In the mid-1970s the TV sitcom The Jeffersons portrayed the rags-to-riches story of a black entrepreneur living the American Dream. The pugnacious and overbearing George Jefferson (former neighbor of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker) becomes a dry cleaning magnate and leaves blue-collar Queens for swanky Manhattan. As the show’s theme song recounts:
“Well we’re moving on up,
To the east side.
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Moving on up,
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie.”
But now fast-forward to 2007 and real world America. When it comes to those deluxe apartments in the sky, today’s exclusive penthouses sit atop much taller high-rises–but the chances of ever living in one (or even breathing its rarified air as a dinner guest) have shrunk considerably. And although the proverbial economic pie is much larger today as well, a relative handful of gluttons are gorging themselves while everyone else settles for leftovers and crumbs.
In short, the “Sky Dwellers” and “Pie Eaters” of the 21st century seem to be flourishing like never before. Many corporate CEOs now earn in a single day what their average employees get paid in a year. At the same time, middle class families face escalating healthcare and education costs along with deepening economic insecurity, and the poor struggle to maintain their voice and any lingering hopes of a brighter future. Meanwhile, seduced by “the haves” to ignore the plight of the “have nots,” many elected officials make choices they should have a very hard time defending–with integrity–to their children.
The obvious question is: How do the Sky Dwellers, the Pie Eaters, and their political enablers get away with it? That is, at a time of such extreme inequality, how do the privileged defenders of a dysfunctional status quo prove so successful in suppressing popular outrage and broad-based calls for change? Undoubtedly the answer is multifaceted, but here I’ll focus on one important aspect–the psychological manipulation of five core concerns that profoundly influence how we make sense of the world. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Below, I offer specific examples of how each concern is exploited to persuade us to accept and perhaps embrace the status quo–despite overwhelming evidence that current policies are the source of undeserved hardship for so many.
Vulnerability. For most of us nothing is more powerful than the desire to protect and provide security for the people and things we care about. Rarely do we knowingly make choices that jeopardize the welfare of our loved ones or ourselves. Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters therefore routinely prey on our vulnerability concerns to discourage us from questioning the status quo. Often they promote alarmist accounts of the new and heightened dangers associated with change: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will bring with it economic disaster; equal rights for gays will start us down the slippery slope toward a cultural wasteland; the importation of inexpensive prescription drugs from Canada will produce tragic health outcomes. And they seek to compound our fears by fostering the notion that we live in a “zero sum” world where efforts to improve the circumstances of those less well off (e.g., through an increase in the minimum wage) will inevitably prove costly to our own well-being. In this way, we’re encouraged to see potential allies as adversaries instead, which serves to undercut the formation of broad coalitions that might otherwise effectively organize for change.
Injustice. We often react to perceived mistreatment with anger and resentment, and an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible. In pursuing their greed-driven agenda, defenders of the status quo frequently exploit our sensitivity to issues of injustice in a remarkable way–they present themselves as the victims of mistreatment. We see this when their political cronies rail against the estate tax on inherited wealth, or when they cry foul over regulatory requirements that limit corporate profits, or when they characterize class action lawsuits as “frivolous” and “abusive.” At the same time, these Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters often have an entirely different refrain when others present grievances. Then they argue that, regrettably, these particular concerns–for example, the need to include enforceable labor and environmental protections in “free trade” pacts–cannot be addressed without creating even greater injustices. In other words, altering the status quo will do more harm than good, and therefore sometimes the most just course of action is to accept the world as imperfect and avoid making it even worse.
Distrust. We tend to divide the world into those who are trustworthy and those unworthy of our trust, in an effort to avoid harm from people with hostile intentions. Distrust inevitably creates divisions and thereby stifles collective action. This is why the Sky Dweller-Pie Eater crowd works so hard to foment suspicions within the ranks of those disadvantaged by the status quo. Labor union organizers are painted as wanting only to line their own pockets with membership dues; universal healthcare advocates are characterized as a socialist vanguard bent on undermining capitalism; organizations focused on the welfare of immigrants are labeled as facilitators of a Hispanic “re-conquering” of the American Southwest. In short, we’re told that those agitating for change are untrustworthy, that they distort the truth for personal gain or other ulterior motives, and that only the truly gullible will fall for their deceptions. Moreover, because perceptions of difference can foster distrust among groups that actually share common interests (e.g., workers of varying ethnic backgrounds), Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters consistently highlight and exaggerate any such differences they can find.
Superiority. We frequently aspire to be better than others in some important way–perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny. Defenders of today’s severe inequalities are adept at portraying America as a land of almost limitless opportunity. Which rung of the ladder we stand on is entirely up to us, and like George Jefferson, we’re free to climb as high as we want. Therefore, those at the top possess superior personal qualities and those nearer the bottom are manifestly inferior. These arguments that ultimately blame the victim are nothing new–only the targets change: the individuals most devastated by Hurricane Katrina suffered primarily from their own “failure of citizenship;” rising personal and family bankruptcies are merely evidence of the debtors’ irresponsibility; the ravages of poverty and homelessness only befall those unwilling to work hard. The goal of their narrative is to undercut efforts mobilizing for change by encouraging us to view people facing hardship with contempt and disgust. Negative emotional reactions like these typically lead to avoidance rather than engagement. This psychological distancing is further accomplished by promoting disingenuous stereotypes that cast particularly unsympathetic cases as exemplars of disadvantaged groups as a whole.
Helplessness. Finally, we strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives. Indeed, perceived helplessness is like poison to individual and collective action. We can witness or experience first-hand the most glaring of outrages, but if we think there’s nothing that can be done, most of us will soon abandon the fight. Thus, Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters can secure their privileged positions simply by creating the impression that we (and they) are powerless to solve the problems we wish to fix. This persuasion typically involves discounting or deriding proposals for change on any number of self-interested grounds–the obstacles are too large, or too complex, or too expensive, or the specific plans are ill conceived and need substantial reworking. Often the culprits are identified as massive forces supposedly beyond anyone’s control: livelihoods destroyed are an unavoidable consequence of relentless economic globalization; draconian cuts in domestic social programs are the price we must pay for the ever-burgeoning defense budget that ensures our survival; and so on. The strategy is simple. Make us feel helpless and we’ll likely give up and go away.
These are by no means the only manipulative appeals that defenders of the status quo use to exploit our five core concerns. But this limited sampling demonstrates how Sky Dwellers and Pie Eaters can frequently defend their turf without really breaking a sweat. Their mission is made even easier by well-funded propaganda machines and political cronies who lend a helping hand. It is important to note, however, that persuasive arguments linked to issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, or helplessness are not always deceptive or illegitimate. After all, these concerns are often central to our lives and deserve significant attention. Similarly, the status quo is not always undesirable or the worst of all alternatives. But we should be highly skeptical–and therefore insist upon strong supporting evidence–whenever core concern appeals are employed to justify or maintain deep inequalities between “haves” and “have nots.” Advocates for progressive change must also work to aggressively debunk these appeals and offer honest, compelling counter-arguments in their place.
P.S. For those intrigued by this five-concern psychological framework, I have two online videos that may be of further interest. “Resisting the Drums of War” is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81UKnb5zJbM. “Dangerous Ideas: How Conservatives Exploit Our Five Core Concerns” is available on Google Video at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=844699642769511518.