Is the Country Getting.... Better?
Things have been pretty weird in the USA over the past few years. Are things returning to normalcy?
[UPDATE: The comments to this post might seem like evidence falsifying the tentative hypothesis put forward below. All I can say is that the Drudge Report linked to it and so there might be just a wee bit of selection bias in terms of who chose to respond.]
The last six years or so have felt like one of those video boxing games in which the announcer yells “body blow” on repeat, but for the entire country. The United States has been through a lot, from the chaos of the Trump administration to the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic to the disruptions of the George Floyd protests to the violence of January 6th to the uncertainties of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’m eliding a lot in that last sentence but you get the point. These have been interesting times to live through, which is a polite way of saying they have been exhausting.
Along with the big shocks came a host of smaller tells suggesting that America had lost its damn mind. Data points like the rise in “air rage” and “road rage” incidents suggested a country in which the social fabric was being torn asunder. The midterm elections, featuring a whole host of truly oddball candidates, seemed to be another sign that bad things were coming down the pike. Some of my political science colleagues were gaming out how a second Civil War could emerge.
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Then something unexpected happened: by albeit razor-thin margins, normalcy seemed to make a comeback. The midterm elections proved to be infertile soil for nutjob candidates in swing states; Raphael Warnock’s defeat of werewolf-loving Herschel Walker in Georgia was the cherry on top of this delicious normalcy sundae. As Axios’ Jim VandeHei put it: “The past few months prove that for all the hyperventilating and self-loathing, normal America is prevailing over the loudmouths on the left and the right who dominate our screens…. Yes, politics remains alarmingly polarized and Twitter, a hot mess. At the same time, most of America is busy being more nuanced and normal than what you often see on the screen.”
More generally, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes suggests that maybe things seem a little less crazy right now?
Is there evidence for Hayes’ supposition? There’s some! A glance at the Federal Aviation Administration’s data shows that the number of air rage incidents per flight has declined considerably during 2022, which is impressive given the number of flight delays and cancellations that occurred earlier this year. The decline appears to be due to a combination of the FAA pursuing a “no tolerance” policy combined with the end of the mask mandate on flights. Road rage data is a little harder to come by, but the number of motor-vehicle fatalities is trending ever-so-slightly downward compared to 2021. The murder rate also appears to have declined compared to 2021. Some economic stresses, like inflation or supply chain disruptions, appear to be easing as well.
If you step back what seems to be true is that 2022 looks a bit better than 2021 did. Still probably worse than the pre-pandemic era, but many of the Very Bad Trendlines have either plateaued or reversed. My hunch is that this is due to a combination of factors: exiting from pandemic strictures, perceptions that the pandemic has receded, and having a president who is, well, not tweeting constantly. But commentators have become so inured to a “tomorrow will be worse” ethos over the past few years that everyone seems reluctant to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, some trendlines have been reversed.
Even if there are dark clouds on the economic horizon (more on those next week), they’re not catastrophic. Or, as the Financial Times’ Robin Wiglesworth put it last month, “crises like 2008 are luckily rare, and we should stop judging every financial tempest by its scale. Normal recessions happen. Markets can puke without it being the end of the world. Stuff breaks, but rarely permanently.”
The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World feels uncomfortable ending on this tentatively optimistic note for Ideas Industry-related reasons, so let me add this “to be sure” paragraph. Just because things have not continued to get worse, just because it seems like the polycrisis will not going to hit in 2022, does not mean that things are good, exactly. Furthermore, there is still a lot more normalization that needs to happen. Talk to any educator out there about students handing in assignments on time and you will get an earful (and hoo boy does that lament has a history). The country will be paying the price of this education disruption for years, maybe decades.
Still, maybe if things stop getting worse, and start reverting to the mean, Americans can start developing expectations of things actually getting better. There are a lot of spheres of life where cementing that expectation creates a virtuous circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy. One can only hope.