When you describe the (opposing?) sentiments that seem to define the moment, like the desire for domination and destruction versus accommodation and appeasement, it's unclear whether you are talking about the public in general or about our political leaders (using that term generously). I think it would be good to look at these separately and be clear about which you're talking about.

One thing I struggle with when trying to understand anything these days is the difference between the virtual and the real. I found myself testing each of your propositions against this question: to what extent this true mostly online versus in real life? Even that question gets muddy, in the sense that a TikTok video of someone's speech at a school board meeting ostensibly shows something from real public life. But the context and even the content still feels very online. And then it's experienced in a curated online universe (TikTok or Twitter, say).

It seems like people are increasingly acting out their online selves in the real world, and your piece here illuminates the dynamics and drivers of this so well. But fundamentally it's an act. At least I think so, and my daily interactions in real life seem to bear this out.

It's this disconnect that drives so many cliché think pieces about civility and finding the "middle." Those ain't it, but the online-IRL disconnect is a thing. I would be interested to know how you think it fits into the picture.

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Apr 22, 2023Liked by John Ganz

Do you think this has anything to do with the perceived relative decline of the existing ruling population (white Christians) while the growing populations don’t yet feel as though they’ve “broken through”.

Similar to the period post civil war in the south during and just after reconstruction where hierarchies were uncertain, and in question.

Is there similarity with this period and other periods of reactionary pushback after material civil rights gains (this time primarily focused on sexual minorities LGBTQ, trans, etc)?

The rise of fascist (or semi-fascist) forces also hints at the possibility that the population feel similar feelings to those that gave rise to the original fascisms of the 1930s. Specifically the failure of democracy to deliver the goods that are promised (your final bullet point).

Anyway, it seems pretty bad man. Would be interesting to understand how other societies have moved past these kinds of struggles.

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Apr 23, 2023Liked by John Ganz

This pairs well with Brad DeLong’s argument that neoliberalism is a counsel of despair. Centrist politics is just a leaning into the depressive position: there’s nothing you can do, and that’s as it should be.

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Apr 22, 2023·edited Apr 22, 2023

"Both involve different forms of cynicism: one a dejected and quiet one, and the other an furious and resentful one."

A lot of people vacillate between these. They want to be transported as a flight from resignation, then come crashing back down again.

Re: material cause, though, you'd expect to see less stagnation and despair in Scandinavian-type systems, and I'm not sure we do.

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Independent of internet effects, I wonder how post-Cold War triumphalism and complacency figure into this. Having an arch-enemy animated liberalism, raised the stakes of failure and maybe set some limits on how destructive and despairing politics could be.

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The relationship between culture change and political change is obviously crucial- but difficult to tease out. The three protagonists of Fritz Stern's "Cultural Despair"- Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, and Moeller van den Bruck- were 19C cultural thinkers and agitators whose main themes were what we might call "Germaness", the "Volk", and the myth of antimodern "heroes" who valiantly struggled, frequently in vain, against a materialist, rationalist, "non German" future. Very close parallels can be drawn between their concerns in the latter half of the 19C and the current obsessions of the MAGA cult- and even of some formative conservative American critics of the Cold War period. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, when it comes to cultures in despair, strong similarities seem to emerge: a suspicion of science and intellectualism, expertise, rationalism, and modernity; a romanticization of "free" men (always men), aristocrats, soldiers; a lionization of the inchoate energy of the "People" (Volk) who will sweep away the current corrupt world and usher in a new Millennium. These are points of cultural similarity between Germany before the Third Reich and the current predicament of Western liberalism.

A major dissimilatude between the plight of Germany in the early 20C and the US in the early 21C lies in the political and social institutions that protect our state but which did not exist in Germany. Germany in the 1920s had none of the traditions, norms, political institutions, etc. which, while clunky and fragile at times, form a web strong enough to prevent, at least so far, the populist from seizing power.

I agree we in the West and particularly in the US are in a moment of cultural despair. I'm not sure we are absolutely in a moment of "national" (i.e. political) despair yet, because many of the institutions built up over centuries seem to be restraining the forces of anti-democracy, at least for now. It's a precarious time though, no doubt.

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Apr 22, 2023·edited May 18, 2023

re your fifth point--i think a useful metaphor is that our moment is a marxist zeno's paradox in which social antagonisms keep escalating without ever reaching the point of rupture, continuity forcibly maintained through sheer institutional inertia and mass habituation

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One thing that nags me about the despair issue: there’s only a finite amount of energy people have to devote to politics or thinking about politics, and probably far too much of it is totally wasted engaging and arguing with fanatics, bigots or some coloration of fascist. It’s enervating, destructive of political will.

Until 24/7 cable came along - let alone the internet - one didn’t waste time and energy acting as if reactionary bigots had points worth correcting or even engaging with. You knew who they were, what they represented, and you used whatever limited political energy you had organizing and consolidating your own side to confront them. Doing things that give fascists a headache is inspiring, hopeful and holds out promise; arguing with them is a black hole of despair.

