Six different ways that Americans experience the news
As everyone knows, the United States is divided, yielding completely different interpretations of the same news items. The usual presumption is that the divide is between red minds and blue, conservatives and liberals.
I beg to disagree. As a strangely obsessed reader of wacky newspaper comments, online forums and insane twitter commentary across the political spectrum, I’ve begun to think the issue is just a bit more complicated.
My highly informal research suggests, instead, that the U.S. is dominated by six different meta-narratives that don’t neatly correlate to party lines or political ideology. Here they are:
- Things Are Getting Better All the Time
The other day, on Twitter, I lamented the fact that Zoom isn’t so great for actually talking with other people. Someone jumped up to accuse me, essentially, of lacking in gratitude for Silicon Valley magic.
Behind that comment I sensed a deep and quite common belief: while there may be setbacks now and then, we need always recognize that Things Are Getting Better All the Time. Even if imperfect, a Zoom session really must therefore be regarded as an improvement over, say, merely talking to someone on the telephone.
This worldview is very common among tech types, Davos attendees and some public health gurus, who note that we live longer and fewer diseases than Qing dynasty Chinese peasants. Steven Pinker serves as a kind of a patron saint. Hans Rosling (author of a book with the subtitle Why Things Are Better Than You Think) is another apostle.
So even if you feel rotten you should actually be happier than any other time in human history, because there is plenty to eat and you are unlikely to die of smallpox. You can also keep track of your friends’ vacations on instagram. In other words, it is all your fault.
Unfortunately, 2020 has been a pretty tough year for the upward spiral types. Positive thinkers are reduced to dwelling on things like their investments in Amazon and Georgia’s conversion to a swing state. Steven Pinker notes that at least global terrorism is way down.
2. Things Are Getting Worse
Maybe all this talk of divide is wrong, because in fact much of the U.S. does seem united in the steadfast belief that human civilization is eroding fast or swirling down an imagined toilet bowl. We are “slouching towards Gomorrah” as Robert Bork once put it, or “bowling alone” in Robert Putnam’s words. That can be true atheistically, culturally, morally, due to environmental degradation — take your pick.
Or maybe it is just the little things. “They don’t make microwave ovens the way they used to,” I heard someone say the other day..
This belief seems more often held by older people, maybe because they’ve had to endure the closing of a favorite restaurant, not to mention watching their favorite band become a mockery of itself. And the older you are, the better the odds of a beloved entertainment franchise (like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or GoT) being tainted by lame sequels or a wretched final season.
Yet this narrative can be held by those as young as seven years old. There are children who laments time’s cruelty, dearly missing PreK and the days of innocent fun.
“Things Are Getting Worse” is an attractive meta-narrative for both the left and the right. For much of the right, it is all about the loss of some ideal of 1950s America, that age of intact nuclear families, respect for order, oppressive racial segregation and lack of opportunities for women.
Meanwhile, on the left, the fact that Donald Trump was ever President is the ultimate confirmation of this meta-narrative. That he actually inhabited the White House seems to encapsulate national decline in almost every possible way.
The “Things Are Getting Worse” faith does not usually exist alone — it is often coupled with a belief in a historic “golden age” from which our reality is just a sad and ugly departure. Beyond the ’50s (for conservatives) and ’60s / ’70s (for liberals) some of the more common paradises lost are:
- Later Victorian England (or Edwardian) mostly for aesthetic reasons or because they have read or watched too much Jane Austen / Trollope / Sherlock Holmes / Brideshead Revisited / PG Wodehouse / Downton Abbey. Essentially, these are people who like to imagine that they’d be the aristocrats and everyone else would be their servants. They miss the class system in its greatest glory.
- Late-1970s for punk rock fans. All downhill since then.
- Pre-war, for New Yorkers concerned about the quality of building materials
- Ancient Athens for political theorists.
3. The System Is Controlled Behind the Scenes by Dark and Nefarious Actors
This meta-narrative hardly needs introduction, though the mindset of the conspiracy theorist truly is a thing to behold. Some percentage of the population is capable of transforming any news item into another twist in a dark, ingenious plan on the verge of being unleashed, another cog in that gigantic and yet subtle machinery set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. And it is now or never in terms of organizing our resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out. Wake up America! But don’t be woke.
A variation on this sees corporate profiteering as the behind-scenes-cause of everything we, the deluded public, are allowed to see. Or, sometimes, black-ops marketing campaigns designed to get us to spend, spend, spend!
4. Racism, Sexism, or Other Prejudice No Longer Exists, and Maybe Never did, Except Maybe in Nazi Germany or the Pre-Civil War South
Policeman kneels on a man’s neck for 8 minutes? Economics faculty composed entirely of white dudes? For some, there is Always a Good Explanation that Does Not Involve Racism or Sexism. All favored institutions are always and inherently fair. This one is maybe the most resistant to facts.
5. The American Way Is Still the Best, No Matter What Deficiencies May Be Revealed
Oddly, view #5 is sometimes held by those who also hold #3. It holds that American systems are, in the end, inevitably the world’s best, even if they’re controlled by strange conspiracies.
Take the American healthcare system. It has been repeatedly exposed for achieving less for patients for more money, treating the poor terribly, defrauding the middle class, and creating perverse and immoral incentives for nearly everyone involved. Nonetheless, as if this were a local burger restaurant speaking of its “world famous fries,” many still insist that it is “the best health care system in the world.”
I hasten to add that close variations of this meta-narrative are held by people in other countries, especially the Chinese, many Canadians, the French and others — for it is what used to be called chauvinism. (The French get a partial pass, because their highly irritating assumption of superiority happens to be correct in certain matters, like cheese, wine, and bread). Meanwhile, the British, in my experience, have the opposite tendency. Even when something they have is actually quite good, they insist it is terrible anyhow.
6. Pelosi or Trump Are Always to Blame
This may not quite count as a meta-narrative, but some people have an incredible ability to connect almost any news item to the personal failings of Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump.
For example: “Damn it is cold today. Just shows that Pelosi was wrong about global warming.”
“That guy at the bar was rude, and you know what? Some guy took my parking space. Personally, I blame Trump.”
Lawyerly caveats and notes
- A meta-narrative is according to the dictionary, “an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences.”
- I do not mean to claim in this piece that I am somehow immune to the influence or power of meta-narratives. In fact, I tend to vacillate between the golden age fallacy (“truly, the best MacBook pro was the mid-2015”) and an absurd faith that we will someday learn from our mistakes and learn how to end TV series in a responsible way.