When Bigger is Better

Last week I drive to NH with my father and we talked politics. I couldn’t help but think how the antics of the recent election parallel his own longstanding convictions and reflect a set of aspirations bundled up in a knot of desire and frustration shared by so many. There are roots to the present, and the arcs of society and our lives sit side by side. 10 years ago I was riding in back of his black Ford Expedition, the second of two vehicular ogres that would put him in debt for the years I was in high-school and college. I was 19 and just starting to get my adult legs. Our discussion was not atypical:something about politics, and my father, per usual, was expressing trenchant frustration with the status-quo. To this day, he punctuates his diatribes with the vituperative phrase “love your country, hate your government”, as if inhabiting the tension between the two is not only easy but completely obvious.

When I was in my sophomore year of high-school my father purchased his first Expedition, a blue, cartoonish thing that rolled into our drive with great pomp and circumstance. My brother, sister and I slotted ourselves into the seats and started watching a DVD on the flip-down TV. It was so unlike his previous cars that it seemed unreal. When I was seven, my father had a 1-seat yellow pick-up. I remember helping him pant a green stripe across it on a spring afternoon and loading my bike into the back alongside my brother’s battery-powered toy jeep. Every weekend we’d travel to his hometown, West Springfield MA, all four of us, contiguously allayed on a hurtling leather bench, no AC, and manual windows that none of us were strong enough to get down all the way. Mary, the youngest and therefore lowest in the family pecking order, would be squeezed onto the floor while Stephen and I squabbled for elbow room above. If someone spilled something–a prerequisite for any car trip or restaurant outing in my family–the liquid would run down the back of the seat like a river through a canyon, indiscriminately soaking everyone’s backside.

It was this experience that, my father professed, drove him to buy the Expeditions. In them we each had our own spacious territories: Mary in the front seat, me in the middle, my brother in back, doing what brothers do when they’re out of sight and out of mind. This parcelling-out of offspring  was–for my father–the realisation of a longstanding aspiration: the dream of acquiring the space into which he could expand– expand his body, his progeny, his self. Encapsulated in that dream, I want to suggest, is a notion of human flourishing that is not entirely distinct from his politics or from the widespread social sentiment that galvanised Trump’s rise and simultaneously diminished the Democrats’ appeal.

My father is a boomer who grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts, a working-class city whose primary claim to notoriety is the basketball hall of fame and the annual agricultural-meets-carnival melee known as the Eastern Exposition. He grew up with five other siblings in a small, beige cape on a road that grew busier and busier as the years progressed. His father was an accountant and his mother a housewife. Money was always tight and family dynamics often tense. School was not a priority, especially for my father, who often brags about the detention record he (allegedly) still holds. To put it diplomatically, my father and his siblings were a rambunctious bunch. Make of that what you will.

Over the course of their lives, my father and his siblings experienced what sociologists call “mobility”.  They are middle class, but their experience on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder are clearly formative on their characters and the aspirations they hold. Thanks to a stint in the army at the tail-end of the Vietnam war, my father received medical training and afterwards was trained as a physician assistant at Howard University (a fact he always pins to his chest as some testament to his woke-ness whenever we argue about race relations–but that’s a story for another time). He thus had strong prospects for material prosperity. He purchased the latest gadgets (which he always managed to lose or break or never use properly), bought a ski condo, multiple boats, frequently took elaborate vacations, and his car was always littered with the carcasses of spent scratch tickets. But he has never, ever been good with money. Bills were frequently paid late, bank accounts often empty, and cars and apartments dirty, ramshackle, and cramped. I believe my father was aware of this skewed symmetry of priorities. Yet it made sense to him keep recklessly chasing–as many people from working class backgrounds do–the markers of success that society dangles just within reach.

I was young and mostly oblivious to the political world in the the early noughties, but I remember having the impression that the whole package of the American dream seemed within reach. The 90’s had boomed, we survived Y2K, housing was affordable but also profitable, and the looming recession was eclipsed by low gas prices and a president who didn’t have much to do aside from golfing. The cake was ours to have and eat. It is the psycho-social matrix in which my father moved through his mid-life: full of expectation that things would finally pan out, that the gains the boomer generation has secured would be carried on and handed on. We could cash in, stop playing it safe, stop thinking small, and comfortably stretch into the ample legroom of our well-deserved first-class lives. All of this was of course slowly eroded as the decade progressed: the dotcom burst, the events on 9/11, rising fuel prices and college tuition, the sniper attacks in DC, etc, all contirbuted to a sense of mounting precarity. For my father, a vestibular fistula resulted in the partial paralysis of his left leg, a condition that, as it turned out, would never be reversed. We kept dreaming of worlds as each of these realities chipped away at our little islands. This was when he began to buy the Expeditions.

