I think what’s happening to America right now can best be captured as a catastrophic loss of meaning.
Bowling Alone is the canonical work on the loss of community in our lives.
We’ve spent decades cutting religion out of our lives, we’ve stopped interacting with each other, many core “American” jobs have been deprecated due to automation efficiencies. And now the nation’s complexion is changing through immigration and demographics.
If you’re lucky enough to live on one of the coasts, or one of the big cities, and you have a decent education in a hot field, you’re basically fine. Those people have learned to wear their work and their projects like an exoskeleton.
People immersed in tech don’t have time to think about meaning because they’re too busy with their jobs, projects, and startups. Their work becomes their meaning.
But most people aren’t on the coasts with opportunity in a hot field. Most people live in the middle of the country, or are struggling in the big cities. Their meaning comes from sources that have been stripped away over the last few decades. Things like Work, God, and Country.
And once those sources of self-worth are depleted, there is an unfortunate last rung of the meaning ladder—race.
This is true in prison, and it’s true in Trump’s followers who feel they have lost their work, that their religion is under attack, and that their country is being invaded by outsiders.
This, more than anything, is the threat we face in 2020—an angry and mobilized mass of white people at the bottom of the meaning well.
In 2016 we liberals didn’t listen to their anger, and if we ignore it again we’ll have Trump for another 4 years.
- This idea emerged from a conversation with my friend Joel P.