Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Another view: Voter anger is a modern thing

Politicians, pundits, bloggers, and media morons have all been trying to understand the political and cultural forces responsible for the rise of (particularly) Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both appeal to the "antiestablishment" feelings that seem so pervasive, even cutting across party lines. In the view presented here, the voters' rage is a consequence of modernity. As the author says: "Anti-establishment parties are on the rise across Europe. In every industrialized country, most people don’t trust their government to do the right thing. Such are the politics of modernity. Get used to them."

Moyers & company asked the author of The Big Sort to opine on this year's political scene.

Early indications of the extreme polarization exposed by this year’s presidential campaign were detected more than a decade ago by journalist Bill Bishop. In a series of 2004 articles, he described a striking pattern he managed to detect from demographic data: Americans had begun to segregate themselves into ideologically like-minded communities. “The Big Sort,” the term Bishop coined to describe the phenomenon, became the title of a book he co-wrote on the subject. We asked Bishop, who runs a blog on rural issues, in Texas, what he makes of the latest political developments.

Confidence in our institutions has been declining for the better part of a half a century. (See the accompanying graphic.) Confidence in Congress has tanked, as we generally know. But so has confidence in our news sources and public schools. That decline is symptomatic of modernity, Bishop argues, and is diagnostic of our current political maelstrom. Snippets from Bishop's commentary follow.

OK, maybe we’re not all larding the pantry with Spam, canned corn and spare ammo for the family Glock, but most of us do sense that the social glue has lost its stickum. Only 30 percent of Americans think the presidential election process is working. Just 34 percent of Americans told Gallup government is doing what it’s supposed to do and a dysfunctional government comes in first on a list of our most pressing problems.

Anti-institutional candidates are winning most of the votes in the primaries. Although Bernie, Donald and Ted supporters may differ in their prescriptions, they all agree that the system is rigged, the establishment is corrupt, that the entire political applecart needs to be tumped over and we need to start again from scratch. On the left and the right, any trust in authorities and institutions — science, the church, the party — is considered a pathetic kind of naiveté.

We look for proximate causes for this widespread disaffection and find them aplenty on front pages and Facebook feeds. There’s always another story of things gone bad. But this search is too narrow. Because the roots of our discomfort — and today’s angry politics — won’t be found in bad trade deals, stupid leaders or economic distress. Instead, our personal and electoral dyspepsia is the consequence of modernity itself.

The clearest American explanation for what’s happening today begins in the 1970s, when political scientist Ronald Inglehart made a prediction. As societies grow richer and our individual survival is assured by abundance and the welfare state, he wrote, people’s politics would change. In this “post-materialist” age people would lose respect for established authorities. With each succeeding generation, trust in government, party leaders, science, the media, the church — any and all institutions and traditions — would decline. People wouldn’t follow elites, they would challenge them. They would vote less and protest more.

All this is accompanied by changes in what we value and disappearance of the social scaffolding previously available to support people. In addition, we are confronted by a constant array of choices. As Bishop puts it:

... People were required to take over their lives, to manage their careers, to choose their sex, to tailor their “brand.” God’s chosen people now choose their own gods. As Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explained, we became “artists of our own lives.”

For many, that plethora of choices (whatever other good comes of it) is bewildering and even depressing.

... Collective action becomes increasingly difficult in a land of 300 million “artists.” The daily responsibility for being the architect of one’s own life has been taxing, for many people, oppressively so. According to the World Health Organization, depression will soon become the world’s most commonly diagnosed disease. (“Depression is truly our modern illness,” writes French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg. “It is the inexorable counterpart of the human being who is her/his own sovereign”) Deaths from suicide and drug addiction among middle-aged whites have soared and in many areas people are living shorter lives than their parents.

[Dutch sociologist Anton]Zijderveld wrote in 2000 that if people lost their ties to institutions, “the destructive forces of anomie lie in waiting and cultural capital will dwindle.” And when these institutions “disintegrate, disappear or are abandoned, paranoia and hatred will run rampant…” Indeed.

The "paranoia and hatred" then become the fodder of demagogues who reinforce the anti-everything mood of the voters, who give voice to the voters' rage.

Such are the politics of modernity. Get used to them.

That is depressing.


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