One of the few things most everyone can agree upon is that things are not good, and everyone seems to be unhappy about something. Conversations in real life or online revolve around this general sense of unhappiness. In fact, it is fair to say that online life is just one long airing of grievances. Often, people are primarily unhappy with the unhappiness of some group that is using their unhappiness to make demands on everyone else, which makes everyone unhappy.
This is not just a case of the internet skewing perception. Polling on the issue says that people think we are headed down a bad road. Three quarters of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. As you can see in that poll, the last time a majority thought the country was on the right track was right after the January 6 protests, suggesting the people wanted to see a genuine insurrection. Since then dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has climbed steadily.
The funny thing is that most people would not be surprised to learn that record numbers of people are unhappy with the current state of affairs. If anything, they would be stunned to learn that thirty percent are content. How is it possible for these people to exist in the same reality as the rest? If the split were fifty-fifty, it would make sense as it would simply reflect the party divide. When it is seventy-thirty it means something is going on with that thirty percent.
Putting that aside, the question that naturally arises is what is it that is making people unhappy with the direction of the country? Again, polling provides a clue. The number one issue for people is inflation. The thing is the government tells us that inflation is slowly ticking down. It was 8.7% last year and is 3.7% now. If anything, people should be thrilled with the direction of inflation. In fact, they should be cheering the people who control the economy for their great work on inflation.
There is a another small clue. According to official figures, everyone who wants a job can have a job and the economy is humming along. Inflation was a problem, but it is going away, so the economy is officially in great shape. People seem to agree as unemployment is way down the list of concerns. Not only that but consumers keep spending and people keep buying houses. Despite the rise in mortgage rates, the housing market remains strong all over the country.
In other words, the economy is not a particularly good measure of happiness. Another big clue is that the one thing everyone agrees upon is the political situation in Washington is a problem, the main problem in politics. Large majorities of both parties think the endless drama in Washington is a problem. It is just behind health care, which is a serious problem with practical consequences that no one discusses. Health insurance costs continue to rise at multiples of inflation.
The thing is though, politics in a democracy is not supposed to be a polite and cooperative affair. It is supposed to be an ugly food fight. For the most part, it has always been an ugly food fight. Even in times of relative peace and tranquility the two sides torment one another. In the Reagan years, when the quality of life was near a peak, the Democrats tried to impeach Reagan. Under Clinton, when conservative actually got things they wanted, they hated Bill Clinton.
Another clue here is that there are things on the list that are complete nonsense, but they vex people to some degree. A good example is climate change, a thing that does not exist, but it worries 64% of democrats. At the same time, terrorism is not a real concern for most people, but Washington cannot shut up about it. Now they are claiming Hamas is under your bed. Last week it was racists. According to Washington, the next terroristic bogeyman is antisemites.
Put it all together and maybe the reason that the lack of cooperation is number three on the list, just below things that should matter to people, is that the people never see anyone in Washington talking about those things that matter. Not a single candidate has anything useful to say about inflation or health care costs. They have nothing to say about the drug problem or the growing crime problem. It is not that the parties do not get along. It is that they agree to ignore the important issues.
Even so, if things are good in the economy, despite some concerns over things like health care and inflation, people should be mostly content. Not only are people not happy, but there is also a sense of looming disaster in the air. The reason for that is something that is not captured in basic economic data. Things are slowly eroding for the white middle-class and that is what is causing the anxiety. A little here, a little there, middle-class white people are getting poorer.
This coincides with two other things. Once is the browning of American, which everyone sees everywhere they look. When the military put white guys back in their ads recently, everyone started laughing about it. It was assumed they did this because they are plotting a big war and will need competent soldiers. This is one of those data points that does not show up in economic data or polling. People sense the lights going out on their culture and they see signs of it in the household budgets.
Of course, they are not allowed to speak of it. That is the other side of this general unhappiness that does not turn up in polling. The ways you are allowed to express yourself have been reduced to generic economic questions or silly things like how the parties get along on your television. Not only do the people on television avoid talking about what matters to you, you are not allowed to talk about what matters to you and this is extremely frustrating for a growing number of people.
The way to think of it is the public square has fallen victim to the same forces that wrecked internet forums. The point was to create a place for vigorous debate, but certain people did not like the direction of the debate, so they found ways to shut down the debate, which crashed public trust in the system. It turns out you need high trust to maintain a vigorous public debate. With trust at all-time lows, everyone is going to be unhappy, not matter how good things are on paper.
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