Optimism About America, and other recent items

David Brooks on how America is on the right track; Ezra Klein on the fractured Republican Party; and items about gas stoves, red states and their blue cities, the partisan divide in COVID deaths, and how politics doesn’t do nuance.


David Brooks, The Atlantic, 13 Jan 2023: Despite Everything You Think You Know, America Is on the Right Track, subtitled “Yes, America is a wounded giant—but it always has been, and the case for optimism is surprisingly strong.”

Notable in part because Brooks is nominally conservative, and conservatives are always fretting about everything that changes, they assume for the worse. And in part because the article is another corrective to the tendency of the media to highlight bad news, because that’s what our brains are evolutionarily triggered to pay attention to. Brooks captures these ideas in his opening:

Negativity is by now so deeply ingrained in American media culture that it’s become the default frame imposed on reality. In large part, this is because since the dawn of the internet age, the surest way to build an audience is to write stories that make people terrified or furious. This is not rocket science: Evolution designed humans to pay special attention to threats. So, unsurprisingly, the share of American headlines denoting anger increased by 104 percent from 2000 to 2019. The share of headlines evoking fear surged by 150 percent.

If any event deserves negative coverage, the terrible coronavirus pandemic is it. And in the international media, 51 percent of stories in the first year of the pandemic were indeed negative, according to a 2020 study. But in the United States, a stunning 87 percent of the coverage was negative. The stories were negative even when good things were happening, such as schools reopening and vaccine trials. The American media have a particularly strong bad-news bias.

As with yesterday’s item, I have to wonder why any of this should be a peculiarly American bias, or if Brooks was simply acknowledging the limited scope of his analysis (i.e. he simply doesn’t know if these factors are true in France or Uzbekistan or Angola).

Brooks goes on with many examples to support his thesis, that more good is going on the US than bad.

The pessimists miss an underlying truth—a society can get a lot wrong as long as it gets the big thing right. And that big thing is this: If a society is good at unlocking creativity, at nurturing the abilities of its people, then its ills can be surmounted.

He goes with examples, a lot of them illustrating the “big law” that Harari identified in his book: “Small changes accumulate over time, unnoticed.” Unnoticed is the key word; most people don’t realize how much better things are now than decades ago, because the changes have happened so gradually.

He identifies several ways in which “humanity in general and America in particular continue to unleash human creativity.” We’ve reduced the time spent on drudgery; we invest in education; we live healthier and longer lives; the US has built an innovation infrastructure. And closes insprirationally:

I’ve bludgeoned you with statistics in order to make a point: Pessimism about our future is unwarranted. You may think that one major American political party has gone crazy, and I will agree with you. You can point to all of the ways in which life in America is infuriating and unjust, and I will agree with you there too. But the story of America is a story of convulsion and reinvention. We go through moments when the established order stops working. People and movements rise up, and things change. The culture is a collective response to the problems of the moment; as new problems become obvious, the culture shifts. We’ve been in the middle of one of those tumultuous transition periods since, I’d say, 2013. But 2022 evinced hopeful signs that we’re coming out of it.


Ezra Klein, NY Times, 15 Jan 2023: Three Reasons the Republican Party Keeps Coming Apart at the Seams

Another astute analysis from Klein, whose book Why We’re Polarized I reviewed here. His three reasons:

1, Republicans are caught between money and media.

For decades, the Republican Party has been an awkward alliance between a donor class that wants deregulation and corporate tax breaks and entitlement cuts and guest workers and an ethnonationalist grass roots that resents the way the country is diversifying, urbanizing, liberalizing and secularizing. …

2, Same party, different voters.

A few decades ago, the anti-institutional strain in American politics was more mixed between the parties. Democrats generally trusted government and universities and scientists and social workers, Republicans had more faith in corporations and the military and churches. …

3, Republicans need an enemy.

When I asked Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, what the modern Republican Party was, he replied, “it’s not the Democratic Party.” His point was that not much unites the various factions of the Republican coalition, save opposition to the Democratic Party.


Washington Post, Karen Heller, 14 Jan 2023: What we’re really fighting about when we fight about gas stoves, subtitled “Americans are drawing battle lines over their appliance of choice, but the new culture war goes beyond our kitchens”

The default, gas or electric, is different in different parts of the country; I didn’t know this. Also much here about induction stoves, which I didn’t know about either, and now know that they’re pretty cool but don’t work with certain kinds of cookware. A related article linked from within this piece:

Mother Jones, Rebecca Leber, 17 Jun 2021: How the Fossil Fuel Industry Convinced Americans to Love Gas Stoves, subtitled “And why they’re scared we might break up with their favorite appliance. ”


NY Times, guest essay by Margaret Renki, 16 Jan 2023: This Is How Red States Silence Blue Cities. And Democracy.

“…a blue city that serves as the capital of a red state had better brace itself when the legislature arrives in town.” The example is Nashville, Tennessee.


Vice, Matthew Gault, 16 Nov 2022: Almost Twice as Many Republicans Died From COVID Before the Midterms Than Democrats

Subtitled “The authors of a new study can’t say if this impacted the midterms, but say that it’s ‘plausible given just how stark the differences in vaccination rates have been, among Democrats and Republicans.'” This is from November, anticipating what recent observers seem to have found evidence for.


Washington Post, analysis by Dan Balz, 14 Jan 2023: Biden, Trump cases aren’t alike. The political system doesn’t care.

Too many people are guided by confirmation bias and black and white thinking. Opening line: “Adam Kinzinger, the former Illinois Republican House member, put it best: The political system, he said on CNN, doesn’t do nuance.”

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