I've just finished Sebastian Junger's Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging after just having read J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. Both focus on what I've been writing about here for years, which is that the problem at the root of American societal dysfunction since the sixties is the lack of a meaning narrative that gives Americans a collective sense of future possibility. Americans suffer from Collective Meaning Deficit Syndrome. What's left of the American Dream, which more or less had performed that collective meaning function, is framed in crude careerist or consumerist terms. And those meaning-giving narratives, rather thin to begin with, frame possibilities that are available to fewer and fewer people as good jobs and opportunities for social mobility in this country shrink. The U.S. is one of the least socially mobile nations in the developed world.
Most ordinary Americans muddle through having found more or less adequate ways to work with the rather anemic collective meaning frameworks that organize their lives. But the meaninglessness is always there looming in the background ready to show itself as soon as their rather fragile meaning frames collapse in response to a variety of stresses. So as the effectiveness of the American Dream has diminished in providing a collective sense of meaning, some people create their own individual meaning narratives, which may or not be sustainable depending on how deeply aligned with reality such narratives might be, and others join cults or cult-like groups that might provide a collective sense meaning but are fundamentally delusional.
The Tea Party is a good example. It doesn't matter that the meaning that it provides is not aligned with reality. The function of a cult is not to deliver truth, but to provide meaning to people who desperately need it. It's a con. Bernie Madoff conned people into believing things that were too good to be true by persuading them he understood something others didn't about how the market works. The con continues so long as everybody remains a true believer. In a similar way people join cult-like groups that are self sustaining so long as everybody you know believes the con. The more fragile the meaning structure, the more violent the rejection of facts that might undermine it. Deep down cult members know the bubble must burst at some point, but they will do everything they can to forestall that inevitable moment of truth. This explains the Tea Party and the violent reaction of people at Trump rallies toward people who challenge Trump's outrageous assertions.
No matter how people find ways to give their lives meaning, it has become increasingly difficult for them to find it in ways that are socially grounded in healthy and sustainable frames. Careerism and Consumerism are not healthy meaning narratives. Junger in Tribes writes about how affluence in itself is not meaning giving, and in fact creates the conditions that diminish meaning insofar as it creates social buffers that promote social fragmentation and isolation. He argues that a sustainable sense of human meaning comes primarily from a deeply felt sense of belonging to a collective enterprise that counts on and values the individual's contributions to it.
Moderns differ from aboriginal peoples because during non-crisis moments their affluence allows them to self-isolate in everyday life, and in doing so to remove themselves from any deep sense of connection to larger collective purposes. This is particularly true in America, where there is no robust mythos of national solidarity, and where instead the emphasis is on individual achievement. The commonplace that the greater good is served by each individual pursuing his individual interests is reinforced by elite policymakers whose sense of meaning comes from a careerism narrative justified by the neoliberal mythos.
Junger talks about how this would be an impossible idea in aboriginal societies, which he argues are far happier societies than modern ones despite their relative poverty and short life expectancies. Their happiness comes from their members' belonging to a cohesive social group that values each member's contribution to its survival. He points out that the closest ordinary Americans come to experiencing something like the meaning and cohesiveness of aboriginal societies is during crises like war or natural disasters. Most moderns affected by these crises find common cause to meet the challenges that come with those crises, and after the crisis has passed often say they miss the sense of solidarity and meaning that they felt when things were "bad".
So to generalize a bit, a healthy, meaningful life require two things, and it's not wealth and security. There needs to be (1) a robust, reality-based mythos, and (2) an identity-shaping role for every individual to play that is validated by that mythos. The problem, or course, is that often the mythos that shapes meaning for a group is completely out of alignment with reality, and that's when dysfunction becomes normative.
Vance in Hillbilly Elegy paints a picture of dysfunction when the mythos is out of alignment with reality. He vividly describes the life and culture of poor whites in Appalachia and rust-belt cities like Middletown, Ohio, where he grew up in the 80s and 90s where drugs, domestic violence, welfare fraud, serial monogamy, delusional thinking, reckless credit card spending, and learned helplessness are normative. Vance himself was able to realize the dream--he went into the Marines after high school, got a degree from Ohio State when he came back, and then went on to graduate from Yale Law School. The book is a sincere attempt to try to puzzle out why his story is so unusual.
He's a conservative who is reluctant to "blame society" for the the bad choices individuals make, but he also sees that Hillbilly culture has become something that reinforces certain attitudes and behaviors that make it extraordinarily difficult for most people break free of its dysfunctionality. The Hillbilly mythos has become, in Vance's telling, a classic case of what I call in "Drove My Chevy to the Levy" a parody or zombie culture: it has a body, i.e., customary or traditional forms, but it is animated by the undead spirit of consumer capitalism. It provides collective meaning, but meaning that is fundamentally out of alignment with reality and with richer human potentialities for human flourishing. Vance's grandmother is old enough that some of the pre-zombie, healthy values of Hillbilly culture gave her the possibility to lead a decent, generous life. Vance's junkie mother exemplifies the Hillbilly parody.
Junger talks at length about the problems that American soldiers have when returning home from war in recent decades. Certainly there are challenges in healing from the physical and emotional traumas experienced during battle, but more problematic is the transition to civilian life where the meaninglessness and alienation they experience so dramatically contrasts with the meaningfulness and deep human bonds that characterized their lives when in war zones. Junger points out that Israeli soldiers don't have near the proportional number of cases of prolonged PTSD that American soldiers do, and it's likely that a large part of the reason for this is that Israeli soldiers see themselves as playing a significant role in a collective mythos in which the survival of their country is at stake. This narrative has visceral meaning for everyone in Israeli society, and Israeli soldiers are integrated back into civilian roles in a way that is very different from the experiences of veterans in the U.S.
