Maybe there is no better by going back
Yes, this resonates. I think there is also part of this that involves not only the rate of change along any particular axis, but also the breadth of changes and the number of factors that need to be considered. This seems implicit in what you’re saying but has a different dynamic/emotional valence.
It’s one thing to take into consideration differential change between groups one is accustomed to addressing but to add new stakeholders who have novel values and methods of determining validity is admitting that one’s previous beliefs suffered from category errors, e.g., 1619 project or accommodating indigenous concerns around burial grounds.
The transition not only makes the solutions more complex and potentially intractable, but also often undermines the aspects of oneself that one deemed most valuable. (I'll take the cheap shot at manliness here, since it permeates so much of the US political outlook)
"Or, we can recognize that nostalgia is fed from exactly the dynamic that got us to this thorny moment in the first place: the denial of our broken social contract, and institutions and rituals that were performatively there, the way the debate was, but no longer providing the function that was the stated reason for their existence in the first place. "
I so appreciated your analysis. I decided not to watch any of the debates this election cycle because they felt like a theatrical spectacle more than a opportunity to learn about the candidates. But with each debate, I felt like I had missed doing my civics homework and that I wasn't playing my part in the process. I still feel the pull of the ritual, even though I believe that they do more harm than good. Thanks for the call to action to "call out the ridiculousness" and to let go of these useless and dangerous rituals.
I am struck by a third factor you touch briefly here Zeynep: institutional/governmental norms operate as a third cog in addition to material and immaterial cultures. There are settings where institutions/government are likely the only actors capable of addressing the brokenness at scale.
When we operate in the norms/rituals space, Trump seems like an anomaly. When overlaid with institutional erosion and lack of functioning government we've seen over the past several years (decades?), Trump's rise was all but assured. So how to solve the lag? We need widespread recognition about our collective priorities and cultural norms worthy of preserving, along with a mandate to do away with power imbalances that can be exploited and systems that no longer serve. The challenge is immense, but worthy of our best effort.
Zeynep, thanks for the post and for creating the environment that invites high-quality comments (I really enjoyed Stephen Holzman's comments on education).
How appropriate that the title is Nostalgia - At the end of Chapter 10 of Watchmen (the comics, not the series), there’s the Veidt memo about the Nostalgia perfume:
“… the advertisement conjure an idyllic picture of times past. It seems to me that the success of the campaign is directly linked to the state of global uncertainty that has endured for the past forty years or more. In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.
While this marketing strategy is certainly relevant and indeed successful in a context of social upheaval, I feel we must begin to take into account the fact that one way or another, such conditions cannot endure indefinitely.”
While the lag due to the deindustrialization of the US was used as the background for Trump’s rise, I’m not sure the Democrats have successfully dealt with the same lag on their side - Steve Waldman ( @interfluidity ) has been exploring the ways in which the renewal of the party could happen.
On debates, I think that part of the appeal was to expose the candidates to check their preparedness and how they would handle unexpected questions; but if anything we’re all suffering from too much information; and the the only thing that matters is how the candidates stand (for or against) each voter’s personal hates. In this sense, debates are less of a test and more of a “two minutes of hate” moment. If fact-checking is useless in a culture war, as pointed out by Emily Bristor, the only way out of it should be education - but when social alignment is driven by profit seekers who benefit from differences this seems quite hard.
This is why I subscribed to this newsletter Zeynep. You always post some great thoughts from angles I haven't immediately considered.
That said, you touched on the term ritual, which may be the driving force vs nostalgia here. There is that tribal need for people to send their champions sparring into battle, and the debates attempt to accomplish that, though I'll agree, ineffectively. The news panel idea would be a great way to possibly get responses of more substance. Though I think we've seen that with politicians, answering the question isn't something they excel at, and I'm not sure what would incentivize that.
In 2016, many Trump voters were voting "against the establishment", though I think we have seen that his goal was a bit less savory than that. Though like you said, that thirst of changing the government in some way so it works for them still exists. Though the last 4 years the narrative seems to have switched to a more tribalist tone.
