Where is the Outrage?

July 15th, 2010 at 10:57 am David Frum | 31 Comments |

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My latest column for The Week looks at the dire situation for today’s unemployed and considers why these hard times have not led to an economic protest movement.

More than four million people have been out of work for six months or longer, and every day more unemployed Americans pass the 99-week mark at which their benefits expire. Some of those who exhaust their unemployment benefits may qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But others will not. What happens to them?

And when will we ever hear from them?

The most surprising thing about this recession, at least to me, has been the total absence of an economic protest movement by the unemployed and the foreclosed. Yes, we have the Tea Party protesting on behalf of taxpayers who also worry about an uncertain future. Yet the Tea Party’s ranks are recruited from the “have mores” of American society: 20 percent have incomes of more than $100,000, compared to 14 percent of American households generally.

The “have less” demographic, however, has fallen silent.

Time and again in American history, the hard-pressed and dispossessed have spoken loudly, fiercely, in the public square. Not this time. There are no Populists or Wobblies, no Bonus Marchers or sit-down strikers. And this time, the have-less demographic has not even attracted a Bruce Springsteen to sing “Born in the USA” on their behalf, or a Michael Douglas to star in “Falling Down.”

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31 Comments so far ↓

  • sinz54

    David,

    You’re incorrect about the protest movements of the past. AFAIK, none of those movements was born of despair over high unemployment. They were born of the same two factors that all protest movements are born of: Anger about some issue, and hope that if you get off your butts you can really do something about it.

    The anger about the economy and hope for a major change were in 2008, and that’s what elected Obama. But we’re past that. We’re now into the despair stage, as you yourself point out. And worse:

    As the recession deepens, participation in civic activities — community organizations, volunteer groups, even church attendance and social clubs — is likely to drop. Sociologists once assumed that during hard times people would naturally band together, if only to protest their plight or to give each other solace. It turns out that the opposite is true: Economic distress causes people to withdraw.

    “Rather than get together and hold community meetings or march in protest, the effect of unemployment in the Great Depression was to cause people to hunker down,” said Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard sociologist whose book, “Bowling Alone,” examines Americans’ civic engagement in the 20th century. “We found exactly the same thing in the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s … and I’m pretty confident we’ll see the same pattern in this recession too.”

    Though a few political movements, such as the “tea party,” may have been invigorated by the downturn, more broad-based civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters have seen their membership drop.

    Why does civic participation drop during hard times? Jennie E. Brand of UCLA studied the ripple effect of unemployment among families in Wisconsin, and she says there are several reasons: People who lose their jobs feel depressed; they sometimes feel ashamed of their financial troubles; they lose some of their trust in society; and some of them move to new communities where they have no ties.
    http://tinyurl.com/27ewcvx

    In short, long-term unemployment leads to two paralyzing emotions: Despair and shame. Despair that your situation is now hopeless for the forseeable future; and shame that you as a breadwinner can no longer provide for your family.

    Someone who is covered in despair and shame isn’t going to want to organize a protest movement. Most likely he’ll sit around all day and stare blankly into space.

  • TerryF98

    More importantly why is the GOP deliberately blocking aid for these people for political gain. That is shameful

  • msmilack

    I wonder where the outrage is at the GOP for blocking assistance to the unemployed and the jobs programs; when will they be held accountable?

  • LFC

    More than four million people have been out of work for six months or longer, and every day more unemployed Americans pass the 99-week mark at which their benefits expire. Some of those who exhaust their unemployment benefits may qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But others will not. What happens to them?

    Well according to some high profile right-wingnuts, they’ll magically get jobs. After all, many of them are not working simply because they’d rather collect unemployment, dontcha’ know.

  • msmilack

    Sinz54
    I agree with you that long-term unemployment leads to paralyzing emotions rather than activist ones that make jobless folks want to organize for a protest. The fear of not having enough to eat or not getting a new job in time to pay the rent or wondering how soon your family might become homelss are all emotions that make organizing a protest difficult. Actually, that is one of the reasons we count on our elected officials to look out for us. But when the GOP is determined to vote against extending unemployment as a part of their “NO” strategy; when they refuse to participate in passing a jobs bill; when they put winning above governing, the unemployed have little to pin their hopes on in the way of government intervention and help. It would be sad if it were not so frightening.

