The better life becomes for the vast majority of Americans — and it is better by nearly every quantifiable measure — the angrier, more disgruntled, and more radicalized people seem to get. We see it in the embrace of delusional election conspiracy theories, in both 2016 and 2020, and in the general apocalyptic tone of partisan rhetoric and media coverage, which permeates all sides. Maybe the “endless series of hobgoblins” convinces us we’re perpetually on the precipice of some new disaster — whether it’s the climate-change apocalypse or the destruction of the middle class or the rise of white supremacy, or any other such myths — or maybe a loss of faith has left us susceptible to stupid ideas as we rummage for meaningful ones in the junkyard of politics. Whatever the case, all this anger is, for me, the biggest mystery of the modern age.
It must be simply exhausting to internalize every political event, every election loss, as an existential threat to democracy. National Review contributing editor Daniel Foster recently tweeted, “All we had to do was keep being rich and free.” We are still rich and free, even though clearly many people don’t feel that way. The reality is, we don’t need anyone to make American great again and we don’t need anyone to rebuild the system better. The system is fine. We’re the problem.
I’m not sure we can help ourselves. In Modern Times, Paul Johnson’s sprawling history of the 20th century, he notes that the pre-war Germans were the best-educated people in the world: “To conquer their minds was very difficult. Their hearts, their sensibilities, were far easier targets.”
Don’t get me wrong: I detest stupid historical analogies about Weimar and Nazi Germany. It’s cheap and lazy, and pundits and politicians who engage in it not only demean the horrors of history — no, this is not your Kristallnacht and no one is perpetrating the “Big Lie” — but also illustrate how they’re either too ignorant to comprehend America’s tribulations in proper historical context or too cynical to care. Of course, I also understand that contemporary Americans can only live within their own experiences. “Don’t worry about your medical-insurance bills, the Helots didn’t even have dental!” is not a practical or effective argument to allay the concerns or suffering of millions of people today. Yet once there was a tacit societal agreement that we are much better off than not only our predecessors but others around the world. It’s a perspective that tends to get lost when partisans compare tax cuts to the rise of fascism or election losses to Stalinist Russia. I mean, Time magazine recently claimed that 2020 was “The Worst Year Ever,” which anyone who has read any book about any century other than the one they’re sitting in right now would understand is complete drivel.
Anyway, Johnson was right about how the hearts and sensibilities of people are easier targets than the mind. Rank populism appeals to the heart, not the mind. The same goes for the faith-based socialism that has infected so many young people.
Some days I think we’ve lost our collective minds. The fact is, it’s not only the slack-jawed QAnon yokels on Parler or the violent communist Antifa radicals who spread conspiracies and hysteria; it’s professors from leading institutions of learning, cultural and media figures, senators and presidents. Some of them need to be held to higher standards than others, but there are far too many people, incentivized by the promise of more social-media followers and clicks, generating anger.
I don’t have any solutions to offer, other than to say: When Democrats lost in 2016 and started marching around in pussy hats, lionizing detestable people, and spreading political hysteria, conservatives used to lecture them by saying, “All you had to be was not crazy.” This should be an American credo.