In January last year, before the coronavirus outbreak began and before voting in the presidential election began, Gallup asked Americans how satisfied they were with the overall quality of life in the United States. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they were satisfied. In a poll taken this January, released Thursday morning, that figure had fallen to 67 percent. Nearly a fifth of the country was satisfied with the quality of life in the United States a year ago and no longer are.
Again, you understand why. It is immediately appreciable to all of us why things feel heavier and grimmer now than they did a year ago. With everything smoldering around us, we can't even safely gather with friends, family or social groups without risking our health. Instead, the Internet has become our primary mechanism for socializing, rather than a secondary one. The pandemic didn't create this shift. It just amplified and accelerated it.
The decline of real-world social institutions in the United States has been documented for some time. In 1974, three-quarters of Americans belonged to a membership organization such as a veteran’s group or a social club, according to the General Social Survey, a biennial national poll. Thirty percent of the country belonged to three or more clubs. By 2004, 38 percent of Americans belonged to no group at all.
The Internet fills that void by making available infinite bespoke organizations. Yes, the Elks Club offers socializing and events that are hard to match through an online chat room. But the binding force of the Elks is largely just community and service in itself. Why sign up for that when what you're really passionate about is, say, finding a community of fellow Denver Bronco fans in Arizona? What the Internet lacks in real-life interactions it makes up for in customizability.
After the Capitol was overrun by supporters of president Donald Trump and adherents of the QAnon extremist ideology, which the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat, I spoke with CNN’s Elle Reeve, who was at the scene. She made a point about the QAnon people that has been underrecognized: Part of the appeal was the community itself.
In a chat room she was monitoring, adherents planning to come to D.C. were talking “about how excited they were to meet each other, how they were driving up with three strangers and staying in the hotel room with three different strangers,” she explained. “And what joy it was to finally meet each other and then, in turn, do something that they thought was good for the country.”
Community is a central part of it, and the distinction between online and offline can get a bit blurry. Washington Post opinion contributor Brian Klaas made a similar point in an essay last month.
“Groups such as QAnon have developed into robust online communities in which believers forge digital friendships,” he wrote. “Our mental image of tinfoil-hat-wearing loners isolated in dark basements is outdated. Modern conspiracy movements such as QAnon, are thriving in church groups and yoga classes. They’re social.”
But another part of Reeve’s point is important: QAnon adherents thought they were fighting for justice.
The ideology itself takes many forms, with followers selecting components of it like walking a buffet. Some go deep, believing that a cabal of Democrats and celebrities torture children to drink their blood. Others stay at the surface, believing there’s a secret effort within the government to uproot child abuse revealed only through cryptic messages from an anonymous source. It’s a spectrum, but it has one throughline: Q adherents are siding with explicit good against explicit evil.
This is part of what the Internet empowers, as well. Why belong to Arizona Broncos Fans when you can belong to Arizona Bronco Fans Against Child Sex Trafficking? Why be limited by reality if you’re going to pick a community to join? There are robust communities online dedicated to LARPing, live-action role-playing events in which people gather offline and pretend to be fantasy heroes. If you’re going to be online anyway, why not LARP as a defender of light? If you’re going to go through the motions of playing a game in which good battles evil, why not find an outlet to actually battle evil?
The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson made a similar point Thursday about an unrelated subject: the recent surge in the stock price of video game retailer GameStop. That surge was fueled by users of the site Reddit, many of whom saw potential value in the company’s stock. Large hedge funds held positions that would improve if GameStop stumbled, so part of the surge was also framed as an attempt by individual market participants to stick it to powerful financial interests.
“My honest to god last thought about GameStop is that a lot of people are clearly desperate to connect with something emotional when they open their phones or turn on the TV,” Thompson wrote on Twitter, “and they’d rather participate in a nonsense morality play than participate in nothing at all.”
Gallup asked about this, too. In January 2020, 32 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the country’s moral and ethical climate. By last month, that percentage had been cut nearly in half, to only 18 percent — the lowest of the seven metrics the pollsters measured. If 80 percent of the country is dissatisfied with the moral condition of the United States, it seems likely that some significant portion of that group might coalesce around perceived opportunities to change directions.
Life is often hard, and humans take different approaches in response. For the past 12 months, life has been unusually difficult and a combination of circumstance and culture have led to a blossoming of ad hoc efforts to repel the forces of darkness. But we can’t ignore that this development bears its own toxicity, from casual traders battered by the markets (while not exactly crippling Wall Street) to a thuggish raid on the seat of U.S. legislative power.
Understandable is not the same as acceptable — neither, it seems, is it the same as addressable.