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.