Blog 133. American Angst Part 1 of 7: State of the Nation

America exhibits a widespread anxiety, uneasiness, dread, fear, insecurity, foreboding—or even rebellion—against some poorly defined process. Whatever it is, Americans fear it is taking over.  Or about to.  Our social conscience has decayed into suspicion, bewitchery, and paranoia. We’re not alone. Turkey, Poland, and Hungary surge toward repressive governance that promises security in the uncertainty.

This is Part 1 of a seven-part sequence* on the angst that affects America. Books by distinguished authors[1,2] describe pieces of the angst, but none arrive at the same conclusions and remedies we’ll develop later this sequence.

What’s distressing America?   What’s going wrong—or is it going wrong? Why is it happening? What can we do about it? In the first six parts, we’ll identify the symptoms, analyze some underlying causes, and finally propose remedies based on the known characteristics of complex systems as diverse as sand piles, schooling fish, and human societies. The seventh part will offer a synopsis.

Today, Americans are tense, repressed even in polite company. We fear that our country is no longer a shared concern, but something threatened with takeover by other kinds of people. We see politicians ignoring the public interest, journalism manipulating us, and institutions selling out. There’s an “epidemic of loneliness.”[3]  The majority of Americans feel isolated, abandoned by what should be our own culture.

People who feel powerless become angry, and there is anger in our politics, our media, and in our regard for persons different from us—whatever “us” might be. We’re pessimistic. Optimism is a matter of faith, and we’ve lost faith in the media, in our universities, and our own government. And in the concept of truth.

The Week news magazine described it thus:

“Norms of civility are eroding … a me-first ethos in which people feel they owe nothing to anyone … drivers who speed up as you try to merge onto a highway, …   What’s going on? … several factors are conspiring to make us all more self-centered. Modern workplace culture is brutally Darwinian … employees knowing they’re disposable … everyone is your competition. Our personal electronic devices encapsulate us in a bubble of personal preferences—customizes music, videos, news, texts … . ‘The commons’ of shared information, culture, and basic values is fading away.  My reality trumps yours … our politics has become toxic … each faction sees the others as existential threats to their way of life who must be silenced … .”[4]

Liberals focus blame on Trump, conservatives regard Trump as a remedy for the intellectual evils of liberalism, and neither side bothers to analyze its own presumed principles. Both sides are dangerously wrong.

At least, the president is authentic.  Authenticity is being what you say you are, and his words clearly announce who he is. However, the situation is much larger than Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause, of our collective distress.

Although America has the greatest inequality of all developed countries[5], “The anxiety that Trump tapped was not primarily economic, it was cultural.”[6]  Those who work the soil now see opportunity to spit their resentment at those who are unsoiled by physical work. Furthermore, the intelligentsia have indeed disregarded the laboring class—for example, with the assumption that all children should prepare for college. However, the dysfunctions are larger than a social spite.

Political dysfunction

Senator McCain described part of the political situation. ” … partisan affiliation (has become) a test of whether that person is entitled to respect. … (We have) “traded true global leadership for self-interest and isolation. … Yet, we are a country with a conscience.”[7]  I would instead say we used to have a conscience, a shared sense of morality and an assumption of interpersonal respect, but that has gone awry. Partisan loyalty prohibits cooperation—or even discussion.

Governmental dysfunction. In Congress, each party is determined to defeat any proposal by the other party rather than to evaluate it. Each elected official acts with supreme obligation to his donor group. Government is patronage, not governance for the common good. That’s corruption. The ordinary people feel powerless, thereby empowering the minority who will organize to vote around a narrow concern, exacerbating the polarization.

Societal dysfunction. In social groups as in politics and government, arguing to win occurs more often than arguing to learn, with the result that nobody hears the underlying concerns. Divergence of ideology results in animosity for anyone viewed as on the other side. “Other” now means “opposing.” As in football, winning is everything.

When winning is everything, you must find an enemy to defeat. Winning is an unobvious rule of social interaction—in schools, in business, in jobs, even in romance. To win in our politics, a candidate claims to be right by making others wrong.

Truth dysfunction. Facts don’t count. Truth is irrelevant when winning is everything. When you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest beliefs, their concept of self is threatened and they raise their defenses rather than examine the information.[8]  When facts threaten a person’s worldview, the facts threaten the validity of his group and his identity. Facts become regarded as lies spun by a conspiracy in an opposing group—even if that presumed group is composed of independent scientists. Polarization increases when facts are twisted into so-called alternative facts and fake facts, and authoritarian politics benefits by polarization.

When truth doesn’t matter, the news is crazy-making, with the result that the society has gone crazy.

Some of us worry about what our children will face.

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* This sequence:

Part 1. State of the nation.

Part 2. Alienation of the individual.

Part 3. Engineered inequality.

Part 4. The slide into fascism.

Part 5. Our social rules.

Part 6. Causes and cures in a complex system.

Part 7. Synopsis.

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[1] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West, Crown Publishing Group, 2018.

[2] Elizabeth Warren, “A Fighting Chance,” Metropolitan Books, 2014.

[3] Epidemic of loneliness The Week magazine, May 18, 2018

[4] The Week magazine, February 17, 2017

[5] Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Great Divide, Norton and Company, 2015.

[6] William Falk, editor, The Week magazine, May 11, 2018

[7] Senator John McCain, quoted in The Week magazine, May 25, 2018

[8] Michael Shermer in Scientific American, January 2017, p. 69.

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