Feelings and Vibes Can’t Sustain a Democracy

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Many Americans—of both parties—have become untethered from reality. When the voters become incoherent, electing leaders becomes a reality show instead of a solemn civic obligation.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

  • The myth of the unemployed college grad
  • Texas becomes an abortion dystopia.
  • They do it for Trump.

National Hypochondria

It’s been a stormy Monday on the East Coast, but with all respect to the Carpenters, I happen to like rainy days and Mondays. So I promise that what I am about to say is not the result of the rain or any Monday blues.

Millions of American voters appear to have lost their grip on reality.

I have been thinking (and writing) about the problem of poorly informed citizens for a long time. Low-information voters are a normal part of the political landscape; in the 21st century, democracies face the added danger of disinformation efforts from authoritarians at home and hostile powers overseas.

But America faces an even more fundamental challenge as the 2024 elections approach: For too many voters, nothing seems to matter. And I mean nothing. Donald Trump approvingly quotes Russian President Vladimir Putin and evokes the language of Adolf Hitler, and yet Americans are so accustomed to Trump’s rhetoric at this point that the story gets relegated to page A10 of the Sunday Washington Post. Joe Biden presides over an economic “soft landing” that almost no one thought could happen, and his approval rating drops to 33 percent—below Jimmy Carter’s in the summer of 1980, when American hostages were being held in Iran, and inflation, at more than 14 percent, was well into a second year of double digits. (Inflation is currently 3.1 percent—and likely will go lower.)

My concern here is not that people aren’t taking Trump’s threat seriously enough (even if they aren’t) or that Biden isn’t getting some of the credit he deserves (even if he isn’t). Rather, the political reactions of American voters seem completely detached from anything that’s happened over the past several years, or even from things that are happening right now. We use vibes to talk about all of this: We’re not in an actual recession, just a “vibecession,” where people feel like it’s a recession.

But you can’t solve imaginary recessions with real policies, just as you can’t cure imagined diseases with real medicine. We are experiencing a kind of political and economic hypochondria, where our good test results can’t possibly be true.

Consider, for example, that last month, Americans felt worse about the economy than they did in April 2009. The key word is feel, because by any standard remotely tied to this planet, it is delusional to think that things are worse today than during the meltdown of the Great Recession. As James Surowiecki (a contributing writer for The Atlantic) dryly observed on X about the comparison to 2009, “It’s true that if you ignore the 9% unemployment rate, the financial system melting down, the millions of people being foreclosed on and losing their homes, and the plummeting stock market decimating people’s retirements, it was better. But why would you do that?”

For many reasons, people often say things are bad when they’re good. Even during the best times, someone is hurting. But a simple and very human phenomenon, as I wrote a few years ago, is that people can feel reluctant to jinx the good times by acknowledging them. And of course, partisanship makes people change their views of the economy literally overnight. The media, especially, enables the obsession with bad news. Too many stories about good economic reports (especially on television) are tied to the trope that begins: Not everyone is benefiting, however. Here’s a town …

Such stories are in the name of not forgetting the poor, the dispossessed, the left-behind. The reader or viewer of such stories might be moved to say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but more likely they will reach the conclusion that the good economic news is a fluke and the destitution before them is the ongoing reality.

A much deeper and more stubborn problem, however, is that Americans, for at least 30 years or more, have developed immense expectations and a powerful sense of entitlement because of years of rising living standards. They are hypersensitive to any change or setback that produces a gap between how they live and how they expect to live—a disconnect that is unbridgeable by any politician.

Trump deals with this disconnect by encouraging it. He indulges his base by talking about “carnage” and the collapse of America, about how terrible things are, how much better they were, and how they’ll be good again in a year. Biden and the Democrats, still tethered to reality, gamely respond with data. Hussein Ibish recently wrote in The Atlantic that Biden can win with this approach: “Biden should ask voters Ronald Reagan’s classic question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? The answer can only be yes.”

But I think Ibish is being too optimistic. In general, reality-based voters would answer yes. But what if the voters say no?

Even in casual conversations, I find myself flummoxed by people who argue, with much conviction, that America is in fact worse off, even if their own situation is better. When I respond by noting that inflation is not going up, say, or that America is at full employment, or that wages are outpacing prices, or that pay is increasing fastest for the lowest-paid workers, none of it matters. Instead, I get a response that is so common I can now see it coming every time: a head shake, a sigh, and then a comment about how everything is just such a mess.

And yet, after all of the hand-wringing about all the mess, people aren’t acting as if they’re living in an economic crisis. As my colleague Annie Lowrey pointed out recently, few people are spending less, no matter how much they carp about inflation; in surveys, she notes, “people say that they are trading down because of cost pressures. But in fact they are spending more than they ever have, even after accounting for higher prices. They’re spending not just on the necessities, but on fun stuff—amusement parks, UberEats.”

Such paradoxes suggest that dumping on the economy has transcended partisanship or the news cycle and is now a fashion, a kind of expected response, a way of identifying ourselves—no matter what we really believe—as a friend of the downtrodden, a reflex that prevents people from saying that they are doing well and the country seems to be doing fine. No one, after all, wants to get yelled at by the local Helen Lovejoy.

For now, I am going to hope that what we’re seeing is the classic problem of lag: The data are good, but people are still thinking about their situation three months ago—you know, back when the 2023 economy was worse than the Great Recession—and that perceptions will catch up. Abraham Lincoln implored citizens in 1838 to rely on “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” But if Americans are now stuck in the mode where nothing but vibes and feelings matter, much more is at risk than one or two elections. No democracy can long survive an electorate whose only guidance is emotion.

Related:

  • The bad-vibes economy
  • Why Trump won’t win

Today’s News

  1. The Vatican said that the Pope had allowed priests to bless same-sex couples but clarified that the new rule does not amend the Church’s traditional doctrine on marriage.
  2. A new ProPublica investigation reported that Justice Clarence Thomas made private complaints in 2000 about his salary, raising alarm across the judiciary and Capitol Hill that he would resign.
  3. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas signed a bill into law that gives law enforcement the power to arrest migrants suspected of illegally crossing the Mexican border. The law takes effect in March, but lawsuits against it are expected.

Dispatches

  • Galaxy Brain: Charlie Warzel asks: Why does nobody know what’s happening online anymore? Stuck in our own corner of the internet, the concept of what makes a trend viral is now up for debate.

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

Hannah Price

In 2021, Wright Thompson wrote about the barn where Emmett Till was tortured.

The Atlantic article caught the attention of Shonda Rhimes, who today announced a donation to the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which will buy the barn and convert it into a memorial.

Read Wright’s article.

More From The Atlantic

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  • The new family vacation
  • The little-known rule change that made the Supreme Court so powerful
  • Give Russia’s frozen assets to Ukraine now.

Culture Break

An illustration of a page from a novel with eye holes cut out
Illustration by The Atlantic

Listen. Today, work isn’t done exclusively in the workplace. What if there are better ways to separate your personal and professional time? Becca Rashid and Ian Bogost discuss in the latest episode of How to Keep Time.

Read. Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction, the most buzzed-about work of literary scholarship published this past year, explores the invisible forces behind the books we read.

Play our daily crossword.


Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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