I’ve been angry about the state of politics in this country ever since I first became politically aware during the Bush administration, but I’m furious about this past November’s election results. And you should be too.

I’m frustrated that, six years into the Obama presidency, America is no closer to living up to its ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy. Yes, it’s true that Obama and the Democrats have achieved moderate healthcare reform along lines that 1990s Republicans would have approved of, patchwork financial reforms that Wall Street lobbyists have quietly and busily been hacking to pieces, and some EPA regulations on coal emissions that will hopefully make a bit of a dent in our otherwise out-of-control carbon dioxide emissions.

But on so many fronts we’ve continued to regress. Income and wealth inequality are at absurdly high levels (according to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, as of 2013, 75.4% of wealth in the US was held by the top 10%), our justice system is clearly broken(we have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners, with many people locked up for nonviolent crimes), and Congress is so bad at responding to the wishes of the poor and middle class that a recent Princeton-Northwestern study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded that America is an oligarchy. Levels of trust in the major institutions of American life (the media, banks, corporations, Congress and the federal government, etc.) are at all-time lows. And who can blame people for their reluctance to trust? Wall Streeters betrayed the American people’s trust by using our money to fund their gambling sprees, the NSA wiretapping scandals and Senate report on Bush-era CIA torture give lie to claims that the federal government abides by American values, and the media gives us pre-packaged pabulum masquerading as serious political analysis.

At this point, ardent Obama defenders are undoubtedly going, “Who does this guy think he is? He’s a whackadoodle idealist. Obama did the best he could given the political realities he faced.” I find this line of argument questionable, but let’s let it drop, because I’m more concerned with Obama’s enemies, the obstinate reactionaries who somehow got elected this past November and whose default response to any proposal from the left is “hell no.”

I believe that most people are fundamentally good. And pretty much everyone (barring sociopaths) thinks they’re doing the right thing. If I believed in laissez-faire economics and thought that pursuing private gain leads to public benefits that everyone gets to enjoy, then I too would vote Republican and resist any efforts to intervene in the almighty Market.

But the people who buy into laissez-faire are simply mistaken. Laissez-faire economics is a pipe dream based on a crude understanding of human nature, one that assumes that we’re only motivated by self-interest and instrumental thinking. Homo economicus thinks like this: I want money so I can consume things; x is most efficient way to get it; therefore, I will do x. Economic man doesn’t think about fairness or the fact that we’re all interconnected and our actions have consequences for other people; economic man just thinks about himself. How can you build an economic system on a foundation of greed and narrow self-interest without having that foundation undermine your ultimate goal of maximizing everyone’s wellbeing?

The kind of society that praises unfettered competition and greed as good – even if just in the name of promoting the general welfare – is hardly a society most people would want to live in. Adam Smith talked a good talk, but if you actually look at the outcomes markets yield, it’s hard to argue in good conscience that capitalism is ideal. To markets, pollution and environmental devastation are just externalities, some degree of permanent unemployment is acceptable, and widespread alienation from work is tolerable as long as efficiency is achieved. Markets aren’t neutral: they favor whites, capitalists, and the rich at the expense of minorities, workers, and the poor.

People who squelch their sympathetic impulses and ignore everything except narrow self-interest and “market forces” are the cause of our problems today. Their belief in narrow, economic self-interest as the ultimate explanation and justification for any action is poisonous. It’s a putrid corruption of Marxism. Marx rightly highlighted the role that class interests play in shaping people’s actions, but he wasn’t a complete cynic. He thought class interests could be transcended – it’s unlikely to happen, perhaps, but a billionaire could defy his economic interests and cast his lot in with the proletariat. Some people today delight in pointing out that an action isn’t in your narrow self-interest. They seem to think that, by showing you this, they’ve somehow proved something important. In their minds, it’s futile to even try expanding one’s sense of self-interest to include others.

That straitjacketed worldview is cynical to the point of nihilism. It imprisons you in a cage formed by contingent facts about yourself like your race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and religion. What about values like equality and justice? Even if someone were a straight white rich Christian able-bodied male, endowed with all the privilege our society has to offer a person, he could still seek to abolish his privilege because he regards it as an affront to his principles.

The truth of the matter is that, despite the appearance of progress, about the only people our society works for right now are straight white rich Christian able-bodied men – and that’s a fairly small segment of the population, given that most people are disempowered along at least one axis of privilege. The rich are getting richer: according to Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez, around 95% of income growth during our so-called economic recovery has accrued to the top 1%. Moreover, in 2012, the top 1% received 22.5% of pre-tax income; the bottom 90% received a mere 49.6%. Racism is still alive and well in our supposedly post-racial era, as massive disparities in household wealth, employment levels, and incarceration rates between communities of people of color and whites demonstrate. (And that’s not even to mention Ferguson, the Eric Garner case, or the Tamir Rice case and the systemic problems with law enforcement that they highlight.) Despite Hillary Clinton’s probable presidential run and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the glass ceiling remains largely unshattered. According to the American Association of University Women, in 2013, women were paid on average 78 cents for every dollar men are paid, and according to a Bloomberg article, only 21 of the CEOs at S&P 500 companies – 4% – are women. The progress of marriage equality is heartening, but in most of the country, LGBTQ people can legally be fired simply for being who they are, and prejudice still lingers despite steps towards formal equality.

I recognize that facts and stats can only do so much to move people. Yet any cultivated person must be able to understand the sufferings of others, to imagine how life is lived by people who are less fortunate. Politicians like Mitch McConnell may never have lived without healthcare, or decent nutrition, or a roof over their head, or enough money, or a chance at a good education, or guaranteed sexual autonomy, but they should try to imagine what that’s like regardless. After all, isn’t that why we have books and plays and music and poetry, to stimulate the imagination and allow us to enter into sympathetic understanding of people on radically different life paths than our own?

If you recognize that all human beings are created equal in dignity and rights and that it’s a cosmic accident which body you end up in, you’ll be moved to act to correct our society’s systemic inequities, even if you can’t ever fully understand what it’s like to be in the shoes of the people you’re acting in solidarity with. Injustice makes our world a poorer place, even if it doesn’t immediately impact us. As Martin Luther King once wisely observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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