At the age of 19 that black expedition was costing about $150 per week to run, and since Ford had in adopted  poor manufacturing and engineering practices at that time it was constantly breaking down. Despite all this my father took immense pride in his $45,000 chattel. A Freudian would say that he was insecure about his masculinity, and while this may be true, it’s certainly not the whole picture. He claims to have bought the car so we could each have our own dominion, but I was 16 at the time and my brother 15 and in boarding schools, so within a couple of years we were out of the picture. He pursued this ideal until his credit was so poor he could never get a new car again.

It’s easy to say that he was not being sensible. But this was precisely the privilege he wanted — to not play it safe, to shoot for the stars, to flourish in directions that seemed previously impossible. This aspiration was made incarnate in his reckless pursuit of material wealth, but this route was take because it is the only means of flourishing made available to us in the age of neoliberalism. Ironically, it is this pursuit that has finally led Americans to turn on the denizens of neoliberalism itself, the Democrats and their moderate Republican brethren.

The political establishment has always courted the discourse of sensibility. The goalposts of that discourse have shifted over the course of political history, but each iteration is immured in conservative tone, in the demand that a vision of society either be attenuated and tuned to the values and apparatuses that “work”, that keep the status quo ticking away. Within the context of neoliberal global capitalism this has meant several things: let the bankers run the economy; buy houses with a view to selling them; don’t let unions rock the boat; get a degree in something with job prospects;  get a 401(K) rather than a pension; seek tax cuts at every juncture; let HMOs run healthcare and weapons manufacturing shape our foreign policy; and, most importantly, your value lays in your consumption.  The implicit message is: stay in your box, buy your shit, and let us do the rest.

But this is not flourishing. This is incarceration.

I think the impulse that spurred my father to buy that ridiculous car is the same impulse that spurred many to vote for Trump and many more not to vote at all. To be clear, I don’t think that Trump won the election; it was the Democrats’ to lose and they did. But I want to suggest that this arrangement of power into which we are now entering is the result of failing to provide citizens from across the political spectrum with the possibilities, means,  opportunities and space through which we can unfold ourselves and create through civil and political action–not merely passive consumption–a life we can call our own. As of now our lives are not of our own making. We are lead to think that cannot create, cannot act outwards on the world. We given different visions, ones that in reality makes us small and alienated. We need a new vision for how to order ourselves. And this vision demands thinking beyond the sensible, beyond the “safe” status quo we know so well.

This desire to throw caution to the wind is, I propose, part of the appeal of Trump. He embodies a way of things that is far removed from the “sensible”. But Trump also won because the  Democrats, and their establishment brethren within the Republican party, have failed to recognise the growing distaste and indifference to the “sensible”. For the past 25 years they have plied the rhetoric of sensibility, using it to disguise insidious moral and political agendas such as the war on terror or the refusal to persecute the “too big to fail” banks. It is integral to maintaining the neoliberal social order or a strong state and free-market capitalism.

But this has clearly backfired in two crucial ways. First, the tacit paternalism of  these messages has generated frustration amongst those who have experienced a gradual stifling of opportunity in their working and personal lives over the past 20 years. These people, like my father, desire prosperity, but have been told that they can only get it by playing the neoliberal game. The ruse of this message has of late run its course. Second, by touting the consumer market as the linchpin of economic sensibility and personal-life-meaning, the establishment has conceded the struggle for defining aspiration to capitalist consumer ideologies. It is these ideologies and their outlandish formulation in materialistic prosperity which have come to represent the very terms by which a refusal of neoliberal “sensibility”–embodied quite clearly in Donald Trump– can be waged.  The SUV, the McMansion, 70-inch television, and the rise of brand-name fashion  are pursuits of flourishing that fit within the very terms that the neoliberal establishment has laid out as legitimate aspirations, but  in Trump they constitute also a showy and very satisfying “fuck you”.

Because of the establishment agenda the Left has not been able to secure a platform from which they can can harness the desires Americans hold: to have the time and resources to determine the course of their lives. As much as Bill, Obama, Hillary and others have invoked the notion of “dreaming”, they have also qualified these exhortations with aloof, technocratic provisos about “deficits” and “personal responsibility” and  “means testing”. Their dominance on the Left has derailed progressives from being able to put forward a vision of flourishing and prosperity  whose end-point is not stuff but self. Measures like universal healthcare, collective bargaining rights, campaign finance reforms,  universal basic income, state-sponsored housing, democratic energy production, and free higher education are just some means by which the scope for expanding the self can be secured. If those aspects of life are covered by the state, then it becomes easier to focus on doing the things we want to do to be fulfilled person, to engage in cultural activities, to be neighbourly, to have the time to pursue meaningful life projects, and to participate in democratic processes more fully. These policies are never raised by the establishment politic, despite the mounting evidence that their social vision has not only failed to galvanise electoral gains, but has actively undercut their institutional power.

I didn’t have any of these thoughts all those years ago when the first Expedition arrived. Over the years I developed a more critical attitude towards the life the SUV ostensibly and rather desperately promise. Now that I’m older I’m no less critical, but much more charitable. I see it differently, as the embodiment of a story, a very American story, one that is sad but illuminating, and, most importantly, instructive. In these difficult times such stories are necessary to tell.




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