Revolution. Its mention conjures visions of patriotic heroism; of radical protests and wigged white men in knickers. But today, the beginnings of revolution are far less romantic, paling in comparison to the awe-inspiring descriptions of past revolt. No, today it’s not quite patriotic heroism, more like disorderly conduct. And though the protests are radical, they are seen by many as foolish acts, devoid of sense and reason. But, one thing is certain: we are entering an age where cultural identity and growing inequality feed off of one another. It is a powerful synergistic effect that, making appearances in the Bolshevik Revolution and in 18th century France, can topple governments and upend societies. And though it’s not yet knocking on America’s back door, it is walking down her driveway, eyeing its target. We are in an age of widespread cultural disenfranchisement. Economic disenfranchisement that has left America’s working class down-trodden. Political disenfranchisement that has left a large majority of citizens, regardless of creed, leery of their representation in government. Cultural disenfranchisement that has led to the LGBT, Women’s Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. Extremes on both ends are emerging from their intellectual enclaves, from think tanks and internet chat-rooms. From the alt-right to anarchist protestors, America is in the midst of a cultural revolution. And the prime mover of it all: the heated interplay between cultural identity and disenfranchisement.
First off, let me explain what is meant by the term “disenfranchisement”. In everyday language it indicates that a group has lost suffrage or another legal right. In this article however, it will be defined as “a group that has lost trust and/or motivation”. So it can be seen that the “culturally disenfranchised” have lost trust that their culture is appreciated or represented fairly, likewise those who are “politically disenfranchised” have lost trust in the American political system’s ability to represent them adequately.
In the past, cultural identity has been, for the most part, separate from mainstream political affair. And when cultural issues did come into play, as they did during the Civil War era, Women’s Rights and Civil Rights movements, they existed in fundamentally different environments than the one we are in today. In the Civil War era, there were two groups who felt culturally disenfranchised, the slave owners/southerners and the freed slaves. The freed slaves, who had been introduced to the nascent concept of cultural identity, collaborated with abolitionists and envisioned a society in which all men could become culturally enfranchised. While the southerners, not only confronted with the prospect of possible economic disaster but feeling that their own culture was under attack, ironically felt the same pain of cultural disenfranchisement that they had inflicted. Both cultures, seeing no other way of resolution, revolted against the other’s injustice. But although there was cultural strife, and there was revolution, there was simply little economic inequality and certainly no “forgotten class” like there is today. In both the Women’s Rights movement and Civil Rights movements, there was only one main culturally disenfranchised group, women and African Americans respectively. But although there was considerable opposition to these movements, the opposing groups felt sufficiently economically, culturally and politically enfranchised to render large-scale revolt unnecessary.
Enter present day America. There are two culturally disenfranchised groups, one large economically disenfranchised group and a pervasive, virulently spreading specter of political disenfranchisement. Amongst the culturally disenfranchised, the far-right exhibits the likes of the emerging alt-right movement and the raconteur Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos. The far-left hosts those behind the DisruptJ20 movement and various anarchist groups, also including those taking part in the Berkley protests. On the far-left end of the spectrum, members are deeply attuned to the voiced cultural disenfranchisement of the LGBT, Women’s Rights and Black Lives Matter movements, many of them members of these movements themselves. On the far-right end, members are either indifferent to this aforementioned disenfranchisement or against it, feeling that it takes away from their own cultural enfranchisement. It is this reciprocal feeling of disenfranchisement that pits the two against one another.
Available in both the extreme (alt-right, DisruptJ20) and the garden variety (working class), Economic disenfranchisement is partisan-blind. It is a wide-spread sentiment and something that conflates with cultural disenfranchisement to form many an extreme ideology.
There exists another force however, so dynamic and pervasive that it links both the culturally and economically disenfranchised groups, connecting them all to the same life-line of sorts–political disenfranchisement. Political disenfranchisement is the reason that, however miraculously, Milo Yiannopoulos and a DisruptJ20 protester, assuming they had no prior knowledge of each other, could sit down peacefully and have a coffee, chatting about their disdain for bureaucrats and dislike of the Electoral College. This form of disenfranchisement is so pervasive that it is intertwined with each disenfranchised group, both cultural and economic. When paired with cultural disenfranchisement, it proves to be a catalyst of extremism, resulting in radical, polarized groups, including DisruptJ20 and the alt-right. When paired with economic disenfranchisement, it gives rise to groups and concepts such as the “forgotten class”, and there is no doubt this duo elected Donald J. Trump to office. Political disenfranchisement is both the catalyst of extreme, fringe ideologies and the glue that is holding America’s current, pre-revolution state together. Without it, there would be no alt-right or Berkley protests. Though of course, some degree of this political disenfranchisement is needed, to ensure our Democracy serves us and to keep questioning and improving our government.
Today America is caught in a web of dissatisfied citizens and emergent fringe movements, all vying to right the same visceral wrongs (disenfranchisement) and institute new cultural views, a more equal economic system, a new political party or some combination of the aforementioned. And though it may seem that the various movements have no common core or thread, all are tremendously intertwined.