Tag Archives: national politics

The Visibility of Violated Norms

It’s now easier to notice a population on edge, disappointed, and even enraged by the behavior of others.

A friend returning from a trip to South America recently commented on her impression of returning to what seemed like a very angry country. Being away in a culture with a more courtly pace reset her expectations. Coming home sharpened her impression that people here seemed on edge and unusually short-tempered. Indeed, many Americans also recognize the same dynamic of a nation disappointed and even enraged by the behavior of other Americans. You can pick your issue: people refusing or faking COVID vaccinations, narratives of magical thinking about government intentions, a coup attempt by a former President who fanaticizes that he is still in power, or more tentative medical recommendations than our binary thinking usually tolerates. This national stance of annoyance is sometimes directed to self-promoting “professionals” who have used social media to offer fantasy solutions to problems already on their way to being managed.  Think of self-styled health experts on the margins of mainstream medicine getting more media attention than their views warrant. Established standards of competence and credibility no long seem to apply to the noisiest and most opportunistic.

Writing in roller-coaster 1960s, the sharp-eyed Joan Didion noted that our national convulsions over Vietnam and racial violence meant that “the center will not hold.” The years of the Trump interregnum have similarly soured the nation on many within it. Too many seem to have strayed far from the norms of institutions they represent. Consider the former Secretary of Education’s outrageous preference for private over public schools, or the lies the Attorney General now admits he told to placate the President, or the President’s own dissembling regarding the pandemic or the 2020 election. And then there are the everyday norm violations that traditionally fill our news sites: instances of sexual predation from religious, business and school officials, violence against innocents by deranged and armed people beyond the reach of limited social services, or police who pose a threat to those they are supposed to protect.  All feed the threatening rhetoric of armchair revolutionaries broadcasting their weirdness on social media sites. Even seditionists are sometimes normed, like the 18-members of the Texas congressional delegation who have paid no price for trying to nullify the votes of citizens in four other states.

Some of these forms of violated social norms have gained more traction not because they are new, though some are, but because we now more aware of them. And the costs seem greater for kids forced to attend school without long established and nominal protections against an endemic virus; for voters who once had a high degree of trust in reliable systems of election security; or for African American communities again facing state legislators determined to discourage widespread electoral participation. We can add parents or nativist school boards intent on undermining various best practices that have evolved as part of the American curriculum, Supreme Court decisions that have trashed carefully enacted voter protections, and the wealthy who have escaped the requirement to to pay their fair share of taxes. The effects are real for a country that physically self-segregates, even while it finds common ground in sharing media reports about our apparent dystopia.

Social Norm Deviates Undermine Confidence

All of these factors and more undermine faith in the fairness of the “system” and the idea that everyone needs adhere to the glue of the social contract that holds a society together. The contract is real:  for example, when we agree not to run red lights, or promptly pay others what we owe. Most of us also act on the contract when we share our wealth with others who cannot manage on their own. These routines are still strong, but almost never news. Because of more varied routes for taking the national pulse, we see more social norm deviates.  Their visibility makes us angrier and less confident about the nation’s foundational principles.

Do We Still Know Who We are?

We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but it is obviously a rhetorical covering for a far more varied collection of individuals.

A recent survey by Politico asked 35 “thinkers” to summarize what these last few years has taught them about our society.  What had they learned that they did not know? The most common response was about the deep social and political divisions within the nation. But I was especially struck by what Stanford Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama concluded at the end of his statement:

“At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Many of us can only add a sigh of acknowledgement that, indeed, the mental pictures we have of our collective selves is badly in need of revision.  The reasons are perhaps less about the mendacity of this hapless President than about the millions of supporters that thought he was on the right track.  Most of the rest of us continued to believe that we were moving away from America’s original sins of racial exploitation, nativism, and our perpetual devotion to paranoid and conspiratorial fantasies. These traits all have their own markers in the nation’s recent and distant past. And many of us hoped beyond reason that we were finally breaking free of them in the Obama years. But it is disheartening that these core features still can make our political life toxic. Our public rhetoric is now filled with statements that implicitly disenfranchise, devalue, or deny Americans that have a right to be acknowledged.  Note, for example, that Trump only wanted a Wisconsin vote recount in liberal Dane County and in Milwaukee, where many African Americans live.

 

Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.

The President as the vessel for many of these conspiratorial and racist views polled weaker than what was actually tallied after the election. One explanation for this discrepancy is that there might be some shame in revealing support for a demagogue. Poll respondents may not want to “own” that kind of association to a questioner. Perhaps it is just my own fantasy, but there may be a level of embarrassment that comes with supporting a candidate intent on ripping up the social contract.

Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.  By now you know the catechism of complaints: jobs taken by immigrants, crime festering in racially diverse cities, “socialism” fostered by our allies, and so on. These ideological dinosaurs can be embarrassing to publicly express. Indeed, the very idea of a full-throated defense of a position with evidence and good reasons has itself become an “elite” standard: a liberal ruse that people filled with more opinions than evidence won’t accept.

Fukuyama’s candid admission is also reminder that any nation-continent is not reducible to personalistic descriptors like “compassionate,” “fair-minded,” diligent,” or other terms that we might use to describe an individual.  We can’t easily use terms of character to describe a mass comprised of millions of people. The nation is too big and too diverse.  We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but the phrase is a rhetorical covering for a far more heterogeneous collection of individuals who are variously rich and poor, inner-directed rather than other-directed, honest and manipulative, educated and suspicious of educational institutions, thoughtful and willfully ignorant, generous and selfish. We are all of the above.

It would also be the same if we lumped the nations of the European Union together into a single political entity. As we now know, a plurality of the British will have none of it; their divorce from the EU is almost final. Even Italians have their own problems reconciling the common idea of “sophisticated” northerners sharing a state with more flamboyant citizens living in the south.

These days it  should not be a surprise that many Americans barely recognize the beliefs and attitudes of their compatriots. Our foundational documents are under greater scrutiny for their own biases;  we sense that there is less accepted common ground.  We are also used to mediating our world through digital devices rather than direct personal contact.  All of this makes it more likely that the attitudes of our neighbors may make them seem like strangers.