Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Americans, We Aren’t So Tough, and It Shows

Riddled with anxiety, we too often turn to the state.

With the advent of the age of Trump, there has been increasing uneasiness and fear about the future of our society. Trump’s election unleashed torrents of pent-up feelings from all sides of the political spectrum that have continued in a downward spiral of mutual fear, ignorance, and hostility. Depending on who you ask, the United States is being taken over by either Nazis or Marxists.

This fractured state has come about, to a significant degree, because our society lacks a necessary ingredient for social harmony: security. Security, not in the sense of national security or homeland security but rather, the amount of power an individual has at his or her disposal to ensure control of their life and property. Many Americans are personally insecure and this insecurity leads to fear and civil strife.

The root of the current level of insecurity stems from the immense growth of centralized political power over the past century. As political scientist Michael Desch has convincingly argued, two world wars and a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, as well as other outside threats to the country, reduced internal dissension and promoted cooperation. This cooperation facilitated the growth and centralization of political power. At the same time, the power of individuals has waned as important sources of security—such as family and civil society—have atrophied.

Socially, Americans are largely isolated, detached, and rootless. As the work of sociologists such as Robert Nisbet, Robert Putnam, and Charles Murray has documented, American civil society is in a state of decay. Meaningful participation in civic groups such as community associations, clubs, and religious organizations has declined and been replaced by hedonistic atomized individualism, where freedom is viewed as liberation from all duties and responsibilities. This decline is not limited only to civil society, but has spread to the family as well. Sociologist Carle Zimmerman documented the shift from the domestic family, which he described as the optimum balance between individual independence and the social structure of the family collective, to the atomistic family in which the individual is liberated from all bonds and responsibilities.

Aside from moralistic reactionary fretting, these declines are worrisome because such institutions provide an important wellspring of power that individuals can draw upon in times of trouble or when under threat. Isolated individuals are vulnerable individuals. As political scientist Lauren Hall explains in her work Family and the Politics of Moderation, “Abstract rights claims are only enforceable when someone cares enough to enforce them. Those with permanent relationships to other members of the community who are invested in their welfare and whose survival and well-being are linked are more likely to have such advocates in times of trouble.”

Alas, Americans’ insecurity stems not only from our social atomization, but also from our economic situation. Very few Americans have saved enough money to deal with unexpected crises and emergency expenses. CNBC reports that “half of all Americans have nothing put away for retirement” and that 69 percent of adults have less than $1000 saved. Even a significant percentage of wealthy people with six-figure incomes are living paycheck to paycheck.

Adding to this mess, the terrifying pace of economic change increases vulnerability. On the whole, the creative destruction the economy undergoes as resources are constantly reallocated to their most valuable purposes is good and necessary for a flourishing society. However, those affected by the destruction, especially those with no savings and no family or community to fall back on, can be devastated by this rapid change.

The cumulative effect of these factors is that many Americans find themselves riddled with anxiety about the future. In contrast to the average weak, insecure, and anxious individual, there is the government, an institution which wields immense power and influence in every area of life. Those who control its immense power can do nearly anything, especially to those who are defenseless. Logically, this means that the best way to ensure that this power is not wielded against oneself is to see to it that one’s tribe, in the crudest sense of the term, maintains control of this power, lest some other tribe use its power to oppress you.

Thomas Hobbes famously advocated for a Leviathan government that would be so powerful that “the war of all against all” would cease. However, as can be seen today, concentrating so much power in the institution of the state incentivizes, rather than prevents, conflict. This conflict is the root of the rising illiberalism we see today in groups such as the alt-right and Antifa. These are fringe groups who cannot achieve their aims through the current political system. If other tribes come to conclude that they will not be able to secure the power of the government to defend themselves from other tribes, they too might begin to abandon the political system in favor of more violent tactics. The result would be a downward spiral of violence and open conflict.

Humans need security, and currently the greatest amount of security can be found by controlling the state. De-escalating our current social conflict requires a reduction in the power of the state and a disbursement of power throughout society, not only to lower levels of government, but to individuals, families, and the intermediary groups and associations that make up civil society. Such a de-escalation and revival of intermediary institutions would be no easy task. However, the unfortunate reality of the situation is that unless it can be done, a free society based on harmonious coexistence and mutually beneficial exchange will be impossible, and will instead be replaced with a future of interminable conflict and strife.

Zachary Yost is a Young Voices Advocate who lives and works in the Pittsburgh area.



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