These days, it seems that more and more of the headlines aren’t worth responding to. When the Forbes article arguing that Amazon could replace libraries flashed in my newsfeed, I just kept on scrolling. The claim was so ignorant and beyond the pale, I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously.
But many people did take it seriously, and they were right to do so. In the U.S. of the neoliberal, neoconservative era, the argument that tax dollars shouldn’t be used to fund the public goods that most of the developed world takes for granted isn’t a fringe opinion. It’s a core belief for a large segment of the American population, and one that we ignore at our own peril.
Some people think that this trend is the result of the Trump presidency. But Trump simply tapped into a culture that has been fermenting between the two coasts for at least four decades. Thomas Frank brilliantly analyzed the rise of this neoconservatism in “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” but anyone who has been to a red state or watched Fox News is familiar with it. Trump’s presidency gave a national stage to views that had been habitually ignored by the more liberal national media, and empowered others to come out. The author of the anti-library article is actually a professor from Long Island, a stronghold of the left.
Maybe Trump’s presidency also created an incipient awareness that we can’t keep ignoring these voices. But then, how can we respond to them? I could talk endlessly about how meaningful libraries have been to me throughout my life — sometimes more important than schools — or all the services they provide for the less affluent members of my community. But I doubt that my experiences would resonate with a conservative from Texas or Alabama.
There are many reasons why conservatives oppose publicly funded services. One of the reasons is that in poor, rural America, robust, meaningful public services simply do not exist. Teaching at a community college in Oregon, I met students who seemed to have grown up in a social and political void. For them the community college was that first public institution that wasn’t punitive or demeaning. The college was in one of the few middle-class towns that give the state its liberal reputation, but these students came from rural communities where the high schools didn’t seem to teach basic literacy, and where often there were no libraries. Pre-Obama public healthcare was only available to the abjectly poor. These students were more likely to encounter “the state” in the body of a social worker who came to inspect their homes or the criminal justice system.
The socialist in me wants to believe that we can bring at least some of these conservatives to the fold and begin building a livable social democracy on the Federal level. The teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma could mark the beginning of a movement that places economic equality above cultural divides. But that would require a strong commitment on part of some of the Right and almost all of the Left, and I don’t see that happening. Like the affluent Right, the affluent Left wants to keep its privileges to itself.
Things may get better for states like New York and Oregon that are already closer to social democratic normalcy than the rest of the country (though even within these states the economic divides are staggering). If the Left manages to run a successful presidential candidate and gain some control of congress, I hope that they invest in improving conditions in poorer states. Obamacare, though short-lived, managed to change people’s minds about public healthcare. Quality schools and libraries, along with an adequate welfare system might break the spell of anti-government conservatism.