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Apr 28, 2011

Lived Realities

McDonald's announced a national hiring day on April 19, and got more than a million applications for an announced 50,000 low-wage and largely part-time jobs. Meanwhile, here are the new results of a Gallup poll: "Twenty-nine percent said the economy is in a depression and 26 percent said it is in a recession, with another 16 percent saying it is 'slowing down.'" 29+26+16=71.

Place these realities against Jill Lepore's notionally historical explanation for popular anger against the political class: people are talking nostalgically about returning to the vision of the Founders because they're racist and sexist and want to go back in time and progress (which are the same thing). I agree that the Tea Party has invented a false past, but I'm much more inclined to view that invention as an act of reasonable desperation. People look back when they fear what they see looking forward, and our current working-class and middle-class status anxiety is based on empirical perceptions of things that are real. Near-five-dollar gas, U-6 unemployment persistently over fifteen percent, a withering away of American manufacturing, corporations that are profitable but not hiring, endless corporate welfare amid middle-class losses: these things are lived and felt.

Historical comparisons to our present reality will be difficult, but my argument has been and will be that you can't start thinking about those comparisons without looking for historical examples of economic despair and status anxiety -- people who are terrified of what their future will look like. Finding mostly senseless and atavistic racism in popular political anger requires that we carefully not notice that a million people applied to work at McDonald's this month. Notice the desperation. Go on from there. What will historians think of this moment? How will they read the social and political implications of a moment in which seventy-one percent of the population believe themselves to be living through sustained economic crisis?

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