A dangerous gulf exists between Americans’ concerns about their lives, their country and their future, and the priorities, proclivities and pre-occupations of the country’s mainstream politics and media. Other liberal democracies should heed the lessons.
In 2013 I collaborated in a survey that investigated the perceived probability of future threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Across the four countries, over a half (54%) of people rated the risk of ‘our way of life ending’ within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, and almost three-quarters (73%) rated the risk at 30% or greater. A quarter (24%) rated the risk of ‘humans being wiped out’ in this time at 50% or greater.
The US stood out from the other three countries in several respects. It had the highest percentage (30%) who thought humans might be wiped out (19-24% in the other countries). It had a much higher level of agreement with fundamentalist responses to global threats, with 47% agreeing or strongly agreeing that ‘we are facing a final conflict between good and evil in the world’, and 46% that ‘we need to return to traditional religious teachings and values to solve global problems and challenges’. (The results presumably reflect the strength of religion in the US, especially ‘end time’ thinking among Christian fundamentalists.) In the other three countries only 30-33% agreed with these two statements.
The survey also included questions about how concerned people were about a range of personal and societal issues. The US stood out here too, with higher levels of concern about many societal issues, especially political and economic. Two thirds (65%) were moderately or seriously concerned about ‘the state of politics in my country’, compared to 42-53% for the other three countries; 64% were concerned about ‘corruption of politicians/officials’, compared to 39-47% in the other countries.
Other surveys around that time told a similar story, including the finding that 66% of Americans believed that the greatest threat to the long-term stability of the US came from within, not from outside, the country. This situation was also reflected in US life expectancy, which stalled from about 2010, then fell between 2014 and 2017, the first three-year fall since World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic one hundred earlier. (It has since fallen again with the Covid-19 pandemic.)
Contributing to the trend has been rising mortality among those in the prime of life, including from drug overdoses, alcohol use and suicides. The decline in life expectancy revealed a broad erosion in health, with no single ‘smoking gun’, a health policy expert said.
‘There’s something more fundamental…. People are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.’
This was Barack Obama’s America. Yet Obama failed to see it. For him, progress was still progress: life was continuing to get better; climate change and other environmental issues were being solved through orthodox policy initiatives. As he often avowed, the arc of history was long, but it bent towards justice. Obama’s faith in progress provided the foundation of his ideological commitment to incremental, rather than radical, political change. As he said in a 2016 BBC interview:
‘The world today, with all its pain and all its sorrow, is more just, more democratic, more free, more tolerant, healthier, wealthier, better educated, more connected, more empathetic than ever before.’ Whatever your situation, if ‘you asked what moment in human history you would like to be born, you’d choose right now.’
The surveys cited above show many Americans did not view their lives in this light – a state of affairs that continues to this day.
Trump and the fraying of democracy
Enter Donald Trump. A political outsider, Trump did see the America I have described; he acknowledged people’s anger and anxiety, most notably in the deindustrialised heartland of America that became his base. Let me be clear about this: it is only in his awareness of people’s unease, and in his shock to the political status quo, that I want to consider Trump’s impact. It is what interested me in applying my work on progress to US politics. I am not attempting a full account of his presidency, policies and behaviour.
A recent study, Bowling with Trump, says researchers have attributed Trump’s success largely to ‘racialized economics’, where economic hardships are seen in racial terms, not personal; they are blamed on ‘other groups’. But the study suggests that more fundamental to Trump’s support has been heightened anxiety and a lack of social attachment or belonging. This increased racial and national identification, which, importantly, was politicised as racial prejudice and nationalism.
The authors of the study say their results imply that racial voting behaviour in 2016 was driven by a desire for in-group affiliation as a way of buffering against economic and cultural anxiety. ‘This suggests that the economic roots of Trump’s success may be overstated and that the need for relatedness is a key underlying driver of contemporary political trends in the US.’
When societies come under increasing pressure and strain, they tend to fracture along traditional fault lines such as class, religion, ethnicity or race. Those in power promote and exploit these fractures. Profound disquiet is easily manipulated, and expressed as more obvious or tangible grievances. America is particularly susceptible to a political focus on racial divisions and antagonism. This tactic is obvious in recent politics, especially with Trump and the far-right. However, the Democrats also played on these fractures in the sense of using them for political leverage or gain – as revealed in Hillary Clinton’s infamous ‘basket of deplorables’ remark.
The danger in this fraying and fragmentation of public debate and discussion is that we lose sight of the bigger picture, and its more fundamental elements, with the result that we are caught up in perpetual conflicts over what are, at least in part, derivative or secondary causes and consequences.
The standpoint of ‘we are all in this together’ offers the advantage of creating more generous and tolerant ways of understanding America, encouraging people to look past the rancour and conflict promoted by its politicians and media, their obsession with ‘identity’ and ‘issue’ politics and protest. For example, the Bowling with Trump study notes that Trump’s supporters have been said to be ‘in mourning for a lost way of life’. The liberal media interpreted this nostalgia in terms of historic, white, male privilege.
