COMMENTARY: Looking up when things are looking down


The popular gloom notwithstanding, we’re actually living in an era of astounding progress. We’ve seen the greatest reduction in global poverty in history. As Steven Pinker has documented, we’ve seen a steady decline in wars and armed conflict. The U.S. economy is the best performing major economy in the developed world.

In 1980 the U.S. had a slight edge in G.D.P. per capita over Germany, Japan, France and the U.K. But the U.S. has grown much faster than the other major economies over the past 37 years, so that now it produces about $54,000 of output per capita compared with about $39,000 for Japan and France.

Progress is real, but of course it doesn’t happen in a straight line. Often it happens in what Ruth DeFries calls the ratchet, hatchet, pivot, ratchet manner.

First there’s some innovative breakthrough that benefits society over all. But the innovation disrupts some lives. Down comes the hatchet as people want change. That leads to a pivot as society looks for new innovations to address newly created problems. Thanks to human ingenuity the innovation comes and progress ratchets up another notch.

This clearly happens with technological progress but also, less linearly, with cultural progress. Every era develops the culture it needs to solve its problems.

During the mid-20th century the West developed a group-oriented culture to deal with the Great Depression and the World Wars. Its motto could have been “We’re in this together.” That became too conformist and stultifying. A new individualistic culture emerged (pivot) whose motto could have been “I’m free to be myself.” That was great for a time, but excessive individualism has left society too fragmented, isolated and divided (hatchet). Something new is needed.

Politics during the hatchet phase gets nasty. It tends to devolve into a fight between upswingers and downswingers. (I’m adapting the words from a deceased Iranian-American futurist who called himself FM-2030.) Upswingers believe in progress and feel that society is still fitfully moving upward. Downswingers have lost faith in progress and feel everything is broken.

Both right and left are dividing into upswinger and downswinger camps. Among Republicans the upswingers embrace capitalist dynamism, global engagement and the open movement of people and ideas. The downswingers embrace ethnic and national cohesion and closed borders.

On the left it’s between those who believe the only realistic path is to reform existing structures and those who think they are so broken we need to start over.

The downswinger mind-set is similar across left and right. Because of the loss of faith in progress downswingers have a baseline mood of pessimism, protest and anger. They are marked by a deep social distrust and a bent toward conspiracy thinking. They disrespect codes of etiquette that traditionally regulate public life and crack down on opposing speech.

Politics gets nasty in these “hatchet” periods because downswingers have a tropism toward ethnic and identity politics. Politics also gets nasty in these periods because personal grievance gets intermingled with social grievance. If you feel aggrieved about your own personal status in society then political life is not just a disagreement about means, it’s perceived as a status war against those who seem to think they are better than you. Downswinging populists are taking over the Republican Party. Regular Republicans like Ed Gillespie in Virginia have to adopt the tone and poses of the downswingers to try to win votes.

The Democrats are a bit behind. But the center-left parties have collapsed all over Europe. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen in the U.S.

In 1994, 65 percent of Democrats believed “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard.” Now only 49 percent of Democrats believe that. That’s a 16 point shift from an optimistic, progress-embracing view toward a pessimistic, system-doubting view.

The best thing upswingers can do in these times is to respect the downswinger critique — we’re in this moment for a reason — without falling for its ultimate pessimism. But the global populist tide is not going to be held off just by passing a new tax cut or a few other bills. There has to be economic, social and political solidarity with those left behind, as well as penance from those who did the leaving. There has to be a convincing story of where we are in history. There has to be a new moral order that affords dignity to those who feel insulted. Upswingers will have to conserve our basic institutions that continue to produce real benefits, while reforming them with what Glenn Tinder once called a hesitant radicalism.

There are moments when society goes into decline. But there are many, many more transitional moments when some people just think society is in decline, when it’s really in a bumpy pivot. This is such a moment. It gets better.



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