From my perspective as an X'er, on the fence between boomer, and millennial, our best chance is more younger blood and thus new ideas into government. Congress is old. With age it's easy to lean on old ideas that "just work", even when they less effective year after year. I loved AOC's use of Twitch, playing Among Us to drive the vote and push ideas. Truth be told, I think it would be just as useful, and entertaining, to have the candidates to a PvP session on some game of choice to show a different side of them.
Sleepwalking through crisis points in technological and related social change is the default throughout history it seems. We hope to wake up in something more or less recognizable to the bed we went to sleep in even when we are half-aware we have have journeyed well outside a familiar house and on into the next village.
Nostalgia is a beautiful word relating to primacy bias. The stories we are born into make strong impressions on the characters we more or less choose to become, and if we are untrained in improvisation we will be reluctant to throw out old scripts when the ridiculousness gets to be too much even if we can accurately label that development. My own read of the weaknesses on display in this moment go back to John Dewey's observations more than a century old that in developing modern educational environments, we were fatally making it a "school crime" to help another student in their task. This is related to the division of labor or knowledge problem. Peers sometimes are unable to identify or do not trust their more knowledgeable peers enough (I'd speculate in part because they were trained to avoid working with each other too closely on projects that mattered when the consequences were far less deadly in schools). Evaluating students primarily on their individual performance and tying that to opportunities is fair in some aspects, but it is akin to evaluating the potential performance of a basketball player by only looking at their points scored and ignoring their rebounds and assists. That TV producers or political consultants continue to renew variations of the same fundamental game refusing to catch assists from sociologists and political scientists raising the alarm is sad but unsurprising (I also want to explicitly note that people attached to these collectively renewed games are not stupid).
The emerging idea of a "Sociology of Quantification" notably revisited in 2018 by Berman and Hirschman, in 2008 by Espeland and Stevens, and seeded by Bourdieu and Porter among many others seems fruitful to me and is where my head is at (I'd love to read a take from you given your own recent work if its interesting as a flavor of technosociology, fwiw). The constant barrage of polls and coverage that made a ridiculous idea more realistic or the choose your own adventure feel of many political operatives flinging data points on cable news at people unfamiliar with proper context feel relevant to this moment. There's a failure of epistemological skill that is very structural and concerning given the social importance of data. We're living in divergent realities determined by political party. Your work with pandemic messaging and what metrics should be paid attention to in crafting policy responses are in stark contrast to what the average conversation ends up being in my experience where one still has to explain excess mortality to skeptics, leaving no chance to intelligently discuss something like dispersion on a debate stage because individual candidates do not understand the concept, the audience does not understand it, or the audience would not be receptive politically to complexity or nuance. It's a distressing puzzle to unpack that one comment or post couldn't do justice and I'm grateful this space came into existence. Thanks for running this experiment.
Upward mobility in the US (and perhaps in Europe as well) is a myth: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/03/03/the-mobility-myth What I think we are starting to see in the streets is a dawning of just how much that myth oppresses and controls us. The majority of citizens will only put up with being powerless, and watching the powerful destroy our planet and steal with impunity from the rest of us, for so long, before they realize they have nothing to lose and start fighting back. This is about power and its abuse, and will, at last, be about going forward instead of looking back at what never was.
This piece made me think about Svetlana Boym's comment on nostalgia being prospective as well as retrospective - the inertia is also a bit about using the past to envision the future. I see it also with a lot of the ways people talk about the pandemic - we're just one lockdown or one intervention away from the old ways. But do we want to go back to that?
I agree also that nostalgia is a form of denial - there's a certain humility that is required in the truth-telling you describe, and nostalgia doesn't always require that same humility.
This piece is great! Thank you.
