“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
Objectively, most of the major fights faced in 2017, on any major front, seem trivial.
ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States, the way Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union once were. Even the Russian security state struggles to do much beyond exert their influence in spheres they once had locked down and now are content to compete in.
On the front of civil rights, we’ve moved into an increasingly nebulous area of oppression vs. oppressors, where the oppression in question is… use of a bathroom? Who can use racial slurs? Perhaps the most hyped up one, Police killings of minorities, is best emblematic of this — the actual amount of unarmed people killed by police is exceptionally low for a nation of 320 million people.
Economically, we’re told American manufacturing is dying (despite an all-time high output in manufacturing products), we’re told the banks control everything in a way they never have before (which must be quite mirthful to the ghost of J. P. Morgan), and we’re told that ruin and bankruptcy are imminent on all fronts.
Politically, we’re quick to portray our political opponents as traitors, enemies, sycophants of foes far worse. A quick tour of political-leaning Facebook pages will find you a great host of people content to believe that Democrats are tools of radical socialism — or that Republicans are the tools of the far right in a way that suggests an American Reich is imminent. Blood on the streets is coming any day now, because Youtube videos of Black Bloc Anarchists mixing it up with guys in MAGA hats have told us so.
What these issues all have in common, though, is that they’re all blown way out of proportion.
This isn’t to say that none of these are legitimate problems — excepting the accusations of widespread traitors among American politicians, most of these are very real problems.
But they’re not the colossal struggle that was World War II, or the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Good luck suggesting that to folks with strong opinions on this.
The US has a long tradition of the cult of the rebel — it’s in our national DNA and our very founding was an act of rebellion. It’s therefore unsurprising that so many Americans like to cast themselves as noble rebels against an evil empire — a common thread from burnt-out hippies to anti-government militias to Alex Jones to Bill Maher. When that’s overlayed with this overplayed sense of urgency, though, there is a very real problem that is only starting to emerge.
As anyone who’s taken a driving course can tell you, overcorrection is often just as fatal as not correcting. We’re entering an age of McCarthyism — everyone is a secret enemy in some way — they’re complicit in climate change, they’re racist or sexist, they’re authoritarian, they’re out to take your money and rip you off. The palettes differ from political affiliation to political affiliation, but the underlying trend is there.
Perhaps more disturbingly on the macro, and nearly unprecedented in history, it has become difficult to differentiate between what issues are important and what issues are not.
Imagine, for a second, that you are a Congressional Representative. It is completely conceivable, on a daily basis, that you will receive calls, letters, and requests on, at minimum, five broadstrokes issues: the economy, foreign policy, social policy, government accountability, and campaign promises. Each of these may have twenty or thirty different facets, and many tie together.
How do you prioritize? Can you prioritize? If half of your district is writing about healthcare while the other half is writing you about their taxes being too high and you’ve got a campaign promise about bringing back the Lockheed Plant that you can only get done if your pals in Arkansas get their new Army Reserve Training Center in this year’s defense budget, how do you spend your day? And that’s to say nothing about the recent fear over a recent mass shooting in your state, the impending budget decisions that your party whip expects you to back even though you know that your two biggest donors are completely against several of the provisions…
It’s no surprise that Americans have a low impression of Congress. With so many narratives out there, each thinking it’s top billing, everyone feels marginalized by the government.
The kicker is, the government is, honest to God, doing the best it humanly can given the circumstances. While this line might invite snark from libertarians and anarchists, it is worth considering that it is hard to imagine a form of government that could conceivably use the time of one Congressional session to solve the American healthcare crisis, defeat ISIS, fix immigration (either through reform or better security), make the military more efficient, expand LGBT rights while respecting religious rights, confront automation-displacement, solve economic anxiety, reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, enforce existing environmental law, enhance American education, etc., etc. It is truly a Herculean set of tasks, and empirically more than most previous governments had to oversee.
Our founders planned for a decentralized system, with many of these issues being solved closest to home. Federalism is still the best way to deal with such a problem. What’s concerning, however, is that for many Americans, they are no longer interested in a decentralized approach, especially as it pertains to the president.
Consider that Donald Trump was elected partially on the idea that he would reduce the McCarthyist hydra that is modern political correctness — this, on its face, seems reasonable to want to confront.
But how on Earth would a president be able to confront prevailing social trends? Sure, JFK may be partially responsible for America giving up the hat as a daily wear item, but Presidents generally are not trendsetters or people who adjust the social temperature of the nation. They are executives presiding over the government.
But to those who believe political correctness is an existential threat, it seems reasonable to bank as much as they can on as many different approaches as possible — elect an anti-PC president, force anti-PC legislation through congress, whine about it on Facebook to their friends so everyone knows about the great threat of PC. But consider that any time spent jousting at this windmill is time that is not spent confronting one of the other many problems that other voters prize over this. That drags their confidence down, and this idea that the President is expected to impact it drags the overall national opinion of the President down. That’s not including any partisan backlash from taking one side or another.
So this odd situation presents itself, where the president and congress are attempting to do as the voters asked — but if it’s not quick enough, not executed perfectly, then fickle public opinion turns against the very thing that was requested, and before it can be repealed, the American Voter is already demanding something new (after all, he’s besieged on all sides by supposedly existential threats).
So voters get burnt out. They despair. Their problems are ignored. Their doom is imminent. They turn to drugs or alcohol. They disengage. No one, they think, understands them or cares about them.
The Palahniuk quote at the beginning summarizes their plight well.
Where I struggle is that I don’t have an answer on how to fix, or reduce this. I’m not sure it will be. Post-modern politics looks to continue indefinitely into the future, and only get worse as more problems pile up, each hyped up to be the next World War II, the next Civil Rights movement.
In an era of choosing your own narrative with all evidence being somehow equal, it is a dark time to be an empiricist.
Note: This post was originally published at Philip S. Bolger’s Medium page. It is reprinted with his permission.