There is no better evidence of the managed nature of what passes as “democratic deliberation” than the recent development of “Current Thingism.” Even if you aren’t familiar with the term, you know the phenomenon well. There are many crises unfolding in contemporary America, and the “Current Thing” is whichever one our elites insist should be the focus of our attention at the present moment.
For a while, the Current Thing was #MeToo. From 2016 until 2018, the Current Thing was Russian collusion. After that scheme unraveled, we moved through a series of Current Things, each of which was said to compound the grave threat Trump supposedly posed to Our Democracy: in March 2020, it was Covid-19; for a few months that summer, it was systemic racism; then, it was the Delta variant; finally, for a stretch of early 2021, it was the January 6th “insurrection.” And when Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukraine became the Current Thing. You knew it was the new Current Thing because all the smart people suddenly changed how they spelled and pronounced “Kiev.”
So, you know what the Current Thing is. What, then, is “Current Thingism”? Current Thingism is the default mindset of a certain segment of the American population: typically, the professional, liberal, educated, urban caste of society. Current Thingism is an enduring assumption that whatever the Current Thing happens to be, it should, in fact, be the Current Thing—the issue among issues.
Current Thingism also enables some judgment on the part of the Current Thingist. Because the Current Thing deserves our total attention and deference, anyone who disputes the existence or the urgency of the Current Thing is a problem. The person who does not concede the urgency of the Current Thing is dumb, dangerous, or both. Remember the treatment of those who doubted the efficacy of masks? Those who were reluctant about mRNA vaccines? Those who doubted the wisdom of sending billions of dollars to fund Ukraine’s defense? Such is the fate of those who don’t get in line with the Current Thing.
Although America has many pressing problems, Current Thingism itself is a threat to the nation. To some degree, it is a threat because America is facing so many crises. Current Thingism artificially elevates one political concern over all the others, which justifies inaction on other matters that may, in fact, be more urgent. Some will argue that while the term “Current Thing” is new, the phenomenon is not: they might say that certain issues have always been prioritized over other issues. They’re right and wrong.
Manufacturing the “Issues”
The concept of the “issue” has always been, well, an issue. It is common to hear people ask where someone stands on “the issues,” or for them to implore others to “focus on the issues.” But what are “the issues”? In theory, the issues are the various concerns that a majority of citizens agree that the government needs to address. If the issues were allowed to rise organically, through a process of broad public deliberation, that would be fine. But that’s not how it works. In our era—in which mass media has vastly more power in controlling the flow of information than ever before—“the issues” are not determined by the public. Instead, media outlets (which overwhelmingly share a set of political and cultural biases) decide what the issues are to them.
Because media platforms now form the (virtual) space of public deliberation, these platforms can simply refuse to address the public’s concerns. Take, for example, the broad public perception that we have an urgent problem at our southern border with illegal immigration—a problem with economic, educational, cultural, and national-security dimensions. Although a large percentage of Americans see this as a pressing matter, most legacy media outlets studiously ignore it. In effect, they ensure that the topic can never really rise to the level of being “an issue.” This severely restricts the presence of immigration in public discourse, which gives elected officials carte blanche to disregard it.
What we refer to as “the issues” have always reflected the preferences of an educated, urban elite, who exercise sole power in deciding what problems count as valid public concerns. Current Thingism is an advanced manifestation of this phenomenon, because it insists upon a monomaniacal focus on a particular issue. Counterintuitively, though, when a particular issue takes on the status of the Current Thing, it doesn’t intensify the debate on that topic. On the contrary: when a problem becomes the issue among issues, mainstream media and the liberal establishment enforce an artificial consensus on every question even peripherally relevant to that concern. Thus, whereas the defining of “the issues” was meant to narrow the focus of which topics need to be debated by the public, Current Thingism serves to narrow that focus to a single issue and to push it beyond the realm of debate entirely.
