The tragedy of this American moment: Populism, elites, and the 2020 election

This is about so much more than Donald Trump. Anand Giridharadas explains why America must reclaim its heritage of revolution before the next presidential election in 2020.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: You know that old saying about the fox guarding a henhouse? So, I like to tell a different version of that story with a backstory.

We're the hens, regular people trying to live our lives. And we had a guard of the henhouse—it was the government. It wasn't perfect but it did a reasonable job of protecting us from each other, guarding equality, making sure none of the hens were pecking the other hens too much. And then came along, the last 30 to 40 years, a fox—and the fox is big business and wealthy people. And the fox didn't like the guard because the fox kind of wanted the hens to itself. And so what did the fox do? It bit that guard in the leg.

It argued that government was bad, "The government was the enemy," it defunded government, it fought for lower taxes so government could do less stuff. Then the guard starts stumbling away and bleeding out. Off the scene, the hens are unguarded, and the fox presents itself to the hens and says, "What a shame! Government is just not what it used to be, it's not protecting you! Not fighting for you. It's so inefficient. It's so, gosh, that's so sad. Well, let me step in! I'm rich and I'm here to help."

Well, rich people and wealthy corporations spent a generation waging a war on government, defunding government, allowing social problems to fester and allowing their own profits to soar.

And then, with government weakened, social problems multiplying and their own pockets full, they reinvent themselves as the new replacement of government, which is—instead of trickle-down economics we now have trickle-down change: Let them make their fortune, and then they'll just throw some social change down from the mountain.

Well, we have to decide in America if that's the kind of change we want. But what I do know is if you project that kind of change backwards throughout time we wouldn't have created most of the change that we all take for granted today. There would, frankly, have been no New Deal. There'd be no modern American economy if we had depended on the powerful to throw down scraps.

Many of the most important things in American life had to be taken from the powerful and given to the many, and it's time that we reclaim that heritage again.

I think it's hard to understand why populism is rising throughout the world without reckoning with the role of a class of global one-percenters who are remote from their communities, more connected to each other than to the communities they live in, and seemingly devoted to profit and returns above all else. The fascinating and complicated thing about this global populist moment is that it takes very different forms. I mean, here there's a very strong racial dynamic to it that is at the heart of it. There are other places where that's less of a factor. In some places it's about internal racial things. In other places it's about immigration. In some places it's about all of the above. But I think what is undeniable in this country is that for 30 or 40 years, many people on the left and right have felt that things were not going right, that the country wasn't working for them, that it felt rigged to them, that it felt impossible to secure the life that they were promised by this country and to give their children something better than they had. And all that while, there was a lot of rich-splaining to those people by the American elite of "No, no, no, things are great! Trade's good. Trade's great. It's going to be perfect. It's going to lift everybody up. Globalization it's great. Look, there's a couple of bumps, but no worries. In the aggregate all will be well," I mean, as though anybody lives in the aggregate. "Tech? Don't worry. Don't worry about that fact that everything got automated and your jobs all went to Taiwan. Don't worry about it. We'll be better off on the whole." And there was just a lot of this kind of rich-splaining. I remember studying this stuff in college when I took economics classes. Like, I went to the University of Michigan. I was sitting in Michigan in Econ 101 and I remember getting this lecture on how all this stuff was for the good, and we'd be better off. And right around us, all around us in Michigan in 1999 the state was falling apart. These long tectonic shifts were basically like: work was disappearing, and trade was not benefiting most people, and globalization was not a walk in the park, and aggregate effects were not really of any comfort to anybody. And how was it possible, at the University of Michigan in 1999, with all that evidence all around us, that we could sit in an intellectual cocoon and explain to ourselves that, you know, "rising tides lift all boats," essentially? There is a way in which American elites—and this is not just a couple of greedy hedge fund billionaires, the American intelligentsia also has been complicit in a false story about all things working out for people over the last generation that wasn't true.

And I think people felt that and revolted against it, and it's really, really unfortunate that, particularly in the Trump movement, someone who actually tapped into that intuition people have, that elites weren't maybe as sincere and fighting for them as they claimed, that Donald Trump, instead of seizing on that anger and channeling it at the institutions and people who had actually done that, instead, in this cowardly and sad and lowly and hateful way, deflected that anger onto Muslims and immigrants and women and people of color and whatever. That's the ultimate and tragic non sequitur of American politics today.

People are correctly, people correctly feel screwed by an economic order that doesn't have as much space for regular people to make a life as it used to. But they have been led by a phony billionaire real estate developer to feel as though those problems were caused not by Goldman Sachs but by black people. And that is the tragedy of this moment, and that's why it's going to take someone on the Democratic side who is actually able to speak to the concerns of regular people about being shut out.

By the way, there's more shut-out people on the Democratic voter base than the Republican voter base. But the Democrats, I think, have struggled to speak in the language of people who feel left out by the future. Socially, many of the most prominent Democrats, they don't know and live among those people. You can have a lot of heart and you can have a good speechwriter but you either live in a world that has more Goldman Sachs people in it or a world that has more union organizers in it, just as your real friends, as your real fellow travelers. And I think people are actually good at sniffing who's who and I think the Democratic party needs to get serious about being the party of regular people who feel shut out by this age. And that must mean not being the party of Goldman Sachs in any way.

  • "We'll be better off" is the lie that sank America, says Giridharadas.
  • When it comes to globalization, trade and automation, for decades American elites have been "rich-splaining" to ordinary people, saying: 'Don't worry, it will all be fine in the aggregate'. "As though anybody lives in the aggregate," quips Giridharadas.
  • Populism was inevitable with the current economic order. The tragedy of it is that Trump has focused the blame on minorities rather than on the institutions that caused the quality of life in America to plummet.
  • Before 2020, the Democratic party needs to harness the American spirit of revolution. More importantly, it will have to figure out how to talk to disgruntled Americans and channel populism for the common good.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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