However, this is not the only possible meaning or interpretation: there have been many social, cultural, economic, environmental and technological changes since the 1950s (the oft-cited, historic benchmark) – in income-inequality, work, education, mainstream and social media, relationships, the family, and climate, for example – that have increased a shared sense of isolation, insecurity, uncertainty, risk, and precarity.
These changes fed into the growing and over-arching political influence of postmodernism, with its multiple narratives, relative truths, ambiguities, pluralism, fragmentation and complex paradoxes. A consequence has been a flourishing of conspiracy theories. All this served to fracture and divide American society.
For all his faults and failings – and there were many – Trump achieved something the US needed: he rocked the political establishment to its core. And while he tried to subvert democracy, he also re-invigorated democracy: the 2020 voter turnout was the highest in 120 years. In doing this, however negatively, Trump offered at least a small chance of triggering systemic change.
Environmental writer and activist Joanna Macy expressed this opportunity succinctly:
Trump’s election was ‘a very painful waking up’, she said; if Clinton had won, ‘we would have stayed asleep’.
This was a relatively common view among environmental and leftist commentators, especially around the time of Trump’s victory. They saw Trump’s election as exposing the failings of the entire US political system and its pursuit of a capitalist, imperialist agenda. And they were scathing of the Democrats, notably Clinton and Obama, for their complicity and collaboration in this agenda.
The elite liberal media spurned this chance for a deeper, wider inquiry, and instead devoted four years to trying to remove Trump from office. This was also largely true of the Democrats (with the exception of a progressive minority’s championing of a more radical policy package, a Green New Deal). Trump’s relationship with the liberal media became one of mutual loathing and goading; it was hugely destructive. In showing such contempt for Trump, the liberal media also derided his supporters, deepening the national division they accused Trump himself of provoking.
Politics and the media ‘zeroed in’ on Trump, when they should have also ‘drawn back’ to consider the larger social context. I have targeted the liberal media here because their stand-off with Trump provides a striking example of the failure of politics and journalism to reflect and address people’s concerns about life. This broader analysis is not partisan, but applies across the political spectrum.
The demise of the official future
In the four-nation survey cited above, 75% of Americans agreed that ‘we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world’; 65% agreed that ‘hope for the future rests with a growing global movement that wants to create a more peaceful, fair and sustainable world’. (Percentages were similar in the other countries, unlike those to for fundamentalist responses reported above.)
In other words, the public is aware of the risks we face and the need for a radical change of course, a new paradigm of progress. Yet our journalistic and political cultures remain stuck in a paradigm that constrains electoral choice and is crippling democracy. The mutually reinforcing cultures of journalism and politics are outdated and dysfunctional, defined by conflict and contest rather than cooperation and consensus; deepening our difficulties rather helping to solve them.
It is this failure that lies behind the unease, mistrust, and disenchantment in the electorate, not just political corruption and incompetence, and policy mistakes. It is part of a layered political complexity, resulting in what I have described as the ‘demise of the official future’: a loss of faith in the future that governments promise, and on which they base their policies.
The extent to which Obama’s politics and policies reflected his worldview, his continuing belief in the ‘official future’, shows why we need to place these fundamental frameworks of how we understand the world at the centre of political debate. Such a debate would be very different from today’s emphasis on ‘issue’ and ‘identity’ politics, whose elements are kept firmly within the conventional model of progress. The interconnected risks facing humanity cannot be solved by focusing only on the discrete, specific issues that characterise and define today’s politics, however legitimate the concerns are in themselves.
In science, paradigms change when they are confronted by a growing body of anomalous and contradictory evidence that they cannot explain or resolve. So it is with politics, which also confronts a growing array of policy failures, unsolvable problems, and bitter divisions – but is struggling to understand or resolve them. We need a new paradigm that better acknowledges and addresses the emerging realities of planetary conditions and limits, and our better understanding of human needs and wellbeing.
There is no reason why political debate cannot be reframed in this way – except for the entrenched cultures of politics and journalism, which are both too ‘short-sighted’ and too ‘narrow minded’. We need to change the ‘idea’ of progress, and to do that we must change the ‘idea’ of politics and journalism.
American politics is failing, unable to deal with the nature and scale of 21st Century realities. This is also true, to varying degrees, of other Western liberal democracies. Blinkered by their cultures, most politicians and journalists do not see the extent of this failure. Without a transformational change in the cultures of politics and journalism, we will not, and cannot, ‘look outward’ far enough, and ‘look inward’ deeply enough, to address the existential threat humankind confronts: the extrinsic, environmental and other tangible problems that pose a threat to human civilisation and survival; and the intrinsic, intangible problems of finding meaning and belonging in today’s world. This should be the most fundamental layer of political discourse – one which remains largely missing.
To respond effectively to this situation, political debate needs to incorporate and reflect all the complexity and depth of today’s challenges, to encourage the conceptual space for a transformation in our worldview, beliefs and values as profound as any in human history.
This article is based on a longer essay published last month in the American magazine, Salon.
Teaser photo credit: By tedeytan – https://www.flickr.com/photos/taedc/18588276403/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41256464