Welcome To The New “Real America”

In two recent New York Times columns, both Frank Rich and Charles M. Blow dug beneath the current surge of anger and right-wing extremism and came up with some penetrating insights about the sources of the outrage; insights that are also the tip of an iceberg:  Both of their analyses reflect a broad, sweeping evolution within the mentality of men and women that’s been taking place beneath our feet for the last several years.  I’ll describe some of those broader changes below, but first let’s look at what Rich and Blow describe.

Rich points out that the “tsunami of anger” today is illogical, in the sense that the health care legislation is less provocative than either the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Medicare.  He also reminds us that the new anger and extremism predated the health care debate:

The first signs were the shrieks of “traitor” and “off with his head” at Palin rallies as Obama’s election became more likely in October 2008. Those passions have spiraled ever since — from Gov. Rick Perry’s kowtowing to secessionists at a Tea Party rally in Texas to the gratuitous brandishing of assault weapons at Obama health care rallies last summer to “You lie!” piercing the president’s address to Congress last fall like an ominous shot.

He’s pointing out that major changes are occurring in the demographics of our country.  These changes – and others, concerning what people look for in relationships and in their careers —  are beginning to have major impact on us psychologically, including our psychological health.  For some, they generate tremendous fear that can give rise to hatred and aggression; a desire to “take back our country.”

Rich points out that:

Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.

Then, in a similar analysis, Charles M. Blow writes in his column:

It’s an extension of a now-familiar theme: some version of “take our country back.” The problem is that the country romanticized by the far right hasn’t existed for some time, and its ability to deny that fact grows more dim every day. President Obama and what he represents has jolted extremists into the present and forced them to confront the future. And it scares them.

Even the optics must be irritating. A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.

Blow cites a recent Quinnipiac University poll that found Tea Party members to be just as anachronistic to the direction of the country’s demographics as the Republican Party. For instance, they were disproportionately white, evangelical Christian and “less educated … than the average Joe and Jane Six-Pack.”  Blow points out that this is at the very time

when the country is becoming more diverse (some demographers believe that 2010 could be the first year that most children born in the country will be nonwhite), less doctrinally dogmatic, and college enrollment is through the roof. The Tea Party, my friends, is not the future.

Well said.  Mounting demographic and psychological research are confirming and extending what Rich and Blow describe.  In fact, several strands of change have been underway and coalescing into a changing psychology of people – their emotional attitudes, mental perspectives, values regarding work and relationships, and behavior towards people in need or who suffer loss.  These are shifts within a wide range of thought, feelings and actions.  Here are some of them:

Volunteer service – Data show that the number of volunteers is steadily growing among all age groups.  People describe volunteerism as part of their sense of  responsibility to help others in need, not something for padding their resume

Donations of organs by living donors to strangers.  That number is steadily rising.  For example, kidney donations from living donors have outnumbered those from deceased donors since 2003.

Hands-on philanthropy — Increasingly, donors want their contributions to have more visible, direct impact upon people’s lives.  They are turning away from contributions to already well-heeled organizations like universities or cultural centers.  On the rise are such examples as purchasing a goat for a family in an impoverished part of the world to provide its livelihood; or  paying the salary of a schoolteacher in a Third-World country.

Responsibility for a healthy planet.  Differences about global warming notwithstanding, the last several years have witnessed a steady shift towards feelings of greater responsibility for the planet’s health, across the board.  For example, grass-roots environmental activism now spills across traditional socio-economic lines, as well as across racial-ethnic differences; steadily rising financial contributions to environmental organizations; and increasing alliances between business interests and environmental groups.

Redefining “success” As I wrote in a previous post about the “4.0 career,” men and women increasingly want careers to provide more than personal recognition and financial reward.  They want meaningful work, opportunities for continued learning and growth, a positive management culture and a team-oriented, ethical environment. Research shows they want to have impact through their work on something larger than their own personal success.  These themes are especially pronounced among younger workers – the leaders of tomorrow.

Relationships are transforming. Surveys by the Gallup organization and other groups find that the quality of the relationship is more important to people today than simple allegiance to the institution of marriage.  Census statistics and other data confirm this, showing, for example:

  • Steady decline in the marriage rate over the last several decades, while cohabitation has steadily risen in each of those same decades.
  • About half of all households today are headed by people who are single.
  • Unmarried couples are as likely as married couples to be raising children: it’s currently approaching 50%
  • Between one-quarter and one-third of gay and lesbian couples are raising children; also a steadily rising number.
  • Surveys find that at least 30% of those polled admit to having had an affair.  It’s not that people view affairs as desirable – especially when children are involved –  but they aren’t viewed as immoral, either.  See my recent post about six different kinds of affairs people have today, and their consequences.
  • Attitudes towards gay relationships and gay marriage are changing.  Although surveys tend to show opposition to gay marriage, that, too, is shifting.  While  acceptance of gay relationships has steadily increased, opposition to gay marriage has steadily decreased, when tracked over the last several years.

These are just some of the pervasive shifts occurring are you read these words. All have implications for our emotional lives, our mental attitudes, and our actions.  I think this evolution underway requires us to re-think what constitutes psychological health in this changing world.  Our criteria have to change as people are faced with adapting to living, working, and relating to others in a very different world.

Charles M. Blow stated it well, at the end of his column.  Referring to the extremeists, he writes:

You may want “your country back,” but you can’t have it. That sound you hear is the relentless, irrepressible march of change. Welcome to America: The Remix.