RICHARD ECKERSLEY. The demise of the official future

Americans are more likely to think the US is heading in the right direction since Donald Trump’s election. Why?

The poll results are extraordinary: the proportion of Americans who thought the country was ‘heading in the right direction’ rose sharply when Donald Trump became president of the US, while the proportion who thought it was ‘off on the wrong track’ dropped. The scores were even at about 50%.

The gap has widened negatively again since, but is less than during the Obama presidency. In September 2010, the earliest US data in the recent Ipsos report on what worries the world, about 70% thought the US was on the wrong track, 30% that it was heading in the right direction (with the gap reaching  its widest at  80% to 20% about a year later). In September 2018, the ratio was about 60% ‘wrong track’ to about 40% ‘the right direction’. (This ratio was the same for Australia and the world average).

The US findings are at odds with so much of the media commentary about Trump, especially in the liberal media: his loss of the popular vote, the gerrymandering, the Russian interference, his conduct and decisions. What can explain them?  I’ve emailed Ipsos, asking if the findings have attracted much attention, but have not heard back. I want to offer one explanation, based on a social, not political, analysis; there may be others.

The answers we get in survey questions depend critically on their wording. In this case the question was not asking anything about the presidency, Trump and his actions and utterances. It asked Americans, ‘Generally speaking, would you says thing in this country are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?’

I have long argued that people’s concerns about the West’s direction have been poorly reflected in politics, and it is this that lies behind the unease and disenchantment in the electorate, not just the conduct of politicians and the merits of specific policies. We desperately need to widen and deepen political debate and discussion to address what I called in a 2007 book chapter the ‘demise of the official future’: the loss of faith in the future that governments promise, and on which they base their policies.

Put simply, the official future is one constructed around notions of material progress, economic growth and scientific and technological fixes to the challenges we face. It is increasingly being challenged – except in politics – by sustainable development as a framework for thinking about human betterment. Sustainable development does not accord economic growth overriding priority. Instead, it seeks a better balance and integration of social, environmental and economic goals and objectives to produce a high, equitable and enduring quality of life.

We can also characterise the shift as replacing the outdated industrial metaphor of progress as a pipeline – pump more wealth in one end and more wellbeing flows out the other – with an ecological metaphor of progress as an evolving ecosystem such as a rainforest – reflecting the reality that the processes that drive social systems are complex, dynamic, diffuse and non-linear.

I wrote that the demise of the official future was causing a cascade of consequences. Our visions of the future are woven into the stories we create to make sense and meaning of our lives. This ‘storying’ is important in linking individuals to a broader social or collective narrative, and affects both our own personal wellbeing (by enhancing our sense of belonging, identity and agency, for example), and societal functioning (by engaging us in the shared task of working for a better future).

Elections have rarely, if ever, been about people’s deep desires for a better life and concerns about the future. Increasingly, they are manipulated through the use of sophisticated marketing tactics and social media to focus on a few, often contrived, issues. Trust in government and other ‘official’ institutions is eroded. As this disconnect deepens and governments become more detached from the electorate, political incompetence and corruption grow. (In the Ipsos report, financial and political corruption ranked as the biggest worry for the world, on average, and the fourth biggest in the US).

It may even be that we are moving between paradigms depending on circumstances and occasions. Asked about social directions and preferred futures, we inhabit a new worldview defined by sustainability. When it comes to voting in elections, we choose the old paradigm of material progress because we are aware that this is the framework within which government operates. Democracy is jeopardized because it continues to function in a paradigm that now alienates the people.

This brings us back to Trump. If you believe the US political system is, or was, functioning well, then Trump may be the unmitigated disaster his critics say he is. If you don’t believe it is (as I don’t), then his victory has an upside (for all his faults and flaws). Trump rocked an entrenched political establishment to its core. This created the opportunity, the space, to radically alter politics; it shook loose the rusted shackles of the status quo. Perhaps Americans were responding in the Ipsos survey to this potential, distanced from the rancour and sordidness of the election.

Alas, there is still little sign that the challenge is being taken up. By and large, the political agenda remains too orthodox, as shown clearly by the way US politics remains, two years after the event, fixated on alleged Russian interference in the presidential election and, more broadly, Trump’s legitimacy.

Nevertheless, pressure for change continues to grow. The news on climate change grows grimmer, report by report . And, as I wrote this piece, there came the news that life expectancy in the US fell in 2017 for the third year, a trend not seen since World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic in 1915-18. There were significant rises in death rates among those aged 25-44, and continuing, sustained increases in drug-overdose deaths and suicide.  As one population-health expert noted, the new data confirm that ‘there’s a profound change in the trajectory of mortality. This should really be getting everyone’s attention in a major way.’

Our knowledge of both climate change and population health is highly specialised and narrowly based, and the remedies proposed usually highly technical and specific. As I argued in October, issues like these also need to provoke and inform a larger debate on what matters in our lives and how we are best advised to live.

Richard Eckersley researches and writes about progress, sustainability, wellbeing and the future.  His work is available free on his website, www.richardeckersley.com.au

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3 Responses to RICHARD ECKERSLEY. The demise of the official future

  1. Evan Hadkins says:

    Hi Richard. Are you suggesting the current political system is part of the problem? If so I agree. And it is so entrenched.

    There are some people making (comparatively) radical noises.

    I think it would be possible to have a system based on sociocracy. But I can’t see this displacing the current system in time. Another initiative is things like citizen juries.

  2. john tons says:

    Some may have seen the Japanese film The Shoplifters or Ken Loach’s film I Daniel Blake – both showed the consequences of neo-liberal policies. One struggles to find examples from Hollywood – Hollywood seems hell bent on perpetuating the illusion of the American Dream. Yet increasingly for many Americans it is an impossible dream as documented here: Lardner, J. and D.S. eds, Inequality Matters. 2005, New York: New Press. Yet for all of that those running the Democrats and GOP seem to oblivious of the need for reframing the way politics is conducted. For me the example of that failure was demonstrated by G.W. Bush. I saw a clip from him on the campaign trail. He had his arm around one of his admirers and extolled her virtues for as he stated she was a mom who held down three jobs so that she could afford to put her children through college. For him that summed up America and unfortunately it seems that many Americans would share his admiration rather than see it as an example of everything that is wrong with he USA.

  3. Kien Choong says:

    I suggest controlling for the state of the economy – e.g., GDP growth, employment level, inflation – when interpreting survey results on people’s optimism about the country’s direction.

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