While the spark that ignited the violent upheaval of January 6 was Donald Trump’s allegations that the November presidential election was fraudulent, for many the assault on the Capitol was also an insurgency against the entire political class. “All these politicians work for us. We pay their salaries, we pay our taxes. And what do we get? Nothing. All of them inside are traitors, ” said one of the Capitol invaders.
On this point, the grievances of the mob and the findings of scholars align. America today is an oligarchy, not a functioning democracy, as a detailed study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page demonstrated in 2014. Thus, much as it may have been intended as an assault on American democracy, the storming of the Capitol was also a sign that American democracy had already failed. Surely, these clumsy “revolutionaries” did not storm the Capitol because they are living the American Dream—and they are blaming, unsurprisingly, the whole political class for their malaise.
So how do we fix it?
Whenever economic explanations of this radicalization are attempted, inequality is singled out as the root of working-class discontent. Commentators from Joseph Stiglitz to Thomas Piketty relentlessly hammer on one theme above all others: an economic inequality that has deep roots in the political system. A cross-party consensus is now emerging on fighting inequality through redistribution—from raising the minimum wage to increasing unemployment benefits.
One reason inequality has attracted so much attention is that it is easily measurable. Indeed, reports that the top 1 percent of Americans takes $50 trillion from the bottom 90 percent appeal to our sense of injustice. However, the singular focus on economic inequality obscures another phenomenon—the massive economic insecurity that is affecting broader swaths of the population beyond the “precariat” (those in poorly paid and insecure jobs). While insecurity is not so easy to measure and report, it is in fact at the root of the social malaise of Western societies.
Seeing economic precarity as a root cause also helps to explain why so much of working-class radicalization in America has taken a turn to the right. Insecurity nurtures conservative instincts, a longing for safety. Right-wing populists specifically deploy language that triggers these conservative instincts—the evocation of family, a desire for stability, for clinging strongly to what is familiar (“Make America Great Again”), as opposed to plunging into political experimentation with something new—such as the alien, to the American mind, prospect of European-style social democracy. On the other hand, many on the libertarian right champion free-market fundamentalism, which fosters competitive, rather than solidaristic attitudes—especially when public goods are converted into private rents via privatization, which in turn limits access to resources that mitigate the effects of that intense competition instead of enhancing social solidarity.
Even under recent Democratic administrations, economic recovery from the 2008 financial meltdown happened through a growth in insecure employment. The service jobs that fueled US economic growth for the past 40 years—until the pandemic began to destroy them—were numerous, but of low quality.
The rise of neoliberalism at the expense of the conservative-liberal divide that preceded it has enabled employers to tilt the terms of our capitalist economies heavily toward capital and away from labor, via the evisceration of unions, the deconstruction of the welfare state, and the privatization of public services. Most importantly, funding for public services and social programs has been persistently slashed.
It is this impoverishment of the public commons that has increased the importance of personal wealth in securing essential goods such as health care and education. Thus, economic inequality matters enormously, but as a grave symptom of a broader problem—that of the desperate, and growing, fragility of society as a whole. The erosion of the public sector precludes access to many of the social supports that have historically buttressed economic security.
As a result, the American economy has begun to resemble a new, modern feudalism with a small technocracy dominated by Silicon Valley tech overlords and Wall Street billionaires at the top, and a large, uneducated, rapidly growing serf class at the bottom with no social safety net to protect it. Even if the wealth gap were to be considerably reduced by transfer from rich to poor, precarity would persist because it is rooted not in inequality but in a depleted public sector, in a government that has abandoned the public and increasingly become a vehicle for predatory capitalism.
The pandemic exacerbated both inequality and precarity. Wall Street and the stock market have boomed over the past several months, generating affluence imbued with unprecedented levels of risk. At the same time, job growth has collapsed, and unemployment remains stubbornly high. Millions of Americans have withdrawn from the labor force, their jobs likely destroyed for good as the long-term impact of the economic shutdown wreaks havoc in many industries.
Add all these factors together, align them with a demagogue working to undermine an election result, and you get the ingredients for a very poisonous outbreak of the kind we witnessed on January 6.
The forces that led to the evisceration of working-class security are now extending to those ensconced in historically well-paid jobs, from lawyers to IT engineers. Even in the midst of a severe recession and a rapidly accelerating pandemic, policy-makers remain remarkably indifferent to these trends and the ongoing precarity. They persist in believing that what has happened is merely a passing deviation from normality, which can be rectified by the right mix of policy stimuli.
A growing political consensus in the United States to tackle inequality appears to be emerging (especially in the wake of the recent Georgia runoff election, which put the Senate back under the control of the Democratic Party). But even the most radical redistributive proposals currently before Congress would barely tinker at the margins. No matter how much more equal society becomes in terms of wealth distribution, in the absence of dramatic government investment in public services—notably education, health care provision, and job security—trust in American institutions will continue to erode. And as that disillusionment spreads, we can expect the militancy of an estranged and angry population to rise.