An American Identity Crisis?
Everyone has an opinion (and is entitled to it) as to how we got here. And to be fair to so many thoughtful and thought-provoking writers here on Medium, a lot of what I read on this forum resonates with me, including many of the observations about where America is today. Opinions vary, of course. Some opine that the demonstrably dysfunctional state of our “union” can be attributed to:
(a) Trump — A favorite of many. And I get it. He’s a bit like herpes — the gift that keeps on giving.
(b) Systemic Racism — A favorite of many angry disenfranchised, especially of color. With credible evidence justifying the inference.
(c) Money in politics — Another strong contender. Is there anyone left who ever gave a dime to a candidate of either party who doesn’t get dozens of emails daily asking for more?
(d) Stove piped News Media — A favorite of eight in ten Americans surveyed. Predictably, it’s always “the other side’s” news sources to blame for the existing polarization.
I suspect most thoughtful readers on this platform would agree at least in part with all the above. As do I, not that it matters. But as thoughtful readers have also already anticipated, I’m about to propose some additional causative elements, together with thoughts suggesting partial (if imperfect) solutions.
Why didn't somebody warn us?
Somebody did. A couple, actually. In The Power Elite, (1956), C. Wright Mills made a starkly compelling case against big government, business — and against large, monolithic organizations in general. It met with mixed reviews. A few years later, President Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address warned against, “…the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex.”
Eisenhower and Mills had perceived how the emergence of American power post WWII was already affecting domestic society. Whatever average Americans of the day thought of the United States and its global intentions, the potential pitfalls were obvious to both Mills and Eisenhower. In retrospect, their warnings seem uncomfortably prescient. Despite some of Mills’ observations resting on a political homogeneity of the time, neoliberalism remains an uncomfortable and toxic reality in the third decade of the 21st Century.
Change...the Lei Motif of Our Age
Fast forward 7 years, from Eisenhower’s farewell address and we see the warnings continued. In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, warning of the dangers of overpopulation. At the time, world population stood at 3.5 billion. Fifty-four years later, we’re 7 billion (plus), and well on the way to fulfilling many of Ehrlich’s most disturbing warnings.
Two years after Ehrlich’s book debuted, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock warned of a world in which an accelerating rate of change would shift the once-familiar frames of reference. It would leave significant portions of society disoriented and struggling to adapt, he warned. Among other things, Toffler observed:
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn…”
There is a practical upper limit to how much sensory input humans can process. In self-defense, we filter out what seems irrelevant, allowing in what we perceive rewards us. In an age of information overload, we consciously or unconsciously choose what gets past our filters.
And now, a thought experiment for you. How much of our collective “social dysmorphia” can be attributed to change rendering portions of our population uncertain of their “place?” The growing body of writings dealing with information overload suggest it’s not a trivial question, but I’ll leave that for readers to decide.
Why #MAGA Worked
Fast forward again, to 2015. As noted earlier, there are a lot of hypotheses explaining 45’s appeal to so many men and women we would have thought should know better. Disaffection with the Clintons or dissatisfaction with “politics as usual” are common explanations. But if we’re honest with ourselves, didn’t “Drain the swamp” resonate because Washington truly is a swamp? Whether you voted for him or not, it’s hard to argue with Trump’s observation.
While among the least likely to actually drain the swamp, most of us knew Trump was right about the need to do so. “Make America Great Again” resonated with many of us because we sensed the American century was over. Unless we’re a statistically rare “meritocratic” exception or privileged by luck of birth, most of us are subject to the whims of the powerful who neither see nor hear us.
So we focus making the most of the talents we have and “minding our own business.” But in so doing, might we guilty of ceding power to the very people people addicted to it? What we permit, we encourage and even some of our best-intentioned representatives in congress have been seduced by lobbyists. This was evident even before Citizens United effectively forced legislating to take a back seat to fund-raising as a top priority.
Today, throngs of lobbyists representing monied interests drown out our voice while our congressional representatives and PACs of impenetrable origins bombard us daily for contributions. It’s not hard to find reasons for disgust at how governance works today — even on the occasions when it works at all.
And while all the foregoing trends were emerging, the self-appointed “thought leaders” in many organizations were busily down-sizing/right-sizing/streamlining “traditional” employment. As a result, the still-employed have been obliged to work longer and harder, while many others have been obliged to take multiple jobs in the emerging gig economy to survive.
So Where Are We Now?
The combination of overpopulation, runaway change, and the multi-faceted effects of shifting climatic phenomena have combined with an increasingly divisive political landscape to render consistent, effective governance all but impossible. In a system that seems tilted at least, if not consciously rigged, many of us have checked out.
But inattention — irrespective of how we justify it — has enabled the very conditions of which both Eisenhower and Mills warned. Arguably, our collective disgust and/or inattention, justified by relative calm and comfort may have hastened it. Power abhors a vacuum…
Having ceded power to those addicted to it, should we not have expected the outcomes we now deplore? Or that someone addicted to it, might try to hold onto it, Constitution be damned? If we despise our politicians and the political process, how long will it be before we have despicable, self-aggrandizing politicians?
The America We Have Made
Effective representative democracy relies on a delicate balance of a reasonably well-informed and well-intentioned voting citizenship — and reasonably enlightened stewardship. Leadership if not entirely devoid of considerations of personal power and gain, at least tempered by civic interest in the public trust. Is it reasonable to expect the latter without the active, consistent engagement of the former?
My gut feeling is no. We are not simply affected by the policies our elected representatives enact; we are responsible for them. Democracy thrives on citizens’ sense of personal responsibility for outcomes. We might do well to remember that, in 2022 and beyond.
How that sense of responsibility manifests itself remains a personal decision. But if ever there was a time for informed voting based on a clear-eyed understanding of who stands for what — and the long-term impact of what they stand for — “now” must qualify. Honest, solution-oriented engagement is the necessary accomplice of vibrant democracy.
I can think of no time in recent history when the issues have been more important. Or the margins for error less forgiving. So…in 2022 and beyond, what are all of us doing for our country? What form will our engagement in our governance take and how will we teach it to our children?
D.B. Sayers has six books in print with two more works in progress. If you would like a free copy of his anthology of short stories, Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives, click the link above and receive Smoke Signals, his monthly update as well.