Consider public health efforts to frame obesity as the result of agribusinesses and fast food franchises, on the one hand, and material deprivation in the inner city on the other. Starting in the 1990s, sociologist Helen Lee notes, activist public health scholars and journalists unleashed a flurry of articles and books blaming industrial agriculture and a predatory food industry for our growing waistlines. Advocates produced studies purporting to show a link between obesity and inner-city food environments, even as better studies showed otherwise. Rather than seeing rising fatness as the unintended consequence of cheap food — a historic achievement and an extraordinary benefit to the poor — it was viewed by a coalition of public health and social justice advocates as a kind of injustice: the denial of healthy food to oppressed groups. The result has been a distracting governmental and philanthropic focus on symbolic solutions, like bringing more grocery stores into the inner city, and too little on proven strategies, like better medical treatment for obesity-related diseases, or better access to higher education, which is strongly correlated with better health outcomes, including lower levels of obesity.
Similarly, political scientist Christopher Foreman observes that global warming has been framed by climate justice advocates not as an unintended consequence of poor people becoming rich in developed economies but rather as a kind of racist neoimperialism that required global wealth redistribution. Where progressives blamed industrial agriculture for victimizing children and the poor with cheap, high-calorie foods, they blamed the fossil fuel industry in the West for victimizing poor nations in Africa with cheap, high-carbon energy. From Kofi Annan to Wangari Maathai to Greenpeace, climate justice advocates attributed myriad long-standing problems of underdevelopment — from vulnerability to weather extremes to malaria — to the West’s imperialist pollution emissions. The movement’s “bottomless advocacy agenda … serves polarizing constituency-building politics, not a pragmatic agenda for shared global growth and prosperity,” Foreman suggests. “By its use of blame, redistributive claims-making, and suspicion of all establishments, the climate justice movement ironically undermines agreement on the very public investments that are essential to forging a new environmental and economic future.”
As Americans have become wealthier over the past four decades, progressives have deftly shifted the focus of their class warfare advocacy from the working class to the middle class. In so doing, notes Scott Winship, they have engaged in a statistical sleight of hand, suggesting that slowing growth rates have left Americans materially worse off. In reality, living standards for virtually all Americans have continued to rise. Over the past 40 years, Americans have become absolutely richer at close to the same rate as they did in the postwar era, even though growth rates are lower. “In 1900,” notes Winship, “a 2.5 percent increase in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita would have translated into about $150 in today’s dollars for every man, woman, and child in the United States; in 2010, it would have been roughly $1,200.”
Conversely, the richer we become, the larger increases in wealth must be in order to sustain the same rate of growth. Progressives have invoked declining growth rates since 1980 to argue that America ought to return to the Keynesian economic policies of the postwar era. But comparing growth rates rather than income growth between time periods does no good for their cause. Such a discourse inspires anxiety and, argues Winship, “is as likely to inspire selfishness as generosity.”
In all three cases, partisan experts constructed highly polarizing political discourses that undermine policy actions to help the poor. The food justice movement has focused on unrealistic efforts to remake whole neighborhood food environments to the neglect of better medical care, school reform, and higher education, which have benefits that include but go far beyond addressing obesity. The climate justice movement has focused more on advancing a political discourse of apocalypse, reparation, and redistribution than an agenda of electrification and urbanization, which help the poor to become more resilient to the climate and climb out of poverty. And in focusing on growth rates rather than absolute wealth, progressive economists and experts have constructed a picture of the American mixed economy as fundamentally broken, undermining confidence in a common national future.
Rather than examining their own role in polarization, progressives have of late sought to blame Internet corporations like Google and Facebook for undermining democracy.