Michelle Goldberg describes the ending of Parasite, in which a poor family meets its final, inescapable fate:
At the film’s end, after a spasm of murderous violence, infamy and grief, the Kims’ son makes a “fundamental plan” to grow rich enough to save his father. There’s a gauzy sequence where this seems to be actually playing out, and “Parasite” briefly dangles the prospect of a Hollywood ending. Only in the last shot is it clear that it’s a fantasy and that he’s stuck right where he began.
According to the O.E.C.D., American social mobility is no more robust than South Korea’s. But with a few exceptions like Boots Riley’s surrealist 2018 indie film “Sorry to Bother You,” American popular culture hasn’t caught up to a world where brains and gumption are no match for larger material forces.
We liberals keep trying to push this theme, but it sure doesn’t feel like people are buying it. Conventional wisdom says that at least a few of them bought Donald Trump’s version of it, namely that China and Mexico are stealing our jobs and he’s going to get them back, but not that many. After all, Trump won a smaller share of the vote than Mitt Romney did just four years earlier, and his share was considerably less than the average of all the other Republican presidential candidates of the 21st century.
So even Trump’s apocalyptic version of this doesn’t seem to appeal to very many people, and the liberal version, if anything, seems to appeal to even fewer. And even if it does have some appeal, it gets us nowhere unless we have a great elevator pitch about how we’re going to fix it. But we don’t. We have Medicare for All, which is great if you lose your job. We have wealth taxes on billionaires, which is great if you lose your job. And we have infrastructure plans, which might provide work if—well, you know.
But how about a plan to keep people from losing their jobs in the first place? Or making their jobs better? That’s what they want. Trump at least makes fake promises about that, but we don’t do even that much.
There are really only two options here. First, we just stop talking about how unfair the world is, because all it does is discourage people. Or, second, we offer an actual solution that’s credible and appealing. The only one I can think of is a big, loud, endless promise to rebuild unions. But there’s not even a single Democratic candidate who has made that their trademark in the same way that Medicare for All is Bernie’s trademark or a wealth tax is Elizabeth Warren’s.