Monday, October 25, 2010

The Future is So Unpredictable

Here's a theory of modern angst: we humans come wired with a strong preference that things in the future be just as they were in the past. Any kind of change makes us nervous, especially changes that effect how we earn our livings or who our neighbors are. We can only tolerate the ceaseless change of the modern world by believing that change will mostly be for the better. The enormous economic growth of modern times has made it possible for many people to believe this most of the time ("The American Dream"). When the national economy turns sour, or an industry evaporates without any obvious replacement in the local economy, or the faces of our neighbors change, we react with anxiety and long for the certainty of some lost Golden Age.

The latest evidence that something like this drives American politics comes from Kirk Johnson's NY Times piece about voters in Colorado. Here is Darryl Pike of Loveland:

“Everything is fractured,” said Mr. Pike, 63, a roofing salesman and lifelong Democrat from this city in northern Colorado.

Mr. Pike said he felt that the country was on an uncharted course, economically and politically. That belief has torn him from the moorings of loyalty that he felt for decades to the Democrats. There is not one on the ballot in Colorado he really likes, he said. But he is not sure he’s quite ready to vote for a Republican, either. “I have no idea what I’m going to do,” he said.

In dozens of interviews in Loveland and across Larimer County, a similar conclusion emerged time and again: uncertainty or trepidation about the future — with the election simply an expression of those deeper currents.

On issues from the economy to the state of democracy, many people described themselves as out to sea and adrift. Some said they feared that lost jobs might never return. Others were clinging more tightly than ever to the things they thought worth fighting for: family, school, church.

When our stability is undermined, we are sustained by faith in a brighter future; when that faith is also undermined, we feel out to sea and adrift and easily fall into anger or reactionary defensiveness.


Unknown said...

There are some problems with this analysis. One is that the pejorative (let's face it) psychologizing of a political position cuts all ways. One could just as easily say that liberalism represents a shallow hankering after novelties, or white guilt, or intellectual elitism, or (inevitably) fear of change. The due respect you gave in your earlier post saying that opposition to liberal legislation represents conservatism, not "partisanship," you take away with this one.

I prefer simply to say that the tea party is a bunch of idiots.

John said...

What really interests me is the way people reach political positions without anything that smacks of analytical thought. Most people, liberal and conservative, don't think about what the world is like, reason out what needs to be done to improve or preserve it, and then support the party whose goals are closest to their own. Most people go with a sort of gut instinct. For many liberals, the gut instinct is a sense that life is cruel and unfair and we should be doing what we can to make it less hurtful.

I believe that much modern American politics is driven by the anxieties of living in a world of rapid change. Many Americans react to this with a reflexive "conservatism" that is part ethnic identity politics, part patriotism, part militarism, and part free-market economics. It is a strange brew, because these conservatives tend to blame the government for all the bad changes in their worlds, when really the main engines of change are capitalism and new technology. All those illegal immigrants whose presence so irritates Republican voters came here to get hired by capitalist companies. But, anyway, I stand by this analysis of conservative politics.

Then there are the people with no ideology other than a vague dissatisfaction, who wander back and forth between parties depending on the state of the economy. Not sure how to explain them.