Great analysis! One of the first papers on the topic was written by Fred Davis in 1977 who argued that due to rapid social change the US society experienced a disruption that caused a sense of discontinuity in identity. As a result, nostalgia emerged as a collective way of coping with change that was also reproduced in the media. Here you can find the paper: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0022-3840.1977.00414.x and if you are interested in more research, there is lots to find in our International Media and Nostalgia Network: https://medianostalgia.org/references/
Thank you for the insight. I haven't thought about Ogden since my undergraduate days which was very long time ago. The cultural "lag" that seems the most critical is exemplified by your own impact on mask use. It seems likely that our national trajectory through the pandemic will be dependent on competing mental models: those that accept the essential altruism of mask-wearing, and those that reject it. Clustered around attitudes towards mask use are a whole set of attitudes towards science in particular and expertise in general. The danger is that as we become every more enmeshed in the interconnections between science, technology, and economics (I am thinking here of Brian Arthur's work), we see a hostility to the people who are both creating and trying to understand and mitigate those interconnections. Thus, we have the myth of herd immunity, and local decision makers opposing mask mandates as their hospitals max out their ICU capacities. I have difficulty seeing how we find common ground between these seemingly incompatible positions.
I think that nostalgia has its place in that it helps us recall the norms embedded in our rituals, but if the rituals aren't accomplishing the functions set out by the norms, then we have a problem.
Thanks for putting your finger on this so helpfully.
It struck me last night that his most powerful argument in both debates was the repeated mention of Biden’s 47 years in politics. For those who voted for Trump as a disruptor against a system that was failing them, it’s a subtle reminder of that frustration, a subconscious nudge that by voting for Biden they were succumbing to a previous staus quo that had frustrated them, no matter what the realities or details.
The statement that “it’s also possible that he got elected partly because of the huge gap between our normative ideals and the reality of how our society functions” reminded me of something I read four years ago: “We brought fact checkers to a culture war.” That came from Clay Shirky. Going back and reading his tweet thread (http://twitter.com/cshirky/status/756566190328254464?s=21), it’s clear that he recognized that particular gap, in July of 2016.
Hamilton Nolan has expressed the same insight: "Normal Already Failed".
This is important enough to be worth repeating, and I appreciate Zeynep's take on it.
I've crossed between rural blue collar poverty and urban ... almost wealth.
My gut feeling is that we are attempting to essentially construct two separate countries. At least at the level of the Joe Six Pack. They want similar things, but they want a different social contract. Naturally, this isn't perfectly clear and much crossover occurs. But over and over it seems that there are fundamental philosophical and theological variances where each group will tend to zig and zag together.
Trump did- does? - a great job at pointing out the rather absurd aspects of our elite system. I particularly enjoyed his inadvertent recognition of Taiwan, contra the diplomatic approach of "lying to please China". The failure of elites to deal bluntly with the truth, not even bothering to present nuance- is ugly. Mentally I link this to the rise of cable news and hot media. It's much easier to present written nuance than to speechify it.
I wish I had the time and background to study how Twitter, Twitch, Periscope, Youtube, etc all play into the ability for the consumer to reflect and gain nuance; to make the education choice.
Thanks for the newsletter. Insightful as always.
Sorry I'm late to find Insight. Probably no one is still reading the comments at this point, but...
I think this analysis represents a significant misunderstanding of how most Americans vote and the purpose that a debate serves. Most Americans have almost no real understanding of how their government functions, heck, how their society functions. They don't understand foreign policy, let alone history. Certainly don't understand economic theory. Also, Americans don't want to understand. We must seek and destroy the rational actor theory.
The debate serves two purposes: virtue-signaling sound bites and a human version of two alpha-male gorillas posturing so Americans feel like they're backing a fighter who will act forcefully against foreign powers. We're so bombarded by political messaging today that the first part is no longer necessary. But collectively we still want the chance to read body language, confidence, and aggression.
Key example: Trump lumbering around behind Clinton in the 2016 debate.
Key example: Dukakis in the tank.
As an aside, for me the second debate was useful. I saw clearly that Biden was not dotty, no dementia, clear on what he believed, and able to think on his feet.