This article explains that automation is replacing thousands of jobs while providing only an infinitesimal increase in productivity. Workers are becoming divided into a small sect of highly-educated professionals and a much larger sect of less-educated workers who barely earn subsistence wages. Most of these low-income workers toil at hotels, restaurants, nursing homes, and in health care jobs which are difficult to automate. This widening gap between the highest earners and the lowest earners disproves the long-held idea that technological progress improves productivity and quality of life. The highest-paying industries are very selective and slow to generate new jobs–in Phoenix, Arizona, these industries only employed around 17,000 workers in 2017. The fastest-growing industries are all low-productivity and pay low wages.
Wealth inequality and wage stagnation pose a serious problem for the quality of democracy. In their book Democracy In America?, Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens write that wealth inequality has increased so dramatically since the 1970s that the principle of “one dollar, one vote” no longer holds as well as it used to. Those who amass the greatest wealth vote with their money by lobbying and donating vast amounts of money to campaigns. This ensures that certain candidates win campaigns largely because a small number of wealthy individuals were able to donate more than anyone else and can exert a disproportionately-high level of influence as a result. Additionally, since most jobs available to those at lower educational levels pay barely subsistence wages, the people they employ end up having to work several jobs to provide for expenses just above their basic needs. This eats up the time they have to pay attention to political activity–because they are so focused on their work and survival, they cannot inform themselves on candidates’ stances on important issues, so they go to the polls without much of an idea of where they stand on those issues. This is if they can even get to the polls at all–many low-income workers have no time to travel to their polling locations and stand in long lines to cast their ballots, because most election days fall on weekdays.
High degrees of inequality also contribute to social unrest, which can harm democracy because it breeds extremism. Richard Reeves claims that social mobility in the US is lower than in most of Europe, and that there is now intergenerational “social stickiness”–people born into lower income levels are much more likely to remain there than in the past. This could easily be the situation Eduardo Porter is describing in this New York Times Article. As automation continues to split people into the rich and the poor with little middle ground, the poor have less access to a “bridge” between themselves and a higher standard of living. Not only does this concentrate political power in the hands of the wealthy, but it breeds resentment. In The Politics of Resentment, Katherine J. Cramer explains that working class, rural people resent the “elites” who live in urban areas because they believe the wealthy elites have neglected the interests of the rural working class. Rural areas get the short end of the stick, while urban areas get more funding and more attention from those in the government. Thus, working class rural dwellers have shifted right due to a growing resentment for and distrust in the government. This ties into a point that Arlie Hochschild makes in Strangers In Their Own Land: as working class whites grow more resentful of the government, they shift farther and farther to the right. Thus, it can be surmised that wealth inequality causes the working class to feel neglected, which breeds resentment that fosters political extremism.
Extremism brings its own set of problems. Amy Gutmann explains that it prevents people from debating peacefully, causing “political paralysis.” It intensifies polarization by enabling people to demean their opponents, narrows their understanding of complex issues, and prevents compromise. Non-extremists may be attracted to rhetorical extremes because it enables them to capture the public’s attention. As wealth inequality continues to worsen, the workers whose jobs have stagnated due to automation could turn to political extremes in order to attract public attention to their issues. Although their goal might be to open discussion about their circumstances in hopes of finding solutions, the extremist rhetoric that grabs the public’s attention could also alienate those who might help them (policy makers), because much working class extremist rhetoric expresses open resentment of policy makers (unless those policy makers happen to be populists). Essentially, this is a vicious cycle: automation is widening the wealth gap and concentrating political power among the wealthy, which breeds working class resentment and extremism that make it even more difficult to solve that problem peacefully and democratically.