The Great Disillusionment

Does anyone in the U.S. still believe in the American Dream, that the nation’s better days remain ahead?  In the half-century following World War II, Americans embraced a shared ideology that hard work, debt and white skin privilege would guarantee them – and, more importantly, their children – a better tomorrow.  Those days are over.

That belief system was grounded in what Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, proclaimed in early 1941 as the “American Century.”  He articulated his vision of a new American as the nation was finally recovering from the Great Depression and world war was still overseas, in Europe and Asia.  Isolationism was the dominant political sentiment and principle foreign-policy strategy.  Pearl Harbor broke the isolationist bubble, turning Luce’s words into the nation’s war chant, “the 20th century is the American Century.”  Today, the American Century is over – and, increasingly, Americans know it.

Frank Walsh lives with his wife and two children in Annapolis, MD, and has been unemployed for four years.  He and his family get by on his wife’s part-time income and a small inheritance.  He is a loyal member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) who, before the Great Recession of 2007-2009, earned $40 an hour.  He is pessimistic about jobs in the new economy.  “I’d work for them, but they’re only willing to pay $10 an hour,” he said, pointing at a Chick-fil-A ad.  “I’m 49 with two kids — $10 just isn’t going to cut it.”

The New York Times profiled Walsh in a front-page feature article, “The Vanishing Male Worker, Waiting It Out,” one of a group of men who share stories of personal crisis.  According to the Times, these men “are unhappy to be out of work and eager to find new jobs.  They are struggling both with the loss of income and a loss of dignity.  Their mental and physical health is suffering.”  Walsh, along with others of the growing American underclass, is “waiting it out,” overwhelmed by a deepening sense of disillusionment.

Disillusionment is like an undiagnosed cancer; it’s a phenomenon that is often expressed in secondary symptoms until a major out break occurs that is, sadly, too late to treat.  It is often lost sight of against the background rants of Donald Dump and the 2016 electoral circus, ceaseless “police lynchings” and the latest crisis de jour.  Disillusionment is festering throughout the country, eating away at the long-cherished beliefs in not only “upward mobility” but electoral democracy as well.

* * *

The disillusionment felt by prime-age male wage earners like Walsh is but one indicator of the deepening social crisis besetting the U.S. today.  Most disturbing is the rising suicide rate.  A Centers of Disease Control (CDC) report found that in 2010 there were 38,364 suicides in the U.S.; this represented a 28 percent increase (32% for women, 27% for men) among those 35 to 64 years old during the 1999-2010 period.  It identified the principle risk factors for the increase were job loss, home repossession and debt.

(Suicide does not include overdose or what the CDC identifies as “drug poisoning.”  It reported that 43,982 people died due to overdoses in 2013 and that the “death rate for heroin overdose doubled from 2010 through 2012,” most involving men aged 25–44 years.)

An equally disturbing symptom of disillusionment is depression, a condition experienced by an increasing number of Americans.  The National Institutes of Health (NIMH) reports that, in 2013, nearly 15 million (6.7%) of all adults had “at least one major depressive episode in the past year.”  In a 2015 study, “Psychological Well-Being During the Great Recession,” it found that “job stress is related to the onset of generalized anxiety disorder and depression and that sleep disorders and drug abuse are often precursors to depression.”  It based its assessment on two key factors: (i) an increased number of mental health inpatient and outpatient visits between 2007-2012 and (ii) the increased number of prescriptions filled for opiates, antidepressants, sleep aids and anxiolytics.

Disillusionment takes still other forms.  A 2014 Gallup poll found that two out of three Americans (67%) were dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S. This includes three-fourths (75%) of Democrats and half (54%) of Republicans.  Gallup noted that over the last decade (2004-2014) the level of popular dissatisfaction over the opportunity for an American “to get ahead by working hard” had jumped by 50 percent, to 45 percent from 30 percent.

This perception was affirmed in a 2014 report from Rutgers University, “Unhappy, Worried and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession,” suggests its bleak consequences.  Based on a study of 1,500 adults, the researchers found that “most Americans do not think the economy has improved in the last year or that it will in the next.”  Over the last five years, American’s believing they will live a better life than their children has shrunk to just 1 in 6 from 4 in 10.  Making matters worse, “roughly four in five Americans have little or no confidence that the federal government will make progress on the nation’s most important problems over the next year.”

This malaise was confirmed in a recent Rasmussen Report found that nearly half (48%) of Americans polled felt that the nation’s best days are over; this is up from 45 percent in 2006.  Americans don’t believe the mystifications fed to them by the distraction industry, whether as news, advertisements, entertainment or the public statements by government or corporate spokespersons.  More and more people consider themselves cynics – suspicious, dubious, questioning official press-release hype.  They know they are being lied to.

Social cynicism was most evident in the 2014 Congressional elections.  Keeping with traditional midterm election patterns, the out-of-presidency Republicans routed the in-office Democrats and, in January, the GOP took control of the House and the Senate.  Most troubling, the 2014 voter turnout was the lowest since World War II; only 33.9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots – and 75 percent were white.

Voter disillusionment was confirmed in a 2014 Gallup poll that found Americans’ trust in each of the three branches of the federal government “is collectively lower than at any point in the last two decades.”  It found trust in the judicial at 61 percent, the executive at 43 percent and the Congress as 28 percent.

