Cultural Stagnation? I Don’t Think So

Regular readers of this blog have undoubtedly noticed my swings between hopefulness and despair–I am evidently politically bipolar. My swings lead me to wildly inconsistent diagnoses: is America beyond rescue, or are we simply in the midst of a generational shift (sort of like the eye of a hurricane, where it is impossible to see beyond the wind)?

I take a modicum of comfort from the fact that I have plenty of company for either theory. In fact, no one can really predict what comes next for that wobbly experiment being conducted by “We the People”–and my depressive episodes are far from being the most dire ones out there. A recent essay by one Mike Lofgren in Common Dreams makes my dark days look positively sunny by comparison.

The title and subhead pretty much tell the story: “Why the Idea of Progress Is Dead in America: The Right’s assault on reason and intelligence has killed the notion that things can improve.”

The introductory paragraphs are equally cheery.

Americans have become so inured to perennial gridlock in politics that when significant legislation passes, it’s regarded as a minor miracle. Should that legislation actually do something positive for the population as a whole, rather than for a few billionaires or corporations, we suspect divine intervention.

Once there were periods of our history like the Progressive Era, the New Deal, or the Great Society, when Americans perceived, however dimly, that using government to obtain a more abundant and just life for all the people was both feasible and desirable. Those eras now seem as dead as the Pleistocene and attempts to resurrect their spirit about as practicable as reviving the wooly mammoth.

The essay goes on in this vein, and it is difficult to argue that it is overheated or exaggerated. The governmental/political environment we occupy is admittedly pretty grim. Where I draw the line, however, is at Lofgren’s assertion that this culture we inhabit isn’t going to change. We are, he proclaims, in stasis, and he takes us through a tour of popular culture and the built environment to illustrate the “sameness” of the last forty years, and what he sees as the lack of cultural progress.

America, once the quintessential young country, is becoming as culturally static as the late Ottoman Empire. “Make America great again” is a potent slogan precisely because it appeals to the futile yearning by the very demographics that vote in the highest percentages, the Silents and Boomers, for the myth of an impossible time-travel to the days when they were young. Because they vote, and Millennials do not, they can impose both reactionary politics and cultural torpor on the rest of the country.

Lofgren traces the roots of modern conservatism’s opposition to science and reason, and the ways in which those attacks have tapped into “rising public cynicism about government”and its scheming bureaucrats. He notes that the GOP’s actions during the COVD crisis “would fill a hefty casebook of clinically pathological behavior.” And he concludes with a paragraph suggesting that liberal democracy, let alone civilization as we have known or at least imagined it, is pretty much over.

Some liberals may tut-tut schoolmarmishly about “ignorance,” meaning simple obliviousness to facts. What I have described is exactly that, but it is also something more deeply troubling and less amenable to correction: a systematic corruption of the power of reason and a conscious renunciation of critical and analytical thinking in service to a toxic ideology that hates progress as it hates human equality. There is no need to belabor the point about which interests in our society benefit from this intellectual deformation.

It’s hard to argue with Lofgren’s particulars, but I find it considerably more difficult to accept the assertion of cultural stagnation and hopelessness that animates his entire essay. If we pull back from the day-to-day train-wrecks that divert us from consideration of more longterm social movement (“squirrel!!), it is equally possible to see America’s current, overwhelming angst and discord as evidence of an emerging reformation.

Those of us who have lived through both the self-satisfied conformity of the 50s and the cultural turbulence of the Sixties are pretty sure that the upheavals we’re experiencing now don’t signal stasis and stagnation. Far from it. The real question is: what will emerge from the  conflicts of our time? Will a sufficient number of Americans be motivated to move the country in the direction of its founding aspirations, or will citizen apathy in the face of far-right nativism doom the American experiment?

Sometimes I’m pretty hopeful and sometimes…I’m not.


  1. Sheila posits: “what will emerge from the conflicts of our time?”

    I see really two power paradigms with the shift occurring around last year in December. The old power paradigm is an oligarchic-centered megalomaniac heading toward a cliff. I don’t see any hope of unlocking its peril or fate.

    My only worry is that its ultimate path of destruction doesn’t take the world down with it. Are we going to change it? No chance. It’s pretty much locked into self-destruct mode.

