Why are we so mad if things are get­ting bet­ter?

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Jonah Gold­berg Jonah Gold­berg holds the As­ness Chair in Ap­plied Lib­erty at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and is a colum­nist for the Los Angeles Times.

There is a strong case to be made that things are get­ting bet­ter. In 2010, Matt Ri­d­ley made the case in The Ra­tio­nal Op­ti­mist that things were bet­ter than they ap­peared. Writ­ing in The Spec­ta­tor, on the cusp of 2020, Ri­d­ley of­fers an up­date: We’re fin­ish­ing the best decade in human his­tory. But it sure doesn’t feel like it, does it?

In the po­lit­i­cal realm, we’re all an­gry at one an­other, con­vinced some ter­ri­ble “they” is win­ning at “our” ex­pense. As we end the decade, our pol­i­tics is wildly out of sync with the tech­no­log­i­cal, eco­nomic, and med­i­cal events of the past 10 years. Why the mis­match?

No­body knows, but lots of peo­ple are mak­ing ed­u­cated guesses.

No sin­gle fac­tor ex­plains our na­tional dys­pep­sia. Com­pli­cated phe­nom­ena have com­pli­cated causes. But sev­eral trends are surely part of the prob­lem.

Eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal dis­lo­ca­tions caused by tech­no­log­i­cal progress have been a source of un­ease and re­sent­ment ever since the print­ing press sparked the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion. But the pace of to­day’s changes some­times feels like more than hu­mans were meant to process and ad­just to.

The de­cline of or­ga­nized re­li­gion is a peren­nial scape­goat, par­tic­u­larly on the right. And al­though it surely is an im­por­tant part of the story, we have a ten­dency to gloss over the fact that re­li­gion hasn’t al­ways been a source of so­cial peace.

These and other trends are part of the broader fail­ure of our in­sti­tu­tions — po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural, and fa­mil­ial — to give peo­ple a sense of mean­ing and be­long­ing. Peo­ple want to be part of some­thing larger than them­selves, and when they can’t find that close to home, they look to pol­i­tics and ide­ol­ogy to pro­vide a sense of iden­tity they can’t find where they live.

An­other source of na­tional grumpi­ness is the plight of young peo­ple. Sad­dled with debt and lack­ing a clear flight path to the mid­dle class, the young are in­creas­ingly skep­ti­cal of cap­i­tal­ism.

Psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt sug­gests we’ve been rais­ing our chil­dren to be more frag­ile and less tol­er­ant of ideas they don’t like or find threat­en­ing. I think he’s right, but that’s clearly not the whole of the prob­lem (as Haidt would read­ily con­cede). After all, com­plain­ing about “these kids to­day” has been an Amer­i­can pas­time since Alexan­der Hamil­ton was a trou­ble­maker at King’s Col­lege (now Columbia Univer­sity).

Also, more im­por­tantly, the an­gri­est and most di­vi­sive peo­ple to­day aren’t young­sters but old­sters.

This points to the prob­lem to­day’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are most re­luc­tant to dis­cuss: us. Oh, sure, plenty of politi­cians will blame vot­ers for our trou­bles, but the vot­ers they sin­gle out are the vot­ers who vote for the other party. TV pun­dits will blame the view­ers — of the other cable net­work, not the ones who tune in to them.

Writ­ers will heap scorn on read­ers who read the wrong writ­ers.

We live in a cul­ture that finds po­lit­i­cal power in claims of pow­er­less­ness and cul­tural strength in vic­tim­hood. The Right thinks this is all true about the Left, and vice versa. But don’t you dare tell any­body that their side is full of whin­ers, too.

Bad fol­low­er­ship yields bad lead­er­ship, be­cause in a mar­ket-based democ­racy, the cus­tomer is al­ways right. So we have one “change” elec­tion after an­other, driven by vot­ers who don’t re­ally know what they want be­yond “not this.” Nearly ev­ery politi­cian wants to claim to be a rebel taking on the sys­tem on be­half of the righ­teous vic­tims who voted them into of­fice; few want to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sys­tem it­self. Congress is brim­ming with pols who are great at mes­sag­ing out­rage but don’t know jack about gov­ern­ing.

Se­na­tors rail about elites as if be­ing a sen­a­tor doesn’t make you one. Pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates — in­clud­ing the in­cum­bent — in­sist there are easy so­lu­tions to ev­ery­thing, but “they” are block­ing the way.

Ev­ery­one wants to be an out­sider, leav­ing our in­sti­tu­tions with­out in­sid­ers will­ing to do the nec­es­sary work of lead­er­ship, which be­gins with telling peo­ple what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.

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