Younger voters aged 18-29, a core part of the Democratic base, made up only 13 percent of the 2014 national electorate, compared to 19 percent in 2012.  The declining electoral participation rate among young voters may represent a conventional, non-presidential voting year pattern.  But it may well express the deepening disillusionment among American youth as to their dimming prospects.  Ballooning student debt and shrinking prospects for “a good job” — even with a college degree — is fueling growing cynicism among young people.

Findings from Harvard’s Institute of Politics longitudinal attitudinal surveys of 18 to 29 year old Americans confirm this development.  Now in its 24th year, the most recent 2014 survey found the level of trust in leading U.S. institutions “has dissipated compared even to last year’s [2103 (#23rd)] historically low numbers.”  It found that in only one year, trust in the president declined to 32 percent from 39 percent; trust in the U.S. military decreased to 47 percent from 54 percent; and even trust in the Supreme Court fell to 36 percent from 40 percent.

Harvard’s 2013 study was more pointed, highlighting a truly disturbing development.  “At no time since President Obama was elected in 2008 have we reported less trust, more cynicism and more partisanship among our nation’s youngest voters,” it reported.  Going further, it found, “Americans under age 30 are more cynical and less trusting of America than ever before.”  Drilling deeper, it noted, “White 18- to 29-year olds are significantly more likely to hold cynical views than Blacks and Hispanics.”

The findings of the Harvard studies were reflected in a separate 2014 study focusing on young people, “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before.” Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, reported “an increase in symptoms most people don’t even know are connected to depression, which suggests adolescents and adults really are suffering more.”  For example, the study found that today’s teens — compared to those of the 1980s – were 38 percent more likely to have trouble remembering, 74 percent more likely to have trouble sleeping and twice as likely to have seen a professional for mental health issues.  Half the college students surveyed reported feeling overwhelmed.

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A host of personal and social factors foster disillusionment, but all are rooted in a sense that economic well-being and a belief that tomorrow’s prospects are better then today’s, especially for one’s children, is over.  One key indicator in this equation is household net worth.  Between 2007 and 2010, the median net worth of the American family decreased by nearly two-fifths (39.4%) to $82,300 from $135,700.  The Federal Reserve recently reported that at the end of 2013 the median household net worth fell an additional 2 percent from 2010 levels, to $81,200.

A second indicator is the poverty rate.  In 2013, the U.S. poverty rate was at 15 percent; however black (27%) and Hispanic (24%) poverty are more then two-and-a-half times that of whites (10%). In 2007, before the Great Depression, the poverty rate was 12.5 percent, with white poverty at 10.5 percent and both black (24.5%) and Hispanic (23.2%) poverty lower then in 2013.  The big squeeze is on.

A third indicator is the unemployment rate and, more telling, the level of those who’ve stopped looking for work.  While unemployment rate has dropped to 5.1 percent, 8.5 million Americans still don’t have jobs.  Most troubling, Pew Research found that 92 million Americans — 37 percent of the civilian population aged 16 and over — “are neither employed nor unemployed, but fall in the category of ‘not in the labor force.’”

These factors are contributing to an increase in a disillusioned underclass, the new proletariat.  It includes prime wage earners, men and women between 25 to 54 years of age who can’t get meaningful employment.  Equally disturbing, 30 percent of these Americans rely on food stamps while a third get food from a charity.  The underclass includes innumerable young adults, 18 to 25 years, ranging from the college-educated underemployed (saddled with enormous student debt) to the hard-core unemployable (often black, Hispanic and rural white youths, especially with arrest records).  It also includes a growing proportion of the elderly, the aging WW-II and postwar generations that Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation,” who can’t get by on their meager savings, pensions, government support — Social Security, VA benefits and Medicare — and handouts.

This underclass also includes an increasing segment of the labor force that goes by a lot of different names – contingent workers, contractors, freelancers, independent, temps, part-timers, adjunctions, “gig” workers and the under-employed.  The latest term is “solopreneurs,” a concept only Silicon Valley hucksters could come up with.  A 2013 Harvard Business Review article estimated “approximately 43 million people, or roughly 35%-40% of the private workforce in the U.S., are currently doing some type of contingent work; this number is expected to grow to 65-70 million within the decade, well ahead of the 1% rate at which the labor force is growing.”  It also includes those who’ve stopped looking for work, euphemistically labeled “discouraged workers.”

Today, few recall Henry Luce and his vision faids as the quality of American life stagnates.  During the brief American Century, Americans came to believe that working hard – and spending harder (including carrying mounting debt) – guaranteed a good life.  This belief served as the nation’s ideological glue, a popular notion that many Americans still cling to.  Prosperity fostered loyalty; Americans have not directly contested the economic system, capitalist class relations, since the widespread post-WW-II labor strikes.

As disillusionment increases and the promise of prosperity fades, does loyalty erode?  The deepening disillusionment may well explain not only the rabid anti-immigrant stands of Donald Trump and the other Republican presidential candidates, but also the killings by Dylan Root and the growing white nationalist movement.  Like a cancer, disillusionment is metastasizing.  

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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