algorithms? I don’t know, but something has to change.
Regardless of how anyone might feel about Donald Trump, Biden is right about one thing. The divisions in America are perhaps as stark as at any time in living memory. But if unity is the goal, I think addressing those two issues will go a long way to helping the U.S to heal.