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

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 [1] 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 [2], Robert Putnam [3], and Charles Murray [4] 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participation in civic groups such as community associations, clubs, and religious organizations has declined and been replaced by hedonistic atomized individualism, where freedom is viewed as liberation from all duties and responsibilities.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 [5] 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 [6], “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 [7] 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 [8].

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 [9] who lives and works in the Pittsburgh area.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Americans, We Aren’t So Tough, and It Shows"

#1 Comment By GregR On November 14, 2017 @ 10:23 pm

While I would agree that anxiety is a major issue I disagree with the root cause. In America unlike all other developed nations we have chosen to hue closest to pure individualism. Work hard and you will get ahead, work harder and you will get even further. The problem is that this has led to the active destruction of those institutions that act to collectivise risk.

We eliminated unions to make sure no lazy union workers would get ahead. But also provided the fertile ground for companies to increase part time workers and eliminate benefits.

We refuse to pass universal health care because… But that means more and more families are bankrupted by medical bills they can’t afford.

We repeatedly reduce the social safety net, and criminalize poverty. Increasing the fear of ever being poor…

In short America chose to eliminate or not build those institutions that help cushion blue collar workers against the unexpected. Sadly it was primarily the blue collar workers who hastened this destruction. Wether because they wanted to make sure some other undeserving didn’t get the same as them, or because they saw themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaire, or because they bought into the corporate plan to tie social issues and corporate greed together in the same party.

It hasn’t been the rise of the administrative state, it has been the gutting of our social safety net that has given us this nightmare.

#2 Comment By Joe F On November 14, 2017 @ 10:52 pm

An important element of individual insecurities are the constant barrage of propaganda from both political parties, who incessantly impress upon its citizens that they are under a constant state of threat, which can only be managed by their particular party. Life is not nearly as bad in America as citizens are indoctrinated to believe so that they vote for the candidate or party promising to protect them. I hate to say it, but the current generations of American are gullible and weak, who have been taught victimization without any grounds for it. Individual insecurities are the grist for winning elections and propaganda constantly reinforces that notion

#3 Comment By W Kumar On November 15, 2017 @ 12:03 am

“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.”

How?

#4 Comment By GR On November 15, 2017 @ 1:11 am

Power abhors a vacuum. If you whittle away the state even further, what will stand against the influence of naked unrestrained multinational corporatism, which is what has largely CAUSED the economic insecurity you refer to?

#5 Comment By Kevin Albertson On November 15, 2017 @ 7:12 am

Dear Zachary,

I tend to agree with your initial premise that ‘This fractured state has come about, to a significant degree, because our society lacks a necessary ingredient for social harmony: security’ and that this arises from a concentration of power, but I would argue it is not just political power, but market power, that has centralised.

Those of us who were, or are, self-employed, find we cannot compete with multi-national corporations with overwhelming market, legal and accounting power. Those of us who are employees find our workplaces are now held accountable, not to an employer we know, and with whom we might form an implicit contract, but to a faceless group of shareholders we do not know. The sustaining industry of whole towns rests on the decisions taken thousands of miles away.

Simple economic theory indicates that, in a free-market, power accumulates into fewer and fewer hands. This leaves more and more effectively vulnerable to the whims of others. In the limit, it is not clear there is much to distinguish market and political power. Ultimately the only solution to increasing political power is to ensure all power is diffused through society.

Regards

Kevin

#6 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On November 15, 2017 @ 7:59 am

This pretty much spells it out for everyone. A lot of reason and logic here. Hopefully when America Balkanizes people will learn from the past and prevent the concentration of wealth and power from occurring again. But people usually get distracted, forgetful, and led astray, so nah…

#7 Comment By Dan Green On November 15, 2017 @ 9:35 am

Am a senior from the so called silent generation born during WW 2 of the greatest generation. As I matured especially in my later years I often remark how overtime I witnessed government taking control of our lives. That beltway complex that is so dysfunctional promise so much and accomplishes very very little. Todays new popular term the dumb deplorable’s , are fast coming to realize they are on their own.

