Americans have long ranked among the world’s happiest people. Pollsters consistently find that in our personal lives anyway, we’re a cheery bunch.
The World Happiness Report, which counts such luminaries as economist Jeffrey Sachs among its editors, called us the 13th happiest country in the world this year. An AP poll from this past spring found that two-thirds of both Democrats and Republicans are satisfied with “their personal and family relationships, financial situations, careers, and work-life balance.”
But ask us about politics, and all bets are off. On that subject, we’re miserable. Everything about the way our country is run depresses us. The polls consistently show that somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Ask us about the presidential election, and the picture is equally bleak. The election frustrates over 70 percent of us. Most Americans feel “helpless” about the election, including over two-thirds of people under the age of 30. A Gallup survey earlier this year found that only one in three Americans believed the election process is working correctly, a record low.
No matter what happens Tuesday, it’s an undeniable fact that our population is now divided into two irreconcilable groups, each of which violently disbelieves in the humanity of the other.
But that same population seems also to be addicted to hyper-provocative political media, whose purpose usually is exacerbating that very mutual hatred and disrespect.
It’s no wonder that most people are unhappy with the direction of the country. Most Americans believe themselves to be surrounded within their own borders by the equivalent of military enemies.
Conservative America entered this territory long ago. Almost immediately after 9/11, right-wing media began marketing the idea that liberals and terrorists were morally the same.
Blue-state America, such propaganda insisted, was irredeemable. The only thing to do with liberals was to destroy them. Conservative writer Kurt Schlichter echoed the wisdom of the fictional Conan the Barbarian (hilariously, a real-life GOP politician) when he wrote about how to deal with the other half of American society.
“We must yearn to crush our enemies. To see them driven before us. To hear the lamentations of their womyn,” he wrote with glee, not passing up the chance to make a “womyn” joke. The likes of Coulter, Hannity and Limbaugh similarly urged followers to stay vigilant about the omnipresent liberal enemy.
Thanks in large part to Donald Trump, there’s a whole new genre of blue-state propaganda that appropriates this same kind of language, only in reverse. “Donald Trump Can’t Merely Be Defeated – He and His Deplorables Must Be Crushed,” fumed The Daily Beast. “Trumpism Must Be Crushed. Here’s One Way to Do It,” echoed Greg Sargent in the Washington Post.
The rightist mantra holds that liberals are Godless, hate America, hate our men and women in uniform, and want to control all human behavior through the government. Therefore they are irredeemable and there’s nothing to be done with them but eliminate them.
The new party line on the other side is that Republicans are racists, sexists, bigots and hatemongers. Therefore they’re irredeemable and there’s nothing to be done but fight and subjugate them.
There’s a paradox in American national politics. The overwhelming majority of us only have one meaningful avenue of political expression. We can vote once every four years. Meaning, once out of every 1,461 days, we actually get to do something.
The rest of the time we sit around, glued to TVs and tablets and phones, bombarding ourselves with trolling messages and news reports about the Advancing Political Enemy.
Most of what we consume as political media these days is just an endless series of alarmist features detailing the bottomless iniquity of the Other Side. Some of it might be true, who knows. Maybe even most or all of it, in the case of Donald Trump.
But our capacity to do anything about what we read nowhere near matches the sheer quantity of negative messages we receive. So we end up with a hyper-stimulated population, overwhelmed on all sides by feelings of disgust, anger and impotence.
There are only two reasons why society would be organized to keep us paralyzed this way, in a perpetual state of manic antagonism.
The first is that this is the accidental by-product of a rapacious and nihilistic commercial media system, in which the financial incentives run in the direction of using anger to keep target demographics captive for advertisers.
These cable shows depend significantly on scare-tactic stories about waves of immigrants/liberals/terrorists descending upon the picket-fence America of their viewers’ memories, and tearing it to shreds.
The TV network needs grandpa pissed off. Otherwise, he spends the afternoon feeding pigeons or horsing around with his grandkids instead of glued to ads for aspirin or casino vacations or home security services, in between news that the president is a Muslim born on Mars, or Acorn agents are hiding inside voting machines, or whatever.
The other possible reason for such divisive media is even more overtly political. If you want to keep any population from ever usefully focusing its energies in any direction, just keep its people geeked up on intramural hatreds and conspiracy theories. That way, they’ll never get anything done.
That our political process was so easily reduced to a grotesque joke in the past year should tell us all something.
It showed that the people who run this country don’t really care if we make a mess of our democratic rituals, provided we don’t actually elect someone hostile to their interests.
Otherwise, mazel tov! So long as the population keeps going to work and spending money, nobody up there really cares what goes on.
If all this hatred and rancor were somehow suppressing consumption, if it caused people to stop cyber-shopping or buying crap in malls, there would be an immediate call for a national reconciliation movement.
But since all it’s doing is splitting up families, undermining faith in public institutions, causing political gridlock and making Americans the laughingstock of the world, the powers that be just shrug.
Better to have us at each other’s throats and making fools of ourselves than thinking about things that matter, like how wealth is divided up, who really has political influence or other such questions.
This election took 18 agonizing months to complete. It could have been done in five weeks.
The only people who benefitted from it taking so long were media companies that depend upon making us miserable as a moneymaking strategy, and politicians who escape general scrutiny when the population is divided.
This has been a terrible year for our country. American exceptionalism as a non-sarcastic idea is dead. Whatever our argument used to be for being a hegemonic superpower with the authority to meddle in the affairs of every other country, it’s no longer valid. We’re officially earth’s most embarrassing people.
The rest of the world is laughing at us this week, when it’s not busy being terrified by our ignorance, racism and incompetence. They see a rich country that is spiritually bankrupt, consumed by neurotic aggression and incapable of forgiveness.
We have a lot of real problems in this country, about which we should of course stay informed and vote sensibly. But maybe our biggest problem is the political process itself. Our version of politics dehumanizes and demeans all of us.
Maybe next time, we should shut it off. Try to think about politics only when it intersects with our real lives. Take walks. Spend time with our kids. Something, anything, but not this. There has to be a better way than this.