The age of anxiety

“Odourless ages, an ordered world
Of planned pleasures and passport-control,
Sentry-go, sedatives, soft drinks and
Managed money, a moral planet
Tamed by terror … “
—W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

In the wake of this month’s elections, many Democrats have asked over and over again, “I get that voters are angry. But what are they possibly angry about?”

It’s easy to understand Democrats’ mystification: The U.S. economy is growing at a near-booming clip of 3.5 percent, far outpacing the rest of the developed world — which is either in or near recession — and close to half the dwindling growth rate in China. The stock market closed the week before the election at record highs. The country still dominates rankings in higher education and scientific research worldwide. U.S. military spending and technology outstrip the rest of the planet, which starkly demonstrated this year that, criticize America though they might, other nations actually are incapable of doing anything without U.S. involvement and leadership.

Yet voters, as usual, are perceiving deeper patterns that the superficial political debates ignore. To most Americans, the economy is at best stagnant, the world is in chaos with American leadership eviscerated, and the country’s government — if not the very concept of government itself — lies in tatters. (While the president, rightly or wrongly, receives most of the blame for this, as I’ve written elsewhere this election was as much a vote of “no confidence” in both parties as in any one party.)

{mosads}We live in the shadow of a financial collapse that left the global economy in a shambles and what’s left standing heavily tilted: While the economy overall is back to producing record levels of wealth, those gains are heavily concentrated — most Americans are not doing any better, and many are doing a lot worse, with little prospect of turning that around.

People sense, meanwhile, that an even deeper, tectonic shift in the world order is occurring. The direction of movement isn’t entirely clear, though, or even consistent.

Large, old-fashioned empires might be emerging again — such as Vladimir Putin’s attempts to restore Russia’s in Eastern Europe. At the same time, however, multi-ethnic nation-states are breaking down — from Scotland’s near-exit from the United Kingdom to many other increasingly restive regions throughout the world.

A rising tide of trans-border problems — climate change, global contagions and large-scale human flows from refugees to illegal trafficking — increasingly begs for trans-border solutions and supranational authorities. Yet innovation, problem-solving and power are devolving more and more (and seem to work better) closer to home — in cities and metro regions worldwide.

Technology is “democratizing” everything from intellectual property to manufacturing to governance to weapons of mass destruction. But power and authority appear simultaneously to be ebbing from democratic governments and leaching into unaccountable institutions ranging from corporations, to nongovernmental organizations, to multinational authorities, to non-state actors.

In short, the world as we have known it more-or-less since the end of World War I is coming to an end. These larger and longer-term changes in the nature of the nation-state and government itself will dominate the latter part of the 21st century, and raise unsettling questions:

  • Do advances in technology and other apparent changes in the underlying economic structure make the current state of affairs a permanent situation — a “jobless economy” with all the gains going to capital while the bulk of the population reverts to subsistence living? Is the world changing in a way that redistributes power and resources upward — leaving most people poorer, more marginalized and with less control over their destinies?
  • Does this seeming stagnation represent U.S. decline relative to the rest of the world, and particularly a rising China?
  • Do these developments — along with the Great Recession itself — signify that governments and experts everywhere have no real idea how to manage economies and solve problems like this? Is “government” as we know it failing, and perhaps even disappearing — and does that mean that we’re descending into an age of chaos?

The United States — and the liberal, democratic West in general — presents a model at once more stable, successful economically and integrated internally than any of its would-be challengers. The very strengths of the increasingly libertarian American model, however, generate two conflicting challenges — one economic, one political: This model requires constant, expensive reinvestment in public goods to maintain its high-end competitive edge. But, simultaneously, the logic of its success fosters a loosening of internal political bonds, the collapse of borders and the devolution of authority.

The economic challenge compels the U.S. to focus, in this globalized economy, on attracting all the top-paying jobs. Maintaining a high-wage nation in today’s global economy will require, primarily, investment in public goods — human capital foremost, but also scientific research, technology and infrastructure. And that calls for strong public institutions.

But, while President Obama’s election led to a widespread expectation of an increasingly — and prohibitively — “liberal” American electorate, a detailed survey this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press gives a more nuanced view: Younger Americans may be more socially progressive, but they also have less faith in large institutions and government solutions. The result may be an America more solicitous of social tolerance and economic fairness — but more resistant to big and centralized government.

As everywhere states break apart, power devolves to regions and technology empowers individuals, the strength of the world’s liberal societies lies precisely in these very, centrifugal factors. In short, assuming the Free World successfully fences itself off from the dark forces massing outside like The Lord of the Rings‘ Two Towers — of chaos on the one hand and authoritarianism, on the other — internally it will face increasing disorder, disunity, diversification of authority, and dissolution of borders: the geopolitical equivalent of the “creative destruction” Joseph Schumpeter described as central to a liberal economy.

It’s not surprising, in sum, that this is an age of anxiety. Telling voters they should be cheered by the latest unemployment numbers or stock prices, or outraged by ephemera like gay marriage and executive orders, merely highlights the deafness of authority.

Schnurer is president of Public Works LLC, a national public policy consulting firm advising state and local governments. He is a former gubernatorial chief of staff, and speechwriter or policy director for several presidential candidates. Follow him @ericschnurer.

Tags 2014 Elections 2014 midterms Great Recession midterms

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