The mood in the country is dark and fundamentally fragmented. If we see spasms of violence, I predict they will be less likely to resemble the revolutionary politics of the medieval uprisings than the brutal, irrational atrocities that often took place in the shadows of those uprisings, when the gangs targeted out-groups: Jews, accused of poisoning wells; the Flemish, accused of stealing English jobs, some of whom were chased into the streets and killed on the spot.
So how do we tackle cavernous inequalities and avoid the violence of resentment?
The American electorate needs a shared narrative that fits the facts without scapegoats or conspiratorial paranoia. This is a moment ripe for action precisely because we share some fragments of a story: a weariness and wariness; a feeling that we cannot move forward; a shame that the powerful are never held accountable.
The great medieval revolts brought together people from many different walks of life, rural and urban: not only farmers, but also craftsmen, builders, small merchants and even the clergy. A collective labor movement could do something similar for us today.
The union victories of recent months are a prime example of how workers can come together and take advantage of this moment of dissension — and an example of how C-suite elites can bolster employee loyalty at a time of high turnover.
We also need to be more proactive in discussing the widening income inequality gap that characterizes this new century. Right now, the top 1 percent of earners own nearly a third of all wealth in the country, while the bottom 50 percent of earners own about 2.5 percent. We’ve known for a long time that such sharp inequality is stifling economic growth — and that’s a story we need to keep telling.
But answers must also lie with our own ruling elite. U.S. lawmakers must ease the enormous — and potentially violent — pressure with actions that address the things that contribute to our national sense of futility: raise the minimum wage, help with debt, balance tax laws so the rich pay their fair share, creating solid infrastructure jobs, childcare and health care for American workers (a move that would also help small employers).
Instead of helplessly witnessing divisions, we could seek prosperity and opportunity for all our fellow Americans. Imagine the sense of pride and shared purpose that is possible. Such consumer support measures would pump money into the grassroots system. The economy as a whole becomes more stable when there is a broad base of people with money to spend. Politically, the country would be less prone to eruptions. The youth may even feel hope.
But it is a rare elite that is willing to think long term. Most, like those across Europe in the wake of the plague, instead choose to hold on tighter to what they have, to try to control the shared wealth of others – and cling to themselves by everything. to cling, they eventually push their nations into crisis and are left with nothing but riot, mourning, fear, flames and misery.
MT Anderson is the author of “Feed” and “Landscape with invisible hand.”
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