  • Joel

    Seems like you could believe two things here.

    One, you could follow WillyP and his crew’s logic and say that they aren’t protesting because they are actually quite happy. After all, they are being paid money taken out of the hands of the productive and are being rewarded for being non-productive. If anything, they say, the unemployed are throwing parties and chuckling at the stupidity of the government.

    Or two, you could go with Sinz54, and suggest that the unemployed are mostly paralyzed emotionally by the situation. If that’s true, it would imply that the unemployed are not, for the most part, motivated by a lazy desire to be paid for being unproductive, but are instead motivated by the desire for a meaningful work, a job, and a chance at a meaningful life of contribution to society. In the absence of this, they feel despair.

  • Rob_654

    I can only assume that the unemployment issue has been lowered by all of those anti-illegal folks out there, who are out of work and who believe that the Mexicans are taking “our” jobs have turned the tables by signing up to take these great American jobs back from those pesky illegals.

    http://www.takeourjobs.org/

    They don’t have time complain with all of the Fresh Air, Exercise and great work conditions they are getting.

  • Nanotek

    “The most surprising thing about this recession, at least to me, has been the total absence of an economic protest movement by the unemployed and the foreclosed.”

    David, think about it … if you had a family to feed, to house and educate, no job, a mortgage and no money, participating in an economic protest movement would not be an option. I think a fundamental misunderstanding of poverty animates your surprise over not seeing a protest movement by the unemployed and the foreclosed. Something has to and that seems the most likely candidate, given your obviously high intelligence.

  • easton

    nanotek, that is right. Years back when I moved back to the states (since I quit my job in China I had no unemployment insurance due me) I was so busy looking for a job and worrying about my future to consider politics. From day one I had no income and lived off my savings. It took me about a month to find a job I hated but that month was a nightmare of despair and anxiety. Finally I moved to Mexico to do what I love.

    Now this might sound strange, but it is a big world. I can literally work all over the world and so can many other Americans. I am not quite sure why people do not take that opportunity. To give an example, I have a friend who is a cruise ship director on a boat that goes up the Yangtze river. He makes good money and has off for 3 months. There are jobs everywhere doing everything. It just takes enough guts to take a chance, but I would take that over living on the street anyday.

  • Demosthenes

    Yeah, and if your desire for anger comes about, given the recession was caused by your party, Mr. Frum, and further your party is blocking unemployment benefits for millions, then I suspect you will eat your words here.

  • cdorsen

    The reason for the lack of unrest among the have-nots is simple. Their guy is in the White House, and their soldiers are in congress. What/who are they going to protest? Blaming the people they, by and large, put in office would be akin to blaming themselves. They would be protesting against the people and policies that they support. I am sure if and when the Republicans take the reigns, regardless of any improvements in the job situation, the have-nots will be out in full force, picket signs in tow…

  • sinz54

    msmilack: I wonder where the outrage is at the GOP for blocking assistance to the unemployed and the jobs programs
    What jobs programs?

  • TerryF98

    Cdorse,

    You seem to think all the unemployed are Democrats. In that you would be completely wrong. Take your blinkers off please!

  • Oldskool

    There’s plenty of outrage but it’s not organized. Individuals are taking their own shots at the system. Some stop paying their mortgages and why shouldn’t they if it’s under water. Banks and various other corporations have no qualms about walking away from bad debt or screwing customers like common thieves.

    And even for the unemployed it’s not hard to find a community of people in similar straits on the internet which requires no gas or travel time.

  • easton

    cdorsen, did you read anything anyone else said anywhere on this thread? Obviously not, or you would have made some small effort to address it. Unemployed are generally too busy looking for jobs to picket and protest and if they did Republicans would scream why are they not looking for jobs and collecting UI and would vote to take it away from them anyhow.