Consider the pandemic. When Covid-19 was the Current Thing, deliberation was actively suppressed. To doubt the efficacy of masks was considered stupidity. To question the necessity of lockdowns was deemed selfish. To press for the reopening of the schools was framed as a desire to kill teachers. To note the 99 percent survival rate was to be a callous, heartless person who wants to kill grandma. Reluctance to take a largely untested vaccine was to be “anti-science,” which is, of course, to be a moron. Despite the fact that there were a number of scientific debates regarding the virus, the public was simply commanded to “Follow the Science.” In other words, a consensus was invented where none existed. This is the very purpose of Current Thingism. It is rhetorical intimidation meant to disable public deliberation so that a false “consensus” can be imposed without resistance.
The Warm Embrace of the Current Thing
But why, then, are there so many private citizens devoted to Current Thingism—a phenomenon that clearly shrinks their own rightful role in democratic debate? Why are there so many people who feel compelled to announce their total compliance with CDC recommendations on their need for a booster shot? Why are there so many people who dutifully place a Ukrainian flag next to their name on social media? Do they care deeply about what is happening in Ukraine?
The answer, of course, is no. How do we know? The same people who are outraged that anyone would refuse to recognize the sovereignty and borders of Ukraine are the same ones who variously ignore or celebrate the fact that millions of people are refusing to recognize the sovereignty and borders of the United States? These people don’t care about Ukraine. So what gives?
Current Thingism is a way for these people to comfort themselves. Current Thingists are almost always leftists (although many would insist upon the label of “moderate”). They are usually leftists because the statist establishment consists of leftists. This ensures that the Current Thing is always something that flatters the leftist’s political sensibilities. Although it erodes his own role in democratic life, the private citizen who always supports the Current Thing supports it partly because he intuitively understands that doing so will help place the issue off-limits for those who want to debate how to address it.
But there’s more to it. The “moderates” and leftists are surrounded by people on the right—people who insist that the crisis we face isn’t simply this or that issue, but is fundamentally about the regime’s general unwillingness and inability to effectively address any crisis at all. In short, the political opponents of the Current Thingist tell him a number of things that he doesn’t want to hear: that the state can’t reliably diagnose our problems, and that it is not equipped to resolve these problems even if it knew what they were. In short, the political right insists that the health of the regime itself is the issue among issues, if only because the state is plainly corrupt and demonstrably inept. These ideas strike fear into the heart of the Current Thingist. But who can blame him? All of these things ultimately hint at the unpleasant truth that the experts and the establishment can’t save us.
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Current Thingism, then, is not about Ukraine, or Covid-19, or Russian collusion, or any other issue that rises to the status of the Current Thing. Rather, Current Thingism—the reflexive support for every new Current Thing— is really about reassuring oneself that everything is fine. It’s a way to convince yourself that the problems we face aren’t particularly dire, and they certainly aren’t terminal. We can regain a state of political normalcy. We can meet the crisis. The Adults Are In The Room, and if we trust the experts, then everything will be fine. Current Thingism is a way to trick yourself—a way to avoid seeing a million problems by pretending that there is only one. Beyond that, the Ukrainian flag on your social-media account simply amounts to trolling: a reminder for your political opponents that they’re crazy. Because everything is fine! No matter what they say.
It is of note, though, that despite Current Thingism’s laser-focus on a particular issue, none of the issues that rise to the level of the Current Thing are ever resolved. Did #MeToo stop sexual harassment? Was Russian collusion ever discovered or prosecuted? Has “systemic racism” been dismantled? Certainly not, according to those who constantly bring it to our attention. It seems we always move on to a new Current Thing before we solve the old one. Covid was still with us when we switched to Ukraine. And in all probability, we will be ushered along to a new Current Thing before Russia has withdrawn. Not only does this call attention to the state’s inability to solve what we are told are out most pressing problems, it also shows that Current Thingism is a cynical strategy to distract the public from the state’s inaction on the actual problems we face – or, at the very least, to undermine their status as “issues” that would otherwise be the subject of democratic deliberation.
None of this is to say that whatever the Current Thing happens to be is trivial or unimportant; it’s only to say that Current Thingism is a sign of democratic decay that erodes the vital role of deliberation that is essential for our system of government. With all this in view, the fact that so many of the self-professed defenders of Our Democracy are so adamantly devoted to the Current Thing calls their motives into question. The next time you see an American flying a Ukrainian flag, ask yourself: could they find the nation on a map?