The Big Empty Space

Trumpism exists on the edge of the map where the dragons are. Beyond that, there’s nothing.

Edited version of a tweetstorm posted 10 November 2016.

A big empty space has emerged in U.S. politics and policy after Tuesday’s results. Let me explain.

I grew up in the Rust Belt – western PA. Economic anxiety is nothing new. Deindustrialization and the farm crisis date back to 1980s – more than a generation ago. Many places never recovered.

Politicians & institutions have come through periodically with promises to make [PLACENAME] great again – pork projects, tax cuts, economic development schemes, industrial facilities, big box stores, etc. And don’t forget asset bubbles.

A procession of Lucys with a procession of footballs. And every time the ball has seemingly been snatched away. Why?

There have been lots of reasons, I guess, but one we haven’t fully grokked is demise of the 20th C economic model that sustained those people and places.

It’s not all about China & Mexico – it’s automation & the ruthless efficiencies of modern production, e.g. factory farms, along with modern finance, which frequently tramples everything in its path.

If you think that process is limited to the Heartland, the 21st C is going to have some surprises for you.

So, are people in industrial and ag regions angry about that? You bet they’re angry. They’ve been failed for decades. But barring collapse, we’re going to keep producing more with less requirement for labor (esp. unskilled), indefinitely.

Is there racism? Yeah. But among people I’ve known (small sample), racism & economic grievance often swim together, each feeding, reinforcing and justifying the other. Again, for generations. Not justifying or excusing it, just explaining.

Trump will be the next in the long line of pitchmen to fail these folks – and the rest of us. But both the traditional left and the traditional right are out of intellectual bullets now. Trumpism exists on the edge of the map where the dragons are. Beyond that, there’s nothing.

A key task, then, is to fill in the picture of what lies beyond the edge of our current map. What’s the alternative? What comes after the current backlash – which is almost guaranteed to be self-defeating – is spent?

How do you create a stable, healthy society w/o mass employment in the way we’ve known it? How to engage people in the task? And how to do it without frying the planet, killing one another, or further eroding our tottering democracy.

I don’t know for sure what that looks like. But I do know that the only way it can possibly happen is if people of goodwill from across the spectrum – ideological, racial, economic – set aside their priors, get humble & get busy.

There will be critical fights in short run – ones in which people’s lives are at stake. But do not lose sight of the larger context. And cut it out with the blame & recriminations already. It’s over. There’s a whole new ballgame that starts right now.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.