At the same time, the other half of Lasch’s recipe—a feeling of tremendous confinement, of helplessness—has also increased. This recession has been protracted and extraordinarily bleak. The unemployment rate is 9.6 percent, and 16.1 among African-Americans; there have been, in the first three quarters of this year alone, more than 930,000 foreclosure filings. Even before the recession, industry was declining, technology was outpacing skill sets, and the common retail job wasn’t paying for health insurance. For a long time, two incomes have been required to run most households, while the paternalistic protections of most companies, including lifelong employment and stable pensions, have become things of the past.
“I tend to think of what we’re facing as a twin crisis of intelligibility of the world and agency,” says Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class As Soulcraft, the New York Times best seller about the virtues of what he calls “manual competence,” or working with one’s hands. His book is filled with examples of how powerless we’ve all become, from opening the hoods of our cars and finding computers where mechanical parts once were, to bursting into the world with liberal-arts degrees and discovering we’re not qualified to do … anything. “And they’re very much connected,” says Crawford. “If the world’s opaque to you, you don’t feel like you can have an effect on it, and if you don’t feel like you can have an effect on it, you don’t feel like you can take responsibility for it.”
Complicating matters further, the government has become ever more complex since 1979, with armies of lobbyists deployed to protect various interests, which gives voters the impression they’re up against the twin behemoths of Big Brother and big business. Philip K. Howard, vice-chairman of Covington & Burling and a former adviser to Al Gore on his efforts to reinvent government, says a great deal of this problem stems from a basic flaw in the Constitution: “Our Founding Fathers,” he points out, “never really considered how to unmake laws.” These laws, he notes in his book Life Without Lawyers, have generally accumulated for righteous reasons: workplace safety, social safety nets, civil rights. But with each turn of the wheel came an extra bucket of sand in the gears.
Every successful modern campaign is the one that best appreciates a voter’s sense of self-importance and vulnerability.
“And when people become more powerless,” says Howard, “they become more distrustful of those who have power or authority, so they want systems that protect them against someone else—and that, in turn, paradoxically, disempowers them more.” This feeling affects everyone, no matter what their politics. The health-care bill dragged on for well over a year, and in the end, it displeased everybody: To the right, it’s 2,000-plus pages of regulations and a staggeringly intrusive government mandate; to the left, it’s a Rube Goldberg scheme to protect moneyed stakeholders when a public option would have been simpler and more popular. Either way, people didn’t feel that they had any agency in the process. It was written by either big government or big pharma—and then grafted onto a million preexisting legislative conditions that the public had never heard of.
A sustained recession would, on its own, be crippling and frightening. But when you combine it with the additional sources of personal empowerment that Twenge and Campbell describe, the result is a particularly acute heightening of Lasch’s paradox. And one doesn’t have to squint very hard to see how this paradox might have political manifestations.
“I remember in the Carter campaign we had this fax machine, and it was a miracle,” says Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who’s involved in a number of House and gubernatorial races around the country. “People were like, ‘Whoa, come see this thing! You can send this piece of paper from Atlanta to Washington!’ ” He thinks. “Now there’s this expectation among voters that elected officials and candidates are going to answer every question, and they’re going to do so on the spot.” This is what happens when citizens can instantaneously air their grievances on Facebook, and candidates can notify their base about their vice-presidential selections by text, as Obama did two years ago. “You have bloggers who want fifteen-minute video sessions to put on their blog,” he says, “and campaigns say yes.” Many of his candidates, he adds, are also physically running themselves ragged in ways he’s never seen before. “I’m seeing this a lot with Lincoln Chafee,” he says, referring to the former GOP senator from Rhode Island who’s now running as an independent for governor. “There are people who won’t consider endorsing him unless they’ve personally met him, and this just wasn’t as true in the past.”
But it’s more than instant gratification that voters expect. It’s identification. The images of the voter and the candidate have blurred, and candidates have reacted accordingly. Famously, Christine O’Donnell, who’s dabbled in witchcraft and opposes masturbation, ran a pair of ads ending with the slogan “I’m you.” On the web page of Sean Duffy, the GOP congressional candidate from Wisconsin’s Seventh District, if you click on the MEET SEAN button, you get a page that looks oddly similar to a Facebook page, with a long list of “favorites” (Braveheart, Toby Keith, banana-cream pie). “What he’s saying is,” says Clay Shirky, a new-media scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “ ‘By voting for me, you are effectively friending me.’ ” Or, in another sense, sending yourself to Washington. This is not, needless to say, the spirit in which Congress was designed. It was designed at a time when news traveled no faster than a man on a horse, and the best voters could do was pick a person whose qualifications, reasoning, and worldview they admired. “But since the media environment has gotten faster and faster,” says Shirky, “we now believe these people are there to vote exactly as you would. There’s this expectation of a direct democracy.”