Monday, December 12, 2016

Here and “There”

James Fallows has a good piece in The Atlantic looking at why America seems to have a positive, even hopeful, view of their own community but sees the nation in dire straits, so much so that it elected Trump.

The “fury out there” argument was expressed by, among others, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who was trying to rebut criticisms that his site’s tolerance for serving up popular, profitable, and wholly fictitious reports as “news” had skewed voters’ perceptions of reality, mainly toward the right. It didn’t matter that people were learning online that Hillary Clinton was about to die of Parkinson’s disease, or that violent crime was very high by historic standards when it was in fact very low. In the end, Zuckerberg said, voters “made decisions based on their lived experience.” Of course people must have been furious about their lived experiences. How else could they have voted for a man many of them viewed negatively, according to exit polls, and even as unqualified for the job? To paraphrase Trump’s famous campaign appeal to African American voters: With their lives and communities in such ruin, what the hell did they have to lose?

But just as Trump’s appeal seemed grossly out of touch with modern African American life, so does the heartland-rage theory miss the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years. Erie, Pennsylvania, has a landscape of abandoned factory buildings and a generation of laid-off blue-collar workers who know that their children will never enjoy the security they did at the once-mighty GE locomotive plant. (Those GE jobs, by the way, are moving not to China or Mexico but instead to Fort Worth, Texas.) But Erie also has as active a civic-reform movement as you will find anywhere in the country, led by people in their 20s and 30s who believe they can create new businesses for themselves and new life for their town. Erie is worse off in most ways than it was 50 years ago—but better off than five years ago, and headed toward better prospects five years from now, in the view of most people there. That’s also what my wife and I found in places as poor and crime-ridden as San Bernardino, California; as historically downcast as Columbus, Mississippi; as removed from the glamour of the coastal metropolises as Laramie, Wyoming, or Duluth, Minnesota, or Dodge City, Kansas.

[…]

Yet Donald Trump has won. How could his message of despair and anger about the American prospect, and disrespect for the norms that made us great, have prevailed in a nation that still believes in itself at the local level? How can Americans have remained so confident and practical-minded in their daily civic dealings, and so suspicious, fearful, and tribally resentful about the nation as a whole?

This runs parallel with the theory Thomas Frank put forth in his 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” where he found that people will vote against their own economic interest at home if they are convinced that there are larger forces at work to destroy or disrupt their lives emanating from Washington or Hollywood, even if they are abstract fears such as same-sex marriage or single-payer healthcare.  It explains why the “throw the bums out” sentiment about Congress wins a presidential election yet 98% of incumbents are returned to office.

This love/hate relationship between home and away has been part of the American psyche since long before there was an America.  It is part of our human nature to envy and mock and fear the outside world — I can point you in any number of directions to see evidence in history and especially in examples in art and the theatre.  It is as fundamental as our tribal instinct and as irreversible as our need to find someone or something else to explain — or blame — our troubles on: hence organized religion and reality TV shows.

Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has just made a decision of the gravest consequence, largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities. Given the atrophy of old-line media with their quaint regard for truth, the addictive strength of social media and their unprecedented capacity to spread lies, and the cynicism of modern politics, will we ever be able to accurately match image with reality? The answer to that question will determine the answer to another: whether this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or an irreversible step toward something else.

I think we’ll get past this era just as we got through other disturbances in our past such as the Red Scare and the Moral Majority.  It’s not unfettered optimism in the inherent goodness in human nature; it’s more the acceptance that a country that cannot bring itself to accept the metric system or figure out how to drive through a traffic circle will not be so easily turned by a vulgar charlatan whose own attention span seems to be matched only by that of a sugared-up eight-year-old.

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