Junger makes a strong case that the problem Americans face when returning to civilian life has less to do with the trauma of battle and more to do with the meaninglessness and purposeless of their lives as civilians. When American vets return home, the intensity of their experience in war zones has no real connection to their experience at home, and the war they put their lives on the line for is a fuzzy abstraction for the people at home for whom their service has no deeply felt meaning. "Thank you for your service," has become an automatic obligatory response people make when meeting someone from the military, even if they have no deeply felt sense of what that service was for.
The significance of the disconnect can be disorienting for vets; it makes what they went through seem meaningless and irrelevant in a new environment in which it is extremely difficult for them to find civilian roles that can be meaningful and relevant for them going forward. Junger points out that instead of thanking veterans for their service or letting them board planes before everyone else, give them a job. They don't need your appreciation for what they did, they need a role to play that can give them meaning and sense of future possibility when they return to civilian life.
But one has to wonder whether just giving veterans a job will even begin to scratch the surface of the deep alienation that both Junger and Vance describe. Both books are disturbing for the way they bring into focus how the dysfunctions associated with Collective Meaning Deficit Syndrome have become increasingly acute in the last forty years--and there is no reason to think that we have any capacity in the near term to solve the underlying problems that are its root cause.
The inadequacy of the American Dream has been something until the seventies most Americans could ignore because there was a feeling that a better life, usually framed in terms of economic prosperity, was always a possibility, if not for oneself, then for one's kids. The American Dream was always rather crudely materialistic, but it was a dream that had power to confer meaning, especially for parents who could derive a legtimate sense of meaning from the sacrifices they would make to ensure a better life for their kids. And until the seventies there was a feeling in this country that because we were expanding we could absorb all the people who wanted to come here from around the world to make a better life for themselves and their children.
The conditions to ground that sense of future possibility in reality melted away in the 1970s, and maybe it was inevitable because it was embedded in a narrative that could only work while there was room for the country to expand. The seventies was the decade when it became clear that the pie could not grow indefinitely at the same rate, and a neoliberal ideology emerged to insure that elites got more than their fair share. Lip service is still given to the old American Dream, and it took a couple of decades for ordinary Americans to catch on that there would be no realizing that dream for either themselves or their kids.
The problem isn't simply that Americans are more economically stressed--they are, and that matters--but more importantly it a problem of meaning. If the American Dream isn't there for them anymore, what is there to give their lives meaning? So rather than adapt to the new realities in the 80s, they were told that it was "morning in America", they doubled down, reverted to a 19th century version of the American Dream that no longer correlated with reality, and believed that as long as kindly Grandpa Ron was in charge, all shall be well. Well that was a delusional mythos if ever there was one. The Reagan years reinforced a mode of delusional thinking that has rigidified into this zombie form of the American Dream that has paralyzed us and prevents any possibility of healthy adaptation.
Both Vance and Junger go a long way to explain why a Donald Trump is a possibility in 2016 in way he would not have been in the 1960s or 70s. Trumpism is not driven primarily by naked racism; it's driven by a collective meaning deficit. People revert to older, more primitive purpose-giving narratives regardless of their alignment with reality because most people can't abide the alienation and the meaninglessness, and they will embrace anything that gives them some relief from that.
So the country is essentially divided between the delusional thinking of the Right and the cluelessness of a Weimarish cultural left with a neoliberal economic ideology that just compounds the problems. The underlying problems that make Trump a possibility are not going away, and certainly HRC--or anybody who comes out of the cosmopolitan secular left--hasn't a clue about how to deal with this. This isn't just about old white guys who are going to die off; it's about a deeper problem of collective meaninglessness and alienation. The old white guys are the miners' canary.
Political thinkers from Plato down through the centuries have asserted that democracy is inherently unstable because it's just too vulnerable to demagoguery. And so the importance of Trump is this: he has made it possible for sane people to think that if our democracy can produce someone like him, then maybe it is irretrievably broken and we need something else. Trump isn't going to be elected, but it worries me that in the same way that the failure of the Right in 1964 set up 1980, it's not unlikely that the Right's failure in 2016 will set up something worse for the 2020s. The longer we go without a narrative that gives us a healthy sense of collective purpose and future possibility, the more likely we are to accept an unhealthy one proposed by some talented demagogue not yet on the scene. He will give us a story that seems to deliver a sense of meaning and purpose that will obliterate what remains of the now rickety thing we call American democracy. It won't be that hard to do, and elites, even liberal ones, will go along because they fear disorder.
So the deep solution to the problem does not lie on the level of policy; it lies on the level meaning and narrative. The solution doesn't lie in refusing to be careerist or consumerist or in abstaining from certain kinds of behaviors or attitudes; it requires instead alternative, positive behaviors and attitudes that can be adopted in their stead. That is our dilemma. It seems virtually impossible for any such narrative to emerge that might actually pull us together to provide that sense of collective purpose and future possibility. And it's quite possible that we will not be able to develop a positive meaning narrative that will return us to some level of human collective functionality until first we suffer through a negative one.
After HRC wins in November, there will be a collective sigh of relief, and there will be all kinds of editorializing about how Trump was an aberration and how the system still works. But it's hard to see how the fundamental conditions of deep alienation and meaningless that created the possibility for a Trump aren't still there for someone else who can more effectively exploit what Trump has so clearly shown is exploitable. Think of Trump as a kind of trial balloon. Someone is carefully taking notes. Unexpected things can happen, but it's hard to see how we get off the negative, dysfunctional trajectory we're on without some kind of catastrophe forcing it. Junger would probably agree. It's very hard for a moderns to discover their best selves except within the context of catastrophe.