On the menu today: The New York Times transcript of a focus group of independent voters, organized by Frank Luntz, should give all Democratic campaign strategists intense anxiety about this year’s midterm elections. But besides the immediate political ramifications, the focus group paints a dark picture of dispirited, depressed, anxious Americans — a sign that our leaders must realize the human need to return to pre-Covid normalcy, fight reflexive cynicism, and the pervasive demonization of our fellow citizens who disagree over politics.
Are You Losing Sleep Thinking about America’s Future?
(No, the headline above is not a segue to a MyPillow ad.)
You can dispute whether the kinds of people who are willing to participate in a focus group are representative of the electorate as a whole. But the New York Times transcript of a focus group of independent voters, organized by Frank Luntz, should give all Democratic campaign strategists intense anxiety about this year’s midterm elections. This was no gathering of right-wingers; all participants had voted at least once for President Barack Obama and at least once for President Donald Trump. And these independents are “resigned rejecters” — deeply pessimistic about the state of the country, deeply disappointed by President Biden, and about as dissatisfied with the status quo as one can get.
Alice, a 60-year-old Latina from New York who works as a supervisor for homeless services, described her community as returning to an almost-lawless Hobbesian state* of the strong dominating the weak through force, violence, and intimidation: “I think they’ve taken us back to cave man time, where you would walk around with a club. ‘I want what you have.’ You’re not even safe to walk around and go to the train station, because somebody might throw you off the train, okay? It’s a regression.”
Dickie, a 38-year-old white financial analyst from Texas concurred: “When Alice was talking about the cave man thing, I can agree with that. I’ve had my bike stolen here in Austin, in a very gentrified neighborhood, four different times in the last seven, eight months. Things are kind of chaotic. I feel like there’s no rules, really.”
Twelve of the 14 said the level of crime is up in America today compared to a year ago.
If statements like that aren’t a flashing neon sign declaring “DO SOMETHING ABOUT CRIME!” I don’t know what is.
But beyond the 2022 midterm ramifications, there’s something much more troubling revealed in the focus-group conversation. Six of the 14 said they were literally losing sleep over worries about the state of the country, and one of the despondent comments turned in to the headline: ‘The Lowest Point in My Lifetime.’
Tenae, 44, Black, California, director of security dispatch: I said “new normal.” So let me explain that. We have never, as a nation, experienced anything like this, as far as the virus, the variants of it. So it causes a lot of chaos. There’s misinformation out there. I think it causes a lot of people to be angry. There’s more domestic violence. There’s more road rage. There’s more killings. There’s a lot that’s happening because people don’t know how to actually deal with this or they’re in disbelief.
Nick, 43, white, Pennsylvania, merchandise designer: You know, we’ve been promised a lot by past politicians, and it just seems that nothing ever changes.
Janet, 66, white, Ohio, customer service: It changes. It gets worse. I have a grandson. He’s on the autism spectrum, and I’m worried about what’s happening at school. Do you wear a mask? Don’t you wear a mask? I don’t know what the future holds. It’s scary. And I’m 66, so I have seen this country in lots of ups and downs, and I feel this is the lowest point in my lifetime.
Frank Luntz: Raise your hands if you agree with that statement, that this is the lowest point in your lifetime.
[Six of 14 raise their hands.]
Depending upon your age, you might recall times that felt worse, such as the stagflation and urban chaos of the 1970s, or the national sense of helplessness during the Iran hostage crisis; right after 9/11, when anthrax was in the mail and every abandoned bag triggered a bomb scare; the mass layoffs of the Great Recession in late 2008 and early 2009. Heck, in March and April 2020, the world effectively came to a screeching halt, the economy crashed, and we had no real defense against Covid-19.
But even if life in the U.S. at the start of 2022 isn’t the absolute worst in many years, we’re still coming up on two years of living with the threat of this global pandemic, and maybe many Americans have reached a psychological and emotional breaking point.
About a week ago, David Brooks wrote that “America is falling apart at the seams.” Matt Yglesias observed, “All kinds of bad behavior is on the rise — Murder, but also reckless driving, drug overdoses, drinking, unruly passengers.” The New York Times reported a month ago that “Nine out of 10 therapists say the number of clients seeking care is on the rise, and most are experiencing a significant surge in calls for appointments, longer waiting lists and difficulty meeting patient demand.”
I’m going to point to three problems that are in the middle of a Venn Diagram of political, cultural, social, psychological, and emotional lives of Americans.
The first is fear and a sense of being locked in — not just by the literal pandemic lockdowns, but by the sense that we’re in this deep, thick, mud, and it’s a hard slog, and making such slow, incremental progress, if we’re making progress at all. We’ve lived under unparalleled restrictions upon our freedom — some imposed by state and local governments, some voluntarily adopted out of a fear of catching Covid-19. It’s been two years since this pandemic hit us, and Flint public schools are now going back to distance learning “indefinitely.”
