President Reagan proposed that it’s ok for the rich to get richer because wealth would “trickle down” to the poor. That doesn’t seem to have worked well, but something else does trickle down. Culture.
Culture is the rules and values that create a society, the rules by which we connect, person-to-person, group-to-group. Without rules, we humans would be a collection of solitary savages.
Only a few of those rules are written as law. There’s no law that prescribes the placement of silverware on the dinner table, but an unwritten rule specifies a fork on the left and a knife on the right. Rules restrict freedom, but pure freedom, the absence of rules, would generate oppression by chaos. Where do these rules come from?
Culture trickling down.
Culture is handed down in families. Mom and pop and perhaps a few relatives pass values and how-to’s down to the next generation. If new hopes and new expectations emerge outside established rules, then there is rebellion—or revolution and anarchy. Senior citizens remember seeing anarchy in the 1970’s when the then-youngsters rebelled against an unpopular war, civic authority, and sexual mores.
So what’s happening now?
If our fundamental political values like freedom and fair play and equal opportunity are passed down by families, why are Americans now disillusioned with our political system? Why are we dividing into two camps of true believers—conservatives and liberals—instead of tolerant political parties? Why is there a rebellion seething underneath a political system that previously provided a working governance, even if it ran on favors, fakery, and fragments of corruption?
Does the trickle system no longer work?
People aren’t doing better each generation. The previous family structure no longer exists. In the middle class, mom and pop live far away from grandma, working for a mortgage, for cell phones and a dishwasher, for a wide-screen TV and two cars—pushing two jobs while driving the kids to lessons and little league competitions. At the lower end, there’s a single parent (if any), and what trickles to the kids oozes from the competitive culture of the street and the peer group. In the upper class, instruction teaches the kids to compete for grades, scholarships, position, and admission to the right college. They’re driven to school, and a few are driven to teen suicide.
For the rich, middle, or poor, the value is winning and the method is competition—and the best way to win is to adjust the rules of the game to favor yourself. CEO’s and Wall Street techies do it; presidential candidates espouse it, and even universities function by it. The cereal manufacturer displays an oversized box. A pound of coffee becomes 13 ounces. A job is a step to the next job, not a commitment to a career.
A culture of competitive winning is trickling down and oozing around.
Winning what? Life lived like a business so you can die first in line? Avoiding truth, beauty, discovery, learning, and love? Life seems modeled on a football game. Opportunity occurs to one who is connected to winners. Justice is not an ideal, it is a political favor, as illustrated by the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon and Citizens United decisions. Politics, whether within the corporate office, the university administration, or the civil government, is the process of assigning privilege and power.
How’s that related to the polarization?
Joining one side—or the other—is a simplistic way to feel like a winner. Unfortunately, the polarity reinforces governance by winning—that is, the polarity establishes what’s right by making others wrong. That’s a destructive way of controlling people, making war, not peace. It’s worked throughout the ages.
What can you do? Be aware of it; don’t buy into it. Don’t let winning trickle as a value; don’t let competition trickle as the only method.