“The key dividing line in the U.S.,” writes John Feffer of the polarization that has bedeviled the Obama presidency, that lies behind the ‘Brexit’ vote, and that now portends a possible Donald Trump presidency, “had little to do with Republican vs. Democrat, rich vs. poor, or liberal vs. conservative.” The “rich vs. poor” part of that is an audacious claim. It excludes folks who, as Bill Black is careful to point out, do not merely “feel” “left behind” but are “in fact being left in the dust by the financial elites,” and who, as Tracy Thompson describes them, “have been banished to life far away and out of sight” in what she describes as a “weirdly depopulated landscape.” That they might not be counted among the poor is wholly contradicted by the remainder of Feffer’s article.
Thompson goes on to explain that “the small-town and rural residents cheerfully extolled by Sarah Palin as the people who ‘grow our food and run our factories’ are either unemployed, working in a service industry, or making hundred-mile daily commutes to work.” Similarly, Barbara Ehrenbach describes people who work abusive jobs and live in motels or in their cars because they can never get together enough money for an apartment. These people are certainly not rich or middle class. They may be working class but we need to be clear about Feffer’s distinction without a difference: People in such circumstances are poor, even destitute.
Whatever one makes of that distinction, the “consequential divide between cosmopolitans who view the future with hope and those who have been left behind and have seen their economic situations and ways of life deteriorate” has suddenly gotten some attention in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ vote in the United Kingdom to detach the country, which might not be so united for very long, from the European Union.
Those who voted for Brexit and those who might vote for Trump are often thought to lack education but to a limited degree, I identify with these folks, certainly more than I do the so-called “cosmopolitans.” Despite my education, I am squarely among those who “have seen their economic situations and ways of life deteriorate.” I in fact returned to school in 2003 precisely because 1) I saw that I was no longer able to support myself, 2) student loans would help to make ends meet, 3) I hoped that education would help me to be more employable, and 4) I figured that further education would at least not make me less employable. It hasn’t worked out; in the fifteen years since the dot-com crash, I have finished a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and a Ph.D., accumulated over $300,000 in student loan debt, and still utterly failed to find gainful employment.
On the one hand, higher education should not be reduced to “job training.” On the other hand, there ought to be something I can do to help myself, my rage at my condition is formidable, and I wound up just barely coming down on the side of Brexit largely because I hate the neoliberals I blame for my condition a bit more than I do authoritarian populist xenophobes. The Brexit outcome shows I am not alone. But even so, I continue to hear from people who suppose I ought to have endorsed the view of so-called “experts” who uniformly opposed Brexit. George Monbiot captures this irony:
It’s not as if the system that’s now crashing around us was functioning. The vote could be seen as a self-inflicted wound, or it could be seen as the eruption of an internal wound, inflicted over many years by an economic oligarchy on the poor and the forgotten. The bogus theories on which our politics and economics are founded were going to collide with reality one day; the only questions were how and when.
Fig. 1. In contrast to nearly every other segment of the global population, economic globalization has harmed the “global upper middle class.” Branko Milanovic, World Bank, 2012, reproduced by Bloomberg, June 27, 2016, fair use.
If these “experts” are indeed so “expert,” why can Monbiot correctly label their theories “bogus?” Why is it only now that they are noticing that “the [erstwhile] middle classes in developed nations failed to see this rising tide [of economic globalization] lift their boats” even though an “elephant chart” documenting the condition (figure 1) has been available since 2012, and social scientists have been writing about widening social inequality for decades?
Indeed, the performance of economic and political experts in recent years has hardly been inspiring. Most missed signs that the global financial system was headed for a crash in 2008. Weapons of mass destruction were never found in Iraq. Even the rise of Trump and the potential for Brexit were ignored by most political cognoscenti for far too long.
In fact, if there is one oddity since the financial crisis that began in 2007, it is that economists continue to be taken seriously and their prescriptions continue to be adhered to despite 1) ethical lapses; 2) their frequently expressed preference for shoddy work, ideology, and “theories” that simply have not proved themselves out in reality; and 3) even their own self-criticism. Some of this lies in an undue faith in forecasts. Some of it is that economists’ utterings have suited political and financial elite preferences, especially toward eviscerating the social safety net. Some of it resembles a desperation for control in the face of the sometimes overwhelmingly uncontrollable. And I think some of it stems from a need for advice even when all sources for that advice have been discredited.
But some of it reaches deeper into our culture and a preference for allegedly “objective” and “reliable” data that in the name of reducing fallibility, reduces human experience to the superficial and devalues it while also effectively privileging the powerful and implicitly devaluing the ordinary experience of colonized (broadly meaning nearly everyone who is not part of a financial, political, religious, or military elite) people. This not only enables “expert” hubris but deprives even a vast majority of people of a voice when their experience does not conform to elite expectations. Which means that the Brexit outcome should be a lot less surprising than it was.
Epistemological criticism is just that. It fails to offer a solution. Most human scientists would argue not merely for qualitative but a wider variety of methodologies to re-empower disempowered voices. Judging from a change in tone I see between the third and fourth editions of The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research,  I believe this argument is being lost, not on the merits but rather under the prevalence of neoliberal ideology, and that not only in academia but in society as a whole, we are moving in the opposite direction. That’s a problem that will lead to a lot more suffering than we’ve seen already.