    “I am sure if and when the Republicans take the reigns, regardless of any improvements in the job situation” I am sorry, but when was that that there were job improvements under Republicans, under Bush not one single private sector job was added, for years we talked about a jobless recovery as unemployment drifted ever upwards under Bush, only through is own massive stimulus via war spending did they hire a lot more people working for the Government. But I guess that is OK when Republicans massively increase government payrolls.

  • vidoqo

    OK, 15 comments in and no one appears (unless I missed it) to have mentioned the number one reason I – who has been unemployed for 8 months – am not protesting: protesting what?

    What is my complaint? That I’m out of work? And… the point is?

    The truth is that there are no easy answers. Apparently no one agrees on whether Keynsian stimulus works, or whether tax cuts work. The former makes more sense to me, but I’m a liberal and I’m basically only accepting the authority of liberal/moderate economists. The idea that borrowing to stimulate consumption “makes sense”, but I’m not an economist so a lot of incorrect economic ideas probably “make sense” to me.

    And while I think the Obama administration, Reid and Pelosi would love to do more stimulus, there’s no way with the Blue Dogs and Republicans utterly opposed. So should I protest either of them?

    There is enormous ideological and economic confusions in the country (and around the world) right now. Everyone is suffering – or knows someone who is, and it makes us scared, angry, depressed, etc. But what to do? I don’t know. One wonders how many people are basically *guessing* at this point!

    Anyway, I’m a public school teacher, and all the local districts have had to make cuts. So the reason I can’t find a job is that the state can’t afford to pay its teachers. Californians have wanted services but haven’t been able to summon the 2/3 majority to raise the taxes to pay for them. Now, in a recession, we can’t borrow the money, and tax revenues have plummeted.

    I suppose I could go out on a corner and protest my confused fellow Americans who don’t know why they believe what they believe and are too uninterested in politics or philosophy or history to find out. Geez, if only there was someone out there who could *teach* them… :)

  • Nanotek

    “I am sure if and when the Republicans take the reigns…”

    You aren’t serious, surely. Republicans had the reigns for 8 long years — they inherited a surplus and a nation that was considered the bulwark of freedom and left the American people a $9 trillion deficit, added over $25 trillion in unfunded liabilities, so asleep at the wheel that we suffered the worst attack on American soil, two unfunded wars, gutted the CIA’s ability to monitor nuclear development in Iran by outing a CIA agent and the agency’s corporate cover and installed conservative activist judges from the POTUS on down, radical deregulation of Wall Street and offshore drilling, 750,000 jobs a month being lost, TARP and a Republican Depression. The Republicans need to own their past and learn from it.

  • msmilack

    Joel said: “In the absence of this, they feel despair.”

    Yes.

  • msmilack

    Rob_654
    Where I live there is big employment problems and there are no immigrants to take the jobs away; rather, we can thank the banks for that for in refusing to lend to small businesses, they have managed to destroy many small companies which in had to terminate many long-time employees, and it is they who are looking for jobs that do not exist. In addition, there are other scenarios that explain the dilemma but honestly I think you can trace them all back to the fault lines of poor economic policies and reckless leverage by the people with control of the money the last decade, and the results of that behavior has nothing whatever to do with immigrants illegal or otherwise. They have become the scapegoats.

  • msmilack

    vidoqo // Jul 15, 2010 at 5:58 pm
    You wrote: “OK, 15 comments in and no one appears (unless I missed it) to have mentioned the number one reason I – who has been unemployed for 8 months – am not protesting: protesting what? What is my complaint? That I’m out of work? And… the point is?”

    Excellent point.

  • msmilack

    Rob_654
    I just re-read your comment (on which I commented) and suddenly realized I cannot tell when people are being sarcastic in writing. I honestly am not sure if you were serious or speaking tongue-in-cheek. If I misunderstood your meaning, sorry.

