Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Michael Adams' "American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States" (Steak Knives)

I picked this up on loan from the office library, thinking it would provide some illuminating, if not useful information about the seeming craziness going on over the last few decades with my neighbors to the south.

What's been billed as an intractable cultural clash between right and left, conservative and liberal is ably explored at the root level of values by Adams in this quick read of a text.

Adams, a polling guru and co-founder of Environics, is worth listening to on this subject, having conducted widespread and ongoing research into the fundamental values of Americans since the early 90's, tracking their shift every four years since, leading up to the 2005 publication of this book, as Bush II edges out Kerry and the country reflects on its trajectory.

Down with Fox News!
In short, the story of Adams' 'Backlash' - really, the big insight - is the fact that core/base republicans and core/base democrats have vastly more values in common relative to non-voters.  That is, the greatest divide in values that currently (well, as of 2005 anyway) exist is between likely voters and those less likely to cast a ballot.  While it's over-simplistic to suggest that the less engaged are apathetic narcissists, it's in the right neighborhood, and maybe that's the larger issue that's being missed in the crossfire and acrimony in Washington, on cable, and the internetz.  Maybe that's the real intractable problem with American (and perhaps Western) democracy.

Down with MSNBC!
Value shifts tend to be glacial in pace relative to the 'moods' set by moments or punctuations - even profound ones - in history.  For example, Adams notes that values linked to 'xenophobia' actually decrease in America, post 9/11.  That being the case, we can anticipate that the underlying sentiments of proto-Tea Party and the Wall Street occupiers of today are captured in this net of values measurement.  I think that begs several critical questions, including - the nature of the media environment/tonality we've collectively cultivated, about holding elected officials as well as journalists accountable for tackling *real* big picture issues facing our established living standard and way of life (I won't call it the status quo), and a basic failure or lack of civics education from an early age, for starters...

The text suggests these implications rather than addressing them.  While that's likely beyond the intended scope, the lack of a helpful implications summary and a reading that feels like many quant results strung together for our own interpretation knocks this down to a Steak Knives.  While interesting as 'nuggets,'  I found the text hard to track from sub-section to sub-section.  I think the text suffers for an overly objective posture, frankly.  While I've got my own partisan soap boxes and axes to grind, I tend to think of myself as a 'third way' kinda guy.  The realities of the trends outlined in this book just depressed me all around.  Intractable problems indeed...

Hey, partisan fanboys!  Why so serious?

[I write this on the eve of a provincial election that's failed to engage citizens in Ontario even as it has failed to speak to them meaningfully about where we're really *at* and what's required to pull ourselves back up, if it's even possible.  Instead, we get inane attack ads and red herring side-issues that play to exactly this kind of artificial/contrived cultural divide.  Is it too cynical/paranoid to see this as exactly what the uber-oligarchy is aiming for?]

1 comment:

socionaut said...

A great article by the great Lawrence Lessig that touches on some of these themes, I think...