By Evan Osnos

I’ve written before about how the dominant political emotion of our age is anger, a point brought home just by looking at a list of some of the titles I’ve reviewed: Gavin Esler’s The United States of Anger, Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage, Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, and even the second book of Bob Woodward’s trilogy on the Trump presidency, Rage.

In Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury Evan Osnos tries to come to grips with this same phenomenon. For the most part, his diagnosis runs along what have now become clearly established lines, with the fuel for America’s fury being provided by the decades-long growth in economic and social inequality. As the sociologist Nicholas Christakis has found, inequality is a social cancer, one that has “subverted group cohesion, making people less cooperative, less friendly, and ultimately less able to work together.” Government is no longer able to offer a solution, as one of America’s two effective parties (and in any first-past-the-post electoral system there can only be two effective parties) has now defined itself as at war with the very concept of using federal power for any other purpose than deepening inequality. This becomes a vicious circle. The wrecking crew destroys government, leading to more people blaming government for being ineffective.

The public has given up. Shuttling between Clarksburg, West Virginia and the South Side of Chicago, Osnos picks up on “a sensation that was calcifying in America’s political culture – a feeling of being trapped by an undertow of economics and history, of being ill-served by institutions, of being estranged from a political machinery that was refined, above all, to serve itself.” Government had become identified with the dreaded elites, while being unresponsive to and unrepresentative of the people.

The larger fact was that, year by year, the West Virginia public was losing faith in politics at all. In 1960, more than 75 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots – almost 14 percent more than the national average. By 2012, West Virginia’s turnout had sunk to 46.3 percent, the second-lowest level in America. Over the decades, the compounding effects of political cynicism and influence had broken public faith in government.

I mentioned Clarksburg and Chicago as two of Osnos’s ports of entry into America’s Wildlands (a term firefighters use to describe dried-out terrain that provides perfect tinder for forest fires). The third place he goes to is Greenwich, Connecticut. This last is a place not like the others, being the sort of Emerald City where the economy’s winners (principally hedge-fund managers and people working in finance) have built their fortress-style McMansions. But though living in another world, the citizens of Greenwich are part of the same story:

As Americans reckoned with the origins of our political moment – the Trump years, the fraying of a common purpose – we tended to focus on the effects of despair among members of the working class who felt besieged by technology, globalization, immigration, and trade. But that ignored the effects of seclusion among members of the governing class, who helped disfigure our political character by thrusting absolutists into positions of power and then ignoring their violence – all while enfeebling the basic functions of the state. They had secured their control over the levers of democracy but disowned the consequences of its deterioration. They had receded behind gracious walls.

The point Osnos is making is that while on the most visible level inequality favours the few at the expense of the many, in fact it’s bad for everybody. I think this is right, and the effects are probably even worse for the ruling class, at least in moral terms. That said, where would you want to live, Greenwich or Clarksburg?

There is also a warning implicit in the metaphor of the wildfire, which will burn everything down when it’s lit. This idea of a wildfire suggests political revolution, and it may well be that we’ll look back upon the Trump years, culminating in the assault on the Capitol buildings, as a kind of revolution. I dislike revolutions though, preferring the natural evolution of political systems as they adapt to deal with emerging changes and crises. The problem with revolutions is they have a bad habit of spinning off in directions no one anticipated or desired.

But what is to be done? I quoted Osnos earlier talking about America’s “calcifying” political culture. This is a word that brought to mind Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, which saw America as sclerotic and sterile. In short: old. This is no longer the America of Paine and Emerson, issuing radical calls to make the world new. Instead it’s an America of affluent retirees, where the average age of a Senator is 63 and the last presidential election was between two men over the age of 70 who were both in pretty obvious mental decline. The greatest threat to such a governing class is change, any change. As Osnos observes, by 2020

Money and concerted obstruction [in Washington] were damning the natural routes of political evolution. This was easy to overlook because it was less a matter of what was happening than what was not happening. Historically, Americans had maintained the fitness of democracy by amending the Constitution, on average, at least once a decade. But that pace had stalled for half a century. Other than a minor amendment in 1992, to raise congressional salaries, the last major change to the Constitution was in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to eighteen. Despite campaigns for the Equal Rights Amendment, to prevent gender discrimination, and for reforming the Electoral College, Americans had entered the longest stretch without a substantive amendment since before the Civil War. The sclerosis extended to the inhabitants themselves. The Senate was the oldest in history, including eight octogenarians, nearly twice the number who had ever served at one time.

Canada is in no better shape. We seemingly can do nothing to make any changes to our dysfunctional electoral system, or reform our Senate, a body that serves no purpose whatsoever. So instead we lurch from crisis to crisis, while our politics, shaped by the first-past-the-post system become ever more polarized.

Wildland is a well-written and insightful book of on-the-ground reporting. It also gives me no hope for the future. If we can’t choose to change, and direct that change, then change will eventually be thrust upon us. And we aren’t going to like that one bit.

Review first published online April 25, 2022.

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