One of the themes I heard on my search for the essential narratives and imagery of our democratic aspiration was, simply, fatigue. More than that, it was exhaustion. The sense that more is being taking out of us by the political system than we are getting back - more hope, more hard work, more donations. More door knocking, meetings, conversations. Efforts to reach across the aisle and to educate ourselves. To listen and to empathize.
I learned that, for many, the lifecycle of American politics is emotionally draining. And we're feeling tapped out. Bone dry tapped out.
This perhaps in a way that hasn't been experienced before in America. Its not a theme I've really encountered before in most of my studies. This would make sense if, according to some accounts, politics has begun to replace religion as a primary organizing force in our lives.
On the other hand, politics isn't everything for most of us. And its still exhausting to live in America. For example, by virtue of America citizenship you are statistically likely to find day to day life more exhausting, expensive, and less fulfilling than in any other G20 nation. For the world's largest economic and military power, we barely make the top ten of the human development index (10th) and not on the global happiness index (13th).
Umair Haque, a particularly insightful and vigorous intellectual who writes about economics, technology and social transformation, has expressed something similar in a recent post about his experience of the quality of life in America:
Everything I consume in the States is of a vastly, abysmally lower quality. Every single thing. The food, the media, little things like fashion, art, public spaces, the emotional context, the work environment, and life in general make me less sane, happy, alive. I feel a little depressed, insecure, precarious, anxious, worried, angry — just like most Americans do these day. So my quality of life — despite all my privileges — is much worse in America than it is anywhere else in the rich world.
INSTITUTIONS AND ANGST
There's a funny nut embedded here: as the United States has become more secular over the years, and as more Americans have withdrawn from civic and association life, we're seeing the rise of a social order that doesn't deliver the goods around a sense of belonging, security, and comfort. For the second year, opioid-related deaths has lowered life expectancy in the United States.
It could be that case that we're less committed to collective association, and we feel bad because of it.
In any age of transformation, there are at least three key groups within society. There are those of us who must live within and endure the transformative dynamics – buffeted and impacted in our daily lives. There are those who are driving the change, the visionaries and the entrepreneurs who lead innovation as well as the early adopters who make that transformation possible by serving as the experimental laboratory in which these ideas must be tested to adapt and survive. And then there are the reformers, the resisters – those who can see the changes ahead and, for whatever reason, are critical and suspicious of the benefits; they work to undermine that transformation, often working from points of origin derived in the past. Sometimes their work is solitary and at others it builds movements.
In my trip across America, many of the voices I heard opposed the arc of civilization, they would not agree that the arc of our history is bending toward justice. And this fading light, this essential quality of aspiration, once it is out, exhausted ... can it be rekindled? Is it in fact healthy for a civilization when the narrowest of majorities "own" our political order while the other 49 percent exist in anger, fear or submission? Is this perpetual cycle of emotional boom and bust a basis for healthy and fulfilled human order and experience?
It hardly seems so. While there wasn't much optimism for reconciliation in the short term, I heard many calls for "empathy" and "education."
It conjures in my mind the image of a vast dry plain. And on it are a massive sea of slow moving turtles. Except across the entirety of one half of the field – lets say it the half to your left, as far as the eye can see – all of the turtles have their little heads tucked in and are moving south. To the right, everywhere, the turtles necks are out and their eyes are wide, mouths yawning silently as they move north.
DIALOGUE WITH HATE
How does that group on the right makes its invitation to dialogue? How does it set the table for the kind of conversation that renews bonds, generates hope, and ultimately rekindles a belief that we as a nation stand for some greater and more unifying "good" than the political agendas of the now?
In recent post called, "Hateful people are exhausting," the blogger John Pavlovitz writes:
Like the vast majority of this country, I want [America] to be the place where equality, diversity, and decency find sanctuary, and though I am fully committed to the aspiration, I am feeling the cumulative weariness sustained from a small but fierce portion of the population (including far too much of its leadership) whose narrative about the world depends upon acrimony for so much of it.
This "small but fierce" portion of the population has much in common with the rest of the country, if not for their willingness to wear their ideas with pride vs shame. While many of us feel shame and powerlessness in bearing witness to drug abuse or homelessness in our country, confusion and an awkward solidarity with illegal immigrants it is the voices of the most brash among us who wear their intolerance with pride.
I would venture that it is the futility of any effort to transform these prejudices into tolerant and generous attitudes that many of us find so exhausting. The missing part of the dialogue seems to be the openness to self-improvement, to modification. Are we stuck in a perpetual silent scream that echoes between the canyon walls of desire and frustration?
There's a final variable here which, I heard over and over again, contributes to this overall sense of exhaustion with democratic life is our contemporary media landscape. In particular the 24-hour news cycle and Facebook appear to be the most insidious contributors to our disaffection.
The 24-four hour news cycle feeds an anxiety around "how the story will end," playing upon our desires to remain empowered as the story unfolds. In the absence of broad social consensus on almost any significant aspect of American life, questions like, "What are the causes and motivations for this thing that is happening?" "How will it affect my life and the lives of those I care about?" "What action can I take to prevent or advance this thing?" and "How much time do I have to act?" all take up unnecessarily large amounts of intellectual and emotional space for Americans. Even more, the preponderance of "breaking" stories that fill our lives ensures that, to "be informed" requires an enormous amount of excess time and energy to process.
Most of us don't have that luxury in our lives.
The second compounding factor I heard in interviews across the country is the emergent, changing role of social media in our lives, in particular Facebook. The consensus seemed to be that, rather than bridging differences, Facebook drives those with whom we disagree farther apart. In one stark example, I asked an interviewee whether they'd "unfriended" anyone during the last election cycle. The answer was north of 50 individuals.
The reasons for this digital carnage are many, but the most significant goes well beyond disagreement and seems to be rooted in the mobility of hate and intolerance. Within Facebook and on other online platforms, distance and isolation from the emotional impacts of what we say on others provides a kind of "license to ill" that turns up the volume on conversation and too often drives people into ideological corners, eventually severing connections. When this takes place in distant geographies they can be easily forgotten, brushed aside and dismissed in ways that would be much more difficult for communities where reciprocity plays an important social role.
In the real world, we depend on our friends, if not our neighbors.
THE BLOWUP EFFECT
A careful read of Pavlovitz's article on hate and exhaustion will show that many of the "incidences" that sap his emotional strength are derived from online encounters – news seeking or active engagements on social media. It makes me wonder whether, with documented "viral" effects and the tendency of good news outlets to chase after bad news, we aren't becoming exhausted by the big shadow of a small object?
Not that hate doesn't exist, or that its effect on American life is not profoundly damaging and holds us back as a people. Rather, could it be that a constant share of hate persists in every society and it is only in today's media landscape that its share of intellectual rigor and human vigor is vastly over-reported? Could it be possible that this amplification gives hatred and division a disproportionate currency and accompanying sense of urgency in American life?
Are we at a uniquely hateful time, or are we at a time of a unique hate?
We must reconcile ourselves to the conclusion that America in an imperfect nation, born of incomplete ideas and unfinished aspiration. Our task is not to succumb to the rigors and the turmoil of progress but to always, restlessly seek out the opportunities for progress. That is our truest nature, optimistic pragmatists that we are, and our country needs us more than ever. We are compelled to re-assert the ideas of equality, justice and opportunity wherever we participate in public life, and to give these ideas new life in every institution to which we belong.
And if we don't belong to any spaces that anchor and expand democratic life – could there be another time when our talent and energies were less needed? Let's dive in, together.