    The new paradigm is people-centered. It’s very hopeful. It understands that social democracy and social planning on a global stage is the sustainable and efficient path. We are all connected with an ecosystem called planet Earth. We all must coexist. We have to collaborate with the Global South.

    Both of these paradigms will exist for a period of time so what Sheila is feeling is normal. We experience glimmers of the new but you really have to disengage from the old paradigm to see it.

    Think Matrix and Orwell combined. 😉

  2. David Frum was on CNN yesterday and was asked, “what will help us save our democracy?” He replied, citizen involvement.

  3. “is America beyond rescue,”

    When I see national polls on Morning Joe this morning showing 54% of the GOP continue to support Trump for their 2024 candidate, with the likes of DeSantis at 11% and Pence at 8% the closest followers; then see this nation polling of President Joe Biden dropping from 67% to 34% as he is trying to save lives from the Pandemic and cleaning up Trump’s outhouse leavings…my answer is YES, America IS beyond rescue.

    WHEN Donald Trump is again declared president; I can only hope and pray I do NOT live to see him inaugurated again.

  4. Aging Girl,

    Absolutely. The American voter must get off of his/her ass, put down the remote. Keep the refrigerator closed and DO SOMETHING POSITIVE. Once they’re in the habit of hauling themselves out of their self-absorbed, self-indulgent cocoons, then that feeling of civic contribution will generate just enough energy for them TO VOTE! And when they vote in EVERY election, local and national, Republicans will be gone. I say that, because that is what the Republican voter does…except they don’t do anything for the community except whine about liberals.

  5. For the most part I stay hopeful, but some days are harder to do so than others. As a Democrat living in a very rural area of Indiana I am an ‘outsider’. This county is populated with far too many people that have a militant attitude of hatred towards Dems. They watch or listen to Fox or Newsmax or right wing radio all day. Democrat business owners must remain quiet about their political views in order to keep their doors open.

    Everyone in this rural county is white and those of us with a college degree are rare. Two to three decades ago people were making extremely good livings at auto-related factories. Many quit school to start working at those UAW jobs. Then the factories started leaving and sent their jobs to Mexico. The workers left behind were angry and switched to the republican party when media moguls were hired to manipulate their minds and turn their anger against Democrats. That manipulation is still working.

    While in current control of Congress, the Dems need to create some type of legislation like the Fairness Doctrine in order to put a damper on the nonstop lies from right wing media. This would go a long way towards saving our country from becoming an autocracy.

  6. Vernon – you are correct, BUT…we need to consider which votes count the most. Once this decade’s gerrymandering is done, there will be very few “competitive” US House races. I don’t have the intel to know whether the same is true about state districts, but I fear it is similar. What’s left? Most importantly, the state-wide races, especially for governor and (gasp) court seats. The DEMS can win all the mayors they want, but if they do not wrestle state positions, then all is lost.

    We know all too well here in NC where only Governor Cooper has been able to hold back the Red Tide of our legislature.

  7. So who is more pessimistic, Michael Lofgren or H.L. Mencken? Mencken or Jonathon Swift? Swift or Hobbes? Aren’t we always in a state of disarray? I worry about the future of our democracy and wonder what it will take to wake us from our current nightmare. Still, I suspect I am just one in a very long and ancient line of hopeful pessimists.

  8. Count me among the doom-and-gloom crowd unless and until significant legislation is passed and signed into law that shores up democratic institutions and BEGINS the process of getting stratospheric sums of money out of our elections. Only that and increased citizen involvement at all levels of government can reign in the stranglehold the crony-capitalist oligarchy and their stooges in elected offices have on our nation and planet.

    And it has to happen this year or likely not for a long long time, if ever.

  9. A recent essay by one Mike Lofgren in Common Dreams

    “Lofgren traces the roots of modern conservatism’s opposition to science and reason, and the ways in which those attacks have tapped into “rising public cynicism about government”and its scheming bureaucrats. He notes that the GOP’s actions during the COVD crisis “would fill a hefty casebook of clinically pathological behavior.” And he concludes with a paragraph suggesting that liberal democracy, let alone civilization as we have known or at least imagined it, is pretty much over.”

    It can be argued that this culture has been either created by, or preexisted and is being exploited by, entertainment media and the GOP drunk on power.

    I am a liberal which means an optimist about other people so I tend to believe created by. People who are cynical might tend towards the culture was pre-existing and entertainment media merely took advantage of it for profit.