  • msmilack

    cdorsen // Jul 15, 2010 at 2:58 pm
    You wrote: “The reason for the lack of unrest among the have-nots is simple. Their guy is in the White House”

    You cannot honestly be blaming Obama for the nightmare economy he inherited from the Bush administration. If you want to argue he has not done enough to save us, feel free (though I would not agree) but to put the blame on him is absurd and unfair. I believe he has so far saved us from tipping into a full blown depression. Think back to the big meeting McCain demanded at the White House when Bush met with Obama and McCain and others, when Paulson showed up with 3 pages asking for total control over the money — and recall that Obama was still a candidate. It was at that time that the Republican administration created TARP.

    Bush was not president that the “have-nots” as you call them put in the whitehouse.

  • JonF

    Seriously, what’s keeping unemployed people from banding together and protesting? Sure, they can’t afford to mount a Million Slackers March on DC (note: that is a joke, not a deliberate slur), but it doesn’t anything significant to hand paint some signs and mount a protest at city hall, or the local UI office or (in case of outsourcings) the firm that sent their jobs to Asia. They should also have plenty of time on their hands, unfortunately. Now, I’ve only been unemployed for five weeks max (totally unemployed, no part time job, and that when I was in college), but I was a Frustrated Part-Timer once, back in 2002, and since I worked at night, I had the whole day free. I biked a lot (lost a bunch of weight), and maybe I was not frustrated enough to protest, but if I had been I had time and energy where I could have gone downtown and shouted at the mayor.

    Also, wasn’t there a fair amount of near-violence in the Great Depression? Negihborhood vigilantes standing off the sheriff to prevent foreclosures. The Bonus Marchers against whom the troops were called out. Many histories seem to think the US was a short march away from outright revolution at the nadir in early 1933.

  • JonF

    Re: I believe he has so far saved us from tipping into a full blown depression.

    Let’s give credit where it’s due. Yes, Obama deserves much of that credit, but the Bush administration and the Fed are due a large helping of it too. I am a severe critic of George the Lesser but I can’t fault his response in late 2008.

  • easton

    vidoqo, if you are a teacher there are many, many jobs at international schools around the world. It is worth a shot.

  • easton

    JonF, yeah, I agree about Bush, and I would say the same thing about the surge, of course that doesn’t get him off the hook for messing up the economy and the war in the first place, but I am find with crediting him with these. And it is funny, if Bush had the team that he had the last two years his Presidency could have been far more successful. It is sad reality had to hit him so hard upside the head before he got some sense. Cheney, of course, is a lost cause. But Bush has been good as an ex-President, a credit to himself.

  • msmilack

    easton

    I agree, Bush has been most admirable as an ex-president: supportive, respectful and at a safe distance. As he said when asked, “The new president has earned my silence.” He’s a real gentleman and acted for more as a statesman in this instance than Cheney has done in his whole life.

  • jakester

    Meanwhile instead of addressing the most important issues of jobs & the economy Obama gave us a health care package no one wants

  • vidoqo

    “a health care package no one wants”

    I think I speak for my fellow uninsurable Americans with pre-existing conditions when I say, “I do.”

  • Joel

    Jake:

    Since it looks from the outside like a president cannot chew gum and walk at the same time, you’re right with respect to politics – he should have publicly talked about jobs first, then health care. But in reality he was doing both (and in truth the two appear connected to me), but talking a lot publicly about health care. Out of curiosity, what specifically do you think he should have been doing with respect to jobs?

  • busboy33

    I’m a huge fan of health insurance too.

    @Joel:

    “what specifically do you think he should have been doing with respect to jobs?”

    Isn’t it obvious what Jake wanted? TAX CUTS! That would have fixed everything. If only the Estate Tax was permanently repealed (I’m sorry, the Death Tax), then there would be billions of jobs flowing like mana from heaven.

    Tax Cuts, or as it used to be called “Dr. Bunko’s Miracle Elixir”. No matter what ails you, cut taxes. A Deficit? A Surplus? Too many jobs? Not enough Jobs? Zombie Invasion? Tax Cuts cure ‘em all! Help with Halitosis, too.