A New Era of Angst and How to Navigate It

The path forward from this perilous American moment starts with breaking our addiction to blame and taking responsibility for our actions.

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is the first in a series of three adapted from David L. Bahnsen’s new book, Crisis of Responsibility. It appears here with permission.

Resisting the Culture of Victimhood

I focus on economics, not only because of my financial expertise, but because economics matter a great deal in assessing the lay of the land. Since the U.S. financial crisis of 2008, GDP growth has underperformed its own trend growth by at least 1 percent per year (see graph below). As a result, our economy is estimated to be $2.8 trillion smaller than it otherwise should be.

A series of cultural and economic factors contributed to this break from trend-line growth, creating a negative feedback loop. Consequently, the growth disruption itself has exacerbated the cultural and economic malignance that helped create the underperforming trend in the first place. Serious analysts must be careful not to miss the vicious, cyclical nature of this effect.

(Source: Strategas Research)

However, the angst-filled population bloc that revolted against globalism and institutionalism of all stripes is probably not parsing distinctions about GDP growth, economic causation, and other such academic nuance. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have simply lost faith in the “smartest people in the room,” the alleged gatekeepers of the economy, key institutions, and political structures in society. Much of their lack of confidence is wholly justified, even if the frustrated don’t fully understand what has caused the problem.

But they want someone to blame for it. What has emerged in our culture is a “scapegoatism” run amok — a victim mentality that is dangerous to all, regardless of political affinity or socioeconomic class.

What has emerged in our culture is a ‘scapegoatism’ run amok — a victim mentality that is dangerous to all, regardless of political affinity or socioeconomic class.

Our stalling GDP growth didn’t cause the current unrest, although it has accelerated it. Many other economic data points enter the fray, but the break from trend-line growth captures nearly all of them. Wage growth has continued to stagnate. The income-inequality conversation seems to have transcended normal class-warfare rhetoric. While many of the economic forces behind the present era are abstruse, a paycheck that isn’t growing is simple to understand. Human nature being human nature, people watching their paychecks decline tend to become resentful toward those experiencing income growth. Trade deficits are not easy to comprehend (quite frankly, even many professional economists do not understand trade deficits), but the general feeling is that most people are now on the outside looking in at the real opportunities.

One need not be a neo-Marxist or class-warfare leftist to see that the green-eyed monster of economic envy has been stirring for years and laid the foundation for many of the walls — ideological, social, and physical — that we hear so much about in this new, angst-driven era.

This new era is not defined solely by an economic and political tantrum. A significant number of Americans feel talked down to, forgotten, and disconnected. Blue-collar whites don’t feel only economically separated from white-collar whites, but socially separated, as well. Political analyst Sean Trende refers to this divide as “cultural cosmopolitanism” versus “cultural traditionalism.” These two camps have different perspectives on family, church, education, and country. Their cultural differences have produced a level of social angst, because the more cosmopolitan camp largely “occupies the commanding heights of American culture.” The result is a complete distrust of key institutions in our society. The media, big business, big finance, and higher education are now often held in contempt, not just for their ideology (though that’s part of it), but because they collectively form someone to blame for the present malaise — a composite scapegoat, if you will, on which fears can be placed and that can be railed against at rallies.

Are the fears fair and coherent? Certainly not. But they’re not irrational and random, either. As my colleague Jonah Goldberg, leading conservative pundit at the National Review Institute, says:

To the extent that Donald Trump has damaged democratic norms, his success is attributable to the fact that elites — in journalism, but also in academia and elsewhere — have corrupted those norms to the point where a lot of people see them as convenient tools for only one side in the political and cultural wars of our age.

Thus, my objective is to sort the truth from the misunderstandings about what has compromised American productivity and, indeed, American prosperity. It is not my intent to defend the forces of anti-elitism or anti-globalism, which have so much momentum in this new era. In fact, my intent is to provoke a counterintuitive conversation about what really ails us all and offer concrete suggestions as to where substantive and generational remedies may be found — if we have the courage and candor to pursue them.