    That matters because it’s a clue on the end game.

    If the culture preexisted the entertainment media then it probably bodes the end and failure of our 250 year old experiment in liberal democracy. If it was created for entertainment profits then there is some hope of survival. And survival is not exaggeration because without governance by the consent of the majority of the people we will be gobbled up by one of the authoritarian governments that the rest of the world knows.

  10. I have previously posted here and other sites that I do not believe the US will remain a democratic country. In fact I do not believe it is at this point in time, but a oligarchy run for & by the top 1%. I do not say so lightly and it fills me with disgust as I served honorably in the US Navy for four years. I advanced to second class petty officer in three years, a very rapid rise. I’m leaving and kicking the dust off my shoes.

  11. If there is one critical step the DEMs (and our country) needs RIGHT NOW is to initiate changing the Electoral Count Act of 1887. RIGHT NOW because they (barely) control the House and Senate. The GOP will use every procedural delaying tactic and then go the (their) courts, both to run out the calendar before this year’s elections. After that, zero chance for changing and everything is set for The Former to do whatever he wants…

    As usual, the DEMs are keeping quiet, following procedure and having discussions….God, is it frustrating!

  12. According to CIRCLE, 52-55% of the young (age 18-29) voted in 2020. That’s up from 42% in 2016. CIRCLE is an organization that works toward civic education and engagement of the young in our country. Should Donald Trump run in 2024, it may energize the vote of the youth and perhaps, they will be energized to help people overcome the restrictions of the new voting laws.

    David Brooks asserts that voting restrictions do not stop people from voting. I am not certain of that. I am certain that it creates obstacles for many people of color. What those state representatives don’t understand is that the restrictions may obstruct the vote of rural conservatives.

    Like many, I often feel that our democracy is threatened by the Trump cult. Then I tell myself to stay in today because focusing on tomorrow often generates fear. “Fear is the mind killer.” That’s from the science fiction book “Dune”. Good News Network often helps diminish my fear.

  13. Sheila, you have lots of company with your political bipolarity condition, but as an oldster who remembers living during the Great Depression and participating in WW II and having read of the days when the English burned our White House in the War of 1812, Lincoln’s assassination, Reconstruction Days and other such crises I would guess that those before us suffered from such bipolarity as well even though their responses were to different stimuli – and we survived.

    Our 1/6 plot provides us with a different sort of stimulus I haven’t seen or read about since the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot of 1605, where Guy conspired to kill English politicians, differing from our present crisis in that some of our Republican politicians were apparently in on the Trumpian plot. Perhaps we should start calling Don Guy Trump while awaiting the Select Committee’s findings on just who and to what extent Republican politicians were in on Guy Trump’s plan to end our democracy via overthrow of our government.

    However we respond, we will survive, though I am not sure what we will look like on the other side of the recovery. I would like to believe that we will survive as a liberal democracy ready to take on the environmental and other crises both extant and in the making, but given the present state of a substantial hunk of the polity, that is a far from certain. Unfortunately, there is also the always-present possibility that in the process of recovery we will be so weakened in the real world that we will sink into third world status behind China and others of authoritarian hue, or worse, be subjected to their colonization.

    So what to do today? Don’t play Good German and allow authoritarians to bring us to that Rubicon. Preserve our democracy. Punish those who would destroy our American experiment in self-governing. Stand resolute together. Readers of this blog know what it takes, so it’s Vern time.

  14. “AgingLGirl” said: David Frum was on CNN yesterday and was asked, “what will help us save our democracy?” He replied, citizen involvement.
    Citizen involvement ? Yes but a different kind that is disrupting current society. There are people threatening voter people and education (and other) meetings. so that people give up going to these meetings. Trump and his people are the prime abusers and if not stopped they will kill democracy.

  15. The radical right in this land have laid down the gauntlet against equality and its champion democracy. It has obliterated the laws of science and sought to establish a government of A kakistocracy and Kleptocracy as sustained by grotesque ignorance and cultural narcissism. I am kin to one of these conspiracy “theorists!” He said this to me: “Women should be in the kitchen and the bedroom where they belong.” You think Trump doesn’t belong in that degenerate camp!
    These are the times that try the souls of good people. This is a civil conflict of dangers implications.

Comments are closed.