As I laid out last month, the post-March 2020 lifestyle of fewer family gatherings, parties, travel, large events, conferences, and human touching interferes with our ability to fulfill the human needs of stability, novelty, significance, and connection. We are social creatures, and solitary confinement is widely considered to be particularly cruel punishment. People who have a lot of strong, supportive, and loving connections are much less likely to lash out in through the “bad behavior” that Yglesias describes.
The second significant problem with our country, and a problem that I have not mitigated and may well have exacerbated, is cynicism. Arthur Brooks argues that the reflexive cynicism that is stylish in so many media circles and shapes the worldview of much of our pop culture is actually deeply unhealthy:
What was satire then is ideology today: Cynicism — the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously in order to maximize self-interest — dominates American culture.
Whether cynicism is more warranted now than ever is yours to decide. But it won’t change the fact that the modern cynical outlook on life is terrible for your well-being. It makes you less healthy, less happy, less successful, and less respected by others.
We need something to believe in. You don’t have to walk around believing that everyone you meet is a good person and someone you can and should instinctively trust. But if people instinctively yearn for a sense of contribution — a sense that they bring value to other people’s lives and give and support to others — then they need to feel that other people are worth helping! A culture that constantly tells you that other people stink is a culture that fosters selfishness.
At one of my last work trips before the pandemic hit, to the Koch network — er, Stand Together winter meeting in Palm Springs in January 2020, the elevators were adorned with posters declaring, “This country is full of good people who want to make a difference.” In some ways, that’s a really radical and unconventional statement in modern America.
Social media spotlights the freakshow of modern life — every idiot, every extremist, every lunatic, and invites you to dunk on them and denounce them. The “Florida Man” meme would have you believe that all 21.4 million residents of Florida are all heavily tattooed undershirt-wearing maniacs who are always trying to shoplift live crabs down their pants and evade the cops in a golf cart. This isn’t entirely the fault of the media; as crusty newsroom veterans love to observe, no one writes stories about all of the planes that don’t crash. News is meant to spotlight the unusual and surprising, the outliers. No one cares if a new study says your state is in the middle of the pack for a particular measurement — Covid cases, violent crimes, job creation. But people sit up and take notice if their state ranks at the top or bottom of one of those categories.
But if you see a giant gap between the people you interact with in person, and the portrait of society that you see on social media . . . the people you interact with in person are real! Social media is the deliberately curated illusion, or at least an exaggeration, and focus upon the atypical.
Americans ought to have someone they look up to — I’d just prefer that their role models not be politicians. (Being a superfan of a celebrity probably isn’t the same as having a role model, either.) And having a role model is compatible with recognizing that the person you want to emulate is a human being, with flaws, capable of making mistakes and bad judgments.
A third significant problem, closely related to cynicism, is that large swaths of us now reflexively think the worst of people who disagree. Our public life and discussion are now largely driven by contempt — and many self-described leaders have embraced this attitude and mentality wholeheartedly. Notice how quickly progressives labeled Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema “racist” and “white nationalists” because they opposed getting rid of the filibuster. Notice how quickly Wyoming Republicans ejected Liz Cheney, even though she hasn’t changed any of her conservative views over any policy issue. MSNBC’s Joy Reid recently dismissed the bipartisan infrastructure legislation as “the white guy employment act.” Biden scoffed yesterday, “What a stupid question,” when asked why he was waiting on Vladimir Putin to make the next move. I can remember when the president sneering and insulting members of the press was widely denounced as a sign of all that was wrong with American government.
If we want a better country, we need leaders who commit to getting us back to normal, who don’t operate by ludicrous double standards that cultivate cynicism, and who don’t treat those who disagree with them with contempt. That doesn’t sound like too much to ask, does it?
*There are some folks who dispute whether Hobbes accurately described the pre-civilizational state of humanity, but for the purposes of this conversation, Hobbes’s description will do fine.
ADDENDUM: Kevin Williamson makes an obvious point that some Democrats cannot grasp: “If you want diversity, you get diversity. If you want the votes of Manchin and Sinema voters, you get Manchin and Sinema, who are going to want a say in some things and who aren’t from New Jersey or Connecticut and aren’t going to act like they are.”
You’re not going to get a lot of Iowa Republicans who oppose agricultural subsidies, and you’re not going to get a lot of Michigan Republicans who denounce auto-industry bailouts. If you want a majority that can pass a lot of legislation, you’ve got to let particular lawmakers deviate from party orthodoxy when doing so would put them in opposition to a significant majority of who they represent.