Through the widest lens of history, America since the 1980s looks like the most golden of golden ages. The peace and prosperity of this era is unparalleled compared to the rest of the world and the history of our species. Americans became healthier, better fed, longer-lived, safer, sent fewer young people off to war and forged one of humankind’s greatest technological revolutions.
But through the narrow lens of our everyday lives, the picture has felt different and tougher. Social science shows that Americans on the whole have found it harder to garner contentment, connection and optimism during these prosperous years — and it has felt that way.
This fluke of modernity has come to be called the prosperity paradox: beyond minimum level of material security and means, human contentment and happiness has not increased in proportion to increased material well-being — income, wealth, consumer options, luxury and “stuff.” This phenomenon isn’t actually local or recent. It began sometime after World War I and has afflicted all advanced industrial countries to varying degrees.
Despite wheelbarrows full of statistics that prove that humans have never had it so good, we don’t feel so good.
We are now coping with an extreme political reaction to the progress paradox. The period that symbolically began with Ronald’s Reagan’s declaration of “morning in America” feels like a series of nightmares in America. Americans who are terrified of Barack Obama and others terrified of Donald Trump are equally discontent.
Trump’s rise has been understood as the irate response of America’s largest single identity group, white working- and middle-class people. They feel they have suffered as economic inequality has ballooned because of the corruption and warped values of America’s professional, educated and political elites. There is truth to this, but it is truth seen through a narrow lens.
We know this because we know that this kind of discontent comes from much more than a lack of material well-being or economic capital. What matters much more to acquiring satisfaction is social capital — the web of our personal relationships, connections to kin, ties to community and binds to institutions and traditions.
So far, the tragedy of modern life is that it has become harder to accumulate social capital, not easier.
American historians, social scientists and artists began to understand the assault on social capital after the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, the violent unrest over civil rights, segregation, Vietnam and then the corruption of Watergate.
For a time, Americans really did buy the picture of the post-World War II years as a golden era, ushered in by the Greatest Generation, Americans who learned through war that we’re all in it together.
That picture cracked up by the mid-1960s. Books like “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “The Lonely Crowd” captured the oppressive conformity and sterility of the times felt even by the “haves” in society. At a stunning pace, Americans rejected traditional organized religion, traditional family structures, value systems from their ancestors and the codes of capitalism. By the 1960s, many of America’s “have-nots” were in full rebellion over segregation, poverty, women’s rights, gay rights and Vietnam.
As the smoke from the 1960s cleared, a few visionaries saw a social crisis. One was historian Christopher Lasch. His famous book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” argued that Americans were floundering to replace the rejected old, shared and inherited belief systems. Americans increasingly turned to me-centric, ready-made pop therapies, cults, evangelisms, self-help doctrines and increasingly partisan or parochial political factions. None of this worked very well.
Then a political scientist, Robert Putnam, wrote “Bowling Alone,” a book that documented the swift decline of the community institutions Americans leaned on to garner social capital and fend of isolation: churches, booster clubs, Girl Scout troops, PTAs, and, of course, bowling leagues. He argued that the invisible infrastructure of organic communities was falling apart.
I tried to write the story of this strand of thinking about America’s spiritual challenge in a book titled, “Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.” I tried to help understand why so many Americans had come to literally hate many aspects of their own culture — politics, government, commercial entertainment, Wall Street, big business, the medical system and so on.
The book was published a few weeks before Barack Obama was elected in 2008. After the election, in every interview and book reading, I was asked: Don’t you think Obama and the wave of hope that elected him will improve things? Despite my growing admiration for Obama, I grumpily said that I didn’t. America’s “progress paradox” was too deep, not something repairable by legislation, policy and charismatic leadership. It would take generations of new institutions, new traditions and new sources of kinship — if that. My cheery optimism didn’t help book sales.
I certainly did not foresee something as extreme and bellicose as Donald Trump. As fearful as I am about what he might do to our country — our security, values and common cause — I am far more concerned about the enduring tragedy, the difficulty of finding contentment and kinship in the modern world. For now, that can only come from one Thanksgiving at a time.