I think in some ways 1980s and 90s media saturation and massification created a frame in which everything was supposed to be “up for debate”, and political engagement went from organizing and fighting against reactionaries - or simply mocking them and leave it at that, which has great merit on its own - to arguing with them on television (and later online). If despair issues from a sense of futility, this shift from action - however small and local - to pointless engagement has got to figure in there somehow. It also reveals a profound lack of self-confidence, which probably also broadly factors in. (I realize this is pretty tidy and simplistic, but, hey, it’s just a late night comment on John’s newsletter, and I look to others for the smarter, more nuanced stuff).

The bigger context, of course, is the vapourization and fragmentation of civil society institutions - unions and otherwise, and the movement of the battlefield from the workplace and the streets to the t.v. studio and the campus - that provided institutional settings for organization to take place in, but that’s pretty much a given.

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I think there’s some truth to this as far as politically active people are concerned, but most people honestly don’t care about politics that much. I think that’s why there’s a societal tendency to think of the politicians who were most able to convey optimism (Reagan, Obama) as having been the most successful, true or not.

I think more people will support a fascist who can convince them that everything is going to be fine than will support a scold they agree with on the issues, not because they’re mean-spirited or paranoid but because it’s more emotionally comfortable.

I guess my quibble is with the “national” in “the politics of national”. It seems to me that most people are happily apathetic.

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There were moments during the Obama presidency where hope for certain swaths of the country did feel real, but it also pushed the other half into an insane doomer spiral. And the lack of follow through on many of those promises left a pretty nasty hangover. Perhaps the Trump presidency had a similar effect of creating a sense of hope for a certain set, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of rosy optimism that accompanied the Reagan administration when viewed in hindsight.

I do wonder what it would take to get back to a sense that things are possible - a compelling vision that things can change for the better. Not that other political leaders haven’t tried to pitch something like that but the mood you’re describing is very stubborn.

What would a solution or a vision of a solution even look like? No more “polycrises” - we’ve solve climate change and pandemics and supply chains? A renegotiation of the social contract like the one described by Bernie? A profound technological breakthrough of limitless energy? A nation uniting conflict against a terrible foe? (I hope not)

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The more I reflect on your post, the more convinced I am that it is not the direction you should pursue. I think it is too pat to speak of "national despair," and I would warn you against an interpretation that foregrounds psychological states. It's not that I don't agree that psychoanalysis sheds light on social phenomena. On the contrary, I'm quite committed to using psychoanalytic theory in my work. But I am reluctant to inflate the insights it offers into a generalized theory of a historical era. That is certainly not what Stern was doing in "The Politics of Cultural Despair"; nor is what Mosse does in his works on the Volkisch movement. If I understand your post properly, it reminds me more of Lasch's work, which holds up less well than that of Stern or Mosse. (Or, worse still, it has faint echoes of Jimmy Carter!)

All of that aside, I'm not sure it is the case there is a generalized "despair" at work in contemporary society. It exists in some quarter, no doubt, but by no means everywhere. It is tempting to posit a happier time when people were happier in their lives, government was working for the people, etc. But the dust bins are littered with books analyzing the unhappiness of the fifties, sixties, seventies, etc. I am presently reading Judith Stein's "Pivotal Decade," about the seventies (which I recommend, if you don't know it). She has fun early in the book dispatching the various psychologizing histories of the decade: "One book was called 'Nervous Breakdown,' another 'Decade of Nightmares,'" and so on. Writers plumbed "uncertainty about the meaning of happiness, success, patriotism, and national identity." And let us not forget earlier books such as Paul Goodman's influential "Growing Up Absurd" about the postwar era.

I apologize for the slight scattered quality of the above remarks.

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I broadly agree with this about the present, but I would date the onset later than you. The late 90s were a period of profound optimism about the country, and to some degree even the early Bush years. I think the slow growth of the Bush economy, and then especially the financial crisis, really put the nail in the coffin for the return of broadly shared prosperity and led to the current sense of despair.

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I hope the book you're editing is the Ruby Ridge one. I grew up not far from there. I'm really looking forward to reading it.

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So if we take a really fascist turn and Ganz gets imprisoned who is sneaking out the notebooks?

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I am not convinced that this is correct. I may have something more constructive to say if I can overcome my own personal despair about the present moment.

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This is a promising direction for your book. I especially appreciate your last bullet point since that kind of cant is exactly what instinctively comes to mind when I hear pundits opining on "national despair." It conjures up equally impotent calls for a "national conversation" about something that sounds important, like race or violence, or whatever. (An unfortunate trend that I think Bill Clinton started.)

Another thing to beware of falling for: talking about "deaths of despair". There's a trend to group deaths of young Americans from substance use, especially opioids and alcohol, with suicide and note that more Americans seem to be dying of despair, or something mawkish like that. Epidemiologically speaking this is actually controversial and potentially misleading. Politically, it's quite questionable since the solutions it suggests do not actually address root medical or social causes of those deaths.

One other thing I'd like to see you address: how the time period you're discussing is distinctly despairing from other times. It's easy to say, once we had leaders and today we have none. Conservatives talk like that constantly in all eras. But truthfully there have been many periods for different groups where despair along the lines you have in mind could be equally applicable.

I especially like your points about psychoanalytic frameworks and addressing resurgent nationalism.

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