In Parts I through III, I summarized how our educational system was designed to advance less than a third of our population toward a bachelor’s degree and that the economic consequences for those without a bachelor’s degree were significant. Beginning in the 1970s, not only were the economic opportunities for less educated citizens more scarce, but the wages for these lower-level jobs stagnated, debt mounted, and the disparities between the wealthy and the poor exploded. And from this economic and social context grew a sense of displacement among the white working class and a growing hostility toward the “other.”
How does one get beyond the surface events to the underlying dis-eases that flow, capillary-like, through the body of the collective? One counter-intuitive approach, highlighted under the general academic umbrella of sense-making, is to observe an extreme example of an attitude or belief and then trace it to its more conventional contexts.
The example I will use involves an independent candidate’s campaign for congressional office in Tennessee in June 2016. The candidate, Rick Tyler, running for the 3rd Congressional District, posted signs reading “Make America White Again” and a second poster, which had an image of the U.S. Capitol surrounded by Confederate flags with the caption “I Have a Dream.” He defended his strategy by saying he thought there was nothing hateful about the campaign posters; he was only being “provocative.”
He then offered what was for him a plausible explanation of his intent. He wanted to elicit in people’s minds memories of TV shows such as Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and The Andy Griffith Show, with its idyllic portrayal of the fictional town of Mayberry. He found in these shows “an America that I grew up in [that] was a better America.” These fictional shows of the 1950s and early 1960s held for him feelings of safety and security, no “Muslim sleeper cells,” “less immigration,” and an “85% super white majority.” A time “so safe,” he added, “you could leave your doors unlocked.” What was unspoken in his declaration of being provocative was that he was daring others to challenge him even if that meant demeaning him or calling him racist.
Now Rick Tyler was not taken seriously as a viable candidate for office, even in this heavily Republican district of Tennessee. Other candidates were better known and better funded. The signs he put up were removed and his website crashed. His candidacy never had a chance. But that is not the end of the story as far as the collective goes.
What might be taken as a deviant act or just a stupid one has other psychological layers. His actions speak of a genuine longing for safety and, at an even deeper level, grief. The world is no longer as he wishes it to be, even if it was never that way to begin with. And to make matters worse, his desire to live in such a world is mocked and rejected. His signs are a way to strike out and strike back at the perceived ridicule he anticipates encountering, his unfiltered voice a badge of honor.
What Tyler was communicating cannot be understood from only a rational perspective. Surely no one could confuse Mayberry with an actual community or the fictional Ozzie and Harriet family with the reality of illness, debt, and loss that shadowed their actual circumstances. But that is not the point. There is entertained some idealized image of a homogeneous world where the certainties of life far outweigh the uncertainties; where the dominant voices are caring, protective, and wise. Deviance is minor or quickly contained. A character like Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver might have thought of starting a meth lab, but Ward Cleaver would have known just the right thing to say. June Cleaver would have baked something that made the whole house smell wonderful. This is how the unconscious works, behind the scenes, making emotional sense out of a jumble of images, feelings, conflicts, and inconsistencies.
In this world, more white people equaled more safety, protection, and freedom from uncertainty. What Tyler longs for is to bring back that America, to bring back a firm voice of reason, an updated version of Ward Cleaver — someone whose children look up to him and someone who knows how to succeed in the world. Does Rick Tyler sound crazy or so extreme that he can easily be ignored? Not on your life.
When we hear the refrain “take America back” or that “our country has been taken away,” we should think of what Rick Tyler and his posters represent. We should remember how the world was reflected back to us in TV shows of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and what it looks like now. And then we should remember what was not visible: the majority of the population not having a college degree and becoming vulnerable to economic stagnation, automation, and corporations abandoning communities for factories outside the country, all leading to alcoholism and drug addiction growing alongside increasing levels of suicide and mental illness, especially in white communities. Can you hear, beyond the instinct to ridicule Rick Tyler, the cry for safety and the associated grief that something has been lost or forgotten?
How appropriate, then, that Scott Baio, who played the character of Chachi in the TV series Happy Days, concluded his speech at the Republican National Convention with these words: “So of course, let’s make America great again. But let’s make America America again.”