#8 Comment By Kent On November 15, 2017 @ 9:55 am

Disagree completely. Disbursed power breeds socialism. There was a time when almost every working man, especially in the big cities, were members of social organizations like the Elks and Moose lodges.

These organizations were formed so that working folks could help each other out and drink a lot of beer together. They were hotbeds of socialism.

The big federal government successfully destroyed socialist thought in this country by creating policies that atomized workers and families. Coupled with an outstanding propaganda machine, we have even crushed labor unions. Americans actually desire to see pensions removed from public sector workers. Just 50 years ago, a working man would never have wanted to see harm come to another American.

And the Elks and Moose lodges are just tiny fragments of what they used to be. Yes young people who will no longer have opportunities for real gainful employment will turn to protest and violence. But that just requires a less restrained police force.

#9 Comment By JLF On November 15, 2017 @ 10:19 am

Surely you don’t mean, given the size and complexity of today’s economy, society needs to emasculate the federal government in the face of accelerating concentrations of wealth and, hence, power. Insecurity from the loss of financial stability has increased (and can only increase) in the wake of the government standing down from its duty to champion the wellbeing of all its citizens. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” only works as incentive when there is a realistic chance of at least a small piece for the average American, and today’s economy almost guarantees only as much chance of that as the chances of winning PowerBall.

#10 Comment By landersen On November 15, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

I think GregR has some excellent points above. I should add that I am a financial analyst and one of these ‘faceless shareholders’ as well.

#11 Comment By Bob Krantz On November 16, 2017 @ 8:49 am

Insecurity contributes to feeling victimized. And in the US and other western countries, the status of victims has been elevated and amplified as a moral foundation.

The Left gets credit for weaponizing victimhood, leading to our farcical modern social and political discourse where any small afront is now equivalent to violent abuse–and can be used to justify official retribution. But the Right has also embraced the ethics of exaggerated victimization, usually targeting the same government actions that the Left instigated.

In this escalating war of the weak there can be no winners, since by definition the posturing seeks to prove who is a bigger loser.

#12 Comment By connecticut farmer On November 16, 2017 @ 8:50 am

The root cause of the anxieties described by the author is the sense that we are all mere cogs in a machine, interested only in “getting and spending.” As a result our lives become increasingly purposeless, devoid of meaning. If one wants to attribute this to the decline of organized religion which came as a consequence of the rise of the technocratic society I won’t quibble with them. Where all this generalized sense of ennui is taking us, only God knows.

That is, of course, if you BELIEVE in God. If not, then…what?

#13 Comment By mrscracker On November 16, 2017 @ 9:32 am

I’m not sure how individualism would make one less “tough.” Maybe the hedonistic variety does.
Social isolation’s not the best thing for mental or emotional health, but there have always been tough, rugged folks who embraced individualism in America & didn’t want govt. doing for them what they could take care of on their own.

#14 Comment By Brian On November 16, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

I agree that hyper-individualism contributes to societal atomization which in turns leaves individuals feeling alone and insecure. But big government is a straw man here — it is comparatively weak and a captive of the globalist corporations and mega-billionaires that own us all.

It is not the big government of social security and medicare that has us worried, but rather big government as puppets of our globalist masters, systematically shredding the last remnants of society’s safety nets, that has us reeling from anxiety. Regardless of whether you think social security, subsidized health care, etc. were good ideas or bad, several generations have come to rely on them to keep their lives from going in the dumpster altogether. Americans feel the floor cracking and beginning to collapse beneath their feet, and they are rightly worried.

#15 Comment By Andrew On November 16, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

Do you have concrete examples of the negative effects of big government that you cite? The only examples I can think of are non-actions, for instance:

1. Union busting: Good or bad (I have mixed feelings), unions were a major source of community and social capital for the working class. Thanks to government policy, unions are more and more toothless by the year.

2. Antitrust policy: Antitrust laws haven’t been enforced since the 80’s. This has allowed Walmart and Amazon to decimate small town businesses. Corporate behemoths may offer some marginal improvement in efficiency and price, but at what cost? Instead of having 20 local merchants with tangible investments (property) in the success of Main Street, you have a corporate owner and a bunch of employees with literally no stake in the company or community.