I don’t intend merely to condemn one guilty party (arrogant institutional elites), but then embrace an ignorant victim mentality that ignores the cultural tides of this era. The paradigm for returning to the possibility of prosperity for all is not one of choosing between the elites and non-elites, the strong and the weak, or the influential and the oppressed. That’s the picture that has been painted. It is not lacking some support, but it is incomplete at best, and dangerous at worst.

My counterintuitive presupposition is that the forces of elitism and statism, which are so despised by so many, stand to grow by leaps and bounds as a result of this present global angst, if we fail to understand the core cause. If the efforts to delegitimize and disempower elite forces are temporarily successful, but the weak and morally emasculated alternative falls on its face, I am quite convinced that out of the ashes of this groundswell failure will come greater bureaucracy, greater institutional arrogance, and far-reaching top-down authoritarianism that will crush the cause of freedom.

There is no wall in this new era that cleanly divides us into two sides. One may advocate for free trade and still support Brexit (as this author does). One may live in a more culturally cosmopolitan part of society and still be patriotic to the core. There is room for nuance on almost every single one of the issues in our national conversation. A sincere investigation of these issues will not create a simple, binary choice between “establishment” and “populists.”

And yet, the one perspective that has the potential to destroy us all, and that must be unilaterally rejected if we are to stave off the coming authoritarian backlash, is embracing victimhood. To reject victimhood, we must first understand how and why so many hot-button issues are being framed as scapegoat issues, reasons for someone to blame somebody for something.

Room exists for disagreement on policy specifics on issues like immigration and trade, but there can be no doubt about these three things:

1) A new era is upon us, and its political, social, economic, and cultural effects are just beginning.

2) Our path forward must reject the institutional arrogance and elitism of top-down control.

3) We must recognize our cultural addiction to blame, properly understand the key issues, and forge a new culture of responsibility in which free people become virtuous people, and virtuous people become productive people.

*    *    *

It All Begins with Personal Responsibility

There exists a tension in these present times for people of my ideological bent. On one hand, there are natural forces in society right now that demand attention. The beliefs that created a large and impotent European Union are real. A form of secular humanism has clearly metastasized in our culture, aided by the ivory tower of academia and the unchecked liberal media. The economic landscape has helped create a frustrated group of people who feel forgotten and alienated. Those who resent the arrogance of elitists are not without basis; those who portray economic frustration are not fabricating these sentiments from thin air.

There is no need to ignore these reasons for angst, but, on the other hand, we do need to get the remedy right. Any prescription that misidentifies either the cause or the cure could prove fatal to the patient.

I am a limited-government advocate who has long believed that the size of government is in direct, inverse correlation to the responsibility of the people. My concern is that behind much of the cultural angst today is a narrative that blames great and powerful forces, not unlike the mysterious, unknowable wizard behind the screen in Oz. These forces become the scapegoats, almost always with some level of legitimacy, while individual people are indemnified.

I contend that the key actors in our society — individuals, families, and communities — must not be permitted to play victim and avoid careful scrutiny. Where policies and prevailing attitudes have served to disenfranchise some, we must note it and fight for change. Yet where irresponsibility abounds and culpability lies, we must say so and prescribe solutions that honor the dignity of every stakeholder while calling them to greater moral accountability and individual responsibility.

Trade, immigration, capital markets, big media, and other global realities are core issues to be addressed. However, the key to American prosperity is not to feed our cultural addiction to blame, but to begin — right here, with you and me — to make responsibility matter again.


The Concept of Personal Responsibility: Unsettling to Technocrats

Personal Responsibility Trumps Systemic Oppression in America

Helplessness and Rage Can’t Become the New American Consensus

David L. Bahnsen is the managing partner of a wealth-management firm, a trustee of the National Review Institute, and author of the book, Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It.

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