Magazine / Finding a Way Out of America’s Cultural Blame Game

Finding a Way Out of America’s Cultural Blame Game

Arts & Culture Book Bites Politics & Economics

Frank Bruni has been a prominent journalist for more than three decades, including over twenty-five years at the New York Times, in roles as diverse as op-ed columnist, White House correspondent, Rome bureau chief, and chief restaurant critic. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. In July 2021, he became a full professor at Duke University, teaching in the School of Public Policy. He currently writes his popular weekly newsletter for the Times and produces additional essays as one of the newspaper’s Contributing Opinion Writers.

Below, Frank shares five key insights from his new book, The Age of Grievance. Listen to the audio version—read by Frank himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. We’re fixated on how we’ve been wronged.

A critical mass of people in the United States—and in other Western democracies—now size up their places in society in a much more negative and divisive way than previous generations did. They methodically tally their slights—some real, some imagined. They’re in thrall to their own persecution and intent on identifying the agents of it. The blame game is America’s most popular sport. Victimhood is its favorite garb. That, as much as anything else, explains the ascendance and currency of Donald Trump, who has fashioned himself as a martyr determined to strike back at his tormentors on behalf of his similarly oppressed supporters. He’s grievance made flesh. He’s grudge-become-president.

The rioters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, had convinced themselves that they were being cheated out of something. Advocacy groups lavish more attention on how they’ve been deprived and what they’re owed than on their visions for the future. Recrimination eclipses aspiration.

You find this mindset among not only the underprivileged but also the privileged: Even senators and Supreme Court justices sing a song of “Woe Is Me.” You find it across the entire political spectrum. It’s pan-partisan: supra-partisan. It infuses our cultural and political debates with an ill will that prevents us from forging compromises and finding common ground. Everything is grievance, and grievance often functions as the enemy of progress.

2. We don’t vote for; we vote against.

I choose Candidate A to stop Candidate B. I don’t so much support Candidate A’s policies as I want to quash Candidate B’s. Political scientists coined the phrase “negative partisanship” for this behavior. While they once discussed negative partisanship as a curiosity, they now recognize it as a pronounced and enduring feature of American political life.

To win office, candidates don’t just extol their own virtues. They focus even more on their opponents’ vices. They hone in on the supposed danger if those opponents win. That tactic goes hand in hand with a kind of political polarization more prevalent than before: According to a 2020 poll by the Survey Center on American Life, 64 percent of Democrats deemed Republican policies to be a “serious threat” to the country, while 75 percent of Republicans had that view of Democratic policies. Two years later, in 2022, the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of Republicans considered Democrats “immoral”—that was a jump of 25 percentage points since 2016—while 63 percent of Democrats felt the same way about Republicans, a jump of 28 percentage points.

“Negative partisanship this florid creates an ungovernable society.”

Politicians recognize and exploit this reciprocal disdain. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, for example, shaped his political identity around Enemies Lists and promised acts of retribution. He pledged to eradicate this, exile that, thwart one band of foes, and thwack another. That approach was epitomized by his signature promise: Florida, he proclaimed, was “where woke goes to die.”

Negative partisanship this florid creates an ungovernable society. Voters on the losing side of an election don’t regard the victor as someone to be tolerated for the time being. They see him or her as someone to be vanquished as soon as possible. Recount! Impeach! These are the battle cries of our times.

3. Grievance thrives because of a crisis of confidence in the future.

In the United States, once famous for its optimism, there has been a violent rupture of the national psyche. It has given birth to a whole new American pessimism. You see this in survey after survey. The percentage of Americans who believe their children will live in a better world than they did has been declining. Same with the percentage of Americans who believe their children will be more affluent. Many Americans have lost faith in social mobility. They no longer believe in or talk of “the American dream.”

Consider this: At least several times a year, beginning in 1979, the Gallup organization has polled Americans on whether they are generally satisfied with “the way things are going in the United States.” Until 2004, the share of Americans who expressed satisfaction routinely crested 50 percent and even 60 percent. But since January 2004, it has never again reached or exceeded 50 percent. It has almost consistently been below 40 percent, and it has often dipped below 30 or even 20 percent. In early January 2021, when the rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, it plunged to 11 percent.

In a pessimistic society, many people measure themselves against one another in a more competitive manner: Somebody else getting more means that you’re getting less. Resources are limited; good fortune is finite. That’s antithetical to collaboration and cooperation. It’s a force multiplier of grievance.

4. Changes in traditional media don’t help.

We frequently and rightly lament the advent and the influence of social media, with its cynical algorithms seeding and tilling our anger. But changes in traditional media over the past few decades have also contributed mightily to our sense of grievance and our toxic discourse.

Journalism infused with opinion is on the rise for two principal reasons. One is that the old, advertising-driven revenue model for journalism is in tatters. Commentary is much less costly and more potentially profitable than old-fashioned news gathering. A newsletter, website, or cable news program that peddles sassy, snide, or simply impassioned riffs on existing facts is relatively easy to produce. As a result, such newsletters, websites and cable news programs proliferate.

The other reason for the boom in opinion journalism is the revolution in the ability of news executives to measure how the audience reacts. News executives can see consumers turn to, click on, and gobble up all these hot takes. So the hot takes keep coming.

“News executives can see consumers turn to, click on, and gobble up all these hot takes.”

Meanwhile, the unprecedented competition for attention in our wired world forces news purveyors to scream more and whisper less. They take a five-alarm-fire approach to minor blazes as well as raging infernos, emphasizing the direness of conflicts, the magnitude of problems, and the ominousness of threats. Television weatherman Al Roker’s morning reports aren’t just forecasts; they’re chilling lamentations about climate change. That’s a metaphor for and emblem of all news coverage, which whips people into a state of panic—hence the neologism doomscrolling—as it encourages them to have firm, sharp, combative opinions about what’s happening. This is a perfect recipe for discord and dysfunction.

5. We have remedies for grievance.

We’re not helpless in the face of the forces driving us apart. There are ways in which we can pull closer together if we put energy into it. I’m not talking about one big solution or just a few bold strokes. I’m talking about dozens of small commitments and steps that, combined, could and would change the emotional weather, minimizing the storms and maximizing the calm.

I’ll focus on America. We’d benefit mightily from various political reforms: open primaries or jungle primaries; ranked-choice voting; an end to gerrymandering; expanded access to voting that boosts voter participation. These changes would function as gauntlets against extremist candidates who promote and popularize extremist views; they’d increase people’s faith and investment in the electoral process. We haven’t thrown enough muscle behind these mechanisms.

We could plan cities and make civic investments in ways that put more value on the mingling of diverse groups of people, make it more difficult for one group to caricature another, and tamp down tribalism. When we locate parks, draw bus routes, and decide whether to invest in public facilities like libraries, we can either increase or decrease the possibility of people from different walks of life crossing paths. Let’s increase that possibility. Along the same lines, let’s create national service programs that foster interactions that wouldn’t otherwise occur. These interactions could stress our shared interests and goals.

Let’s pay fresh heed to the old virtue of humility. Humility is the antidote to grievance because it recognizes that the world doesn’t conform perfectly to any one person’s desires. Humility acknowledges that life is a mix of blessings and disappointments and that individual fortune must always be balanced against the common good. In our private and public conversations, we must always remind ourselves of that.

To listen to the audio version read by author Frank Bruni, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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