Mediocrity, Success, and the Problem of Democracy

The article Being OK with not being extraordinary went massively viral. It is a statistical certainty most people will be condemned to mediocrity. That is why such posts go viral, because there is huge demand about how to cope with ‘being average’ or only ‘good enough’ in an economy and society that increasingly is dominated by by super-achievers and the super-wealthy and successful. Not everyone can be like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Larry Page, etc. We can aspire to greatness but there is no guarantee of it. Both sides of the ideological aisle can relate to the themes of the aforementioned article, making it a shared narrative, and is why it went so viral. Feelings of inadequacy and the pressure to succeed, are not partisan, but are universal to living in society that, more or less, has arranged itself into what Dr. Jordan Peterson calls ‘hierarchies of competence.’

In a news cycle dominated by Trump, the 2020 election, China, protests, Covid, and other high-stakes issues, stuff that is more mundane, such as coping with the inescapable realities of mediocrity, finding one’s purpose in life, etc., are as popular, if not more so, as mainstream stories. The media wants everyone to think that the world revolves around politics, but it does not. For the intellectual-web, politics is seen as more of symptom or an effect, not a cause. Politics is downstream from the ‘bigger issue,’ not the issue in and of itself.

In the past, religious institutions, family, community, and civic participation created a sense of shared commonality and kinship among otherwise mediocre people, but America’s hyper-meritocracy and culture of individualism has made such institutions less relevant, when people perhaps need such institutions more than ever. But traders who are making six-figures with Tesla options and posting the screenshots on /r/wallstreetbets, have quantifiable results, that being wealth and the admiration of others. But civic participation seldom yields anything tangible, nor does it highlight the individual. Sure, you can try to trick yourself into pretending or believing that there is more to life than money and success, but you can not deny that those two things sure feel better than mediocrity.

Civic participation gives you a voice, albeit a rather faint one, especially if you live in a large district (in regard to congressional elections) or state (in regard to national elections), but having wealth and social status like having the ability to cast hundreds or thousands of votes or having megaphone in terms of influence. The media sanctifies the democratic process and the ‘power of the single voter’ to change society, but many people would probably gladly trade their ability to vote, in exchange for wealth and status within or relative one’s own social circle , let alone broader society, and many people do not even vote at all, rightfully and rationally knowing that their vote does not matter (either because the odds of any one’s individual vote deciding the outcome of an election are infinitesimally small, or even if their desired politician wins, that nothing will come of it; both are true), in direct conflict with the media’s insistence that it does.

Yes, there are limitations and drawbacks to success, but I think most people strive to achieve more than just the bare minimum needed to get by. Why else do so many people attend college, going thousands of dollar into debt in the hope of attaining the necessary credentials for a decent-paying job, or the desire to climb the corporate ladder, even at the cost of compromising one’s personal values if necessary for that elusive promotion? I think it is ingrained in the human psyche or condition to always be wanting more. This is why people keep working, even in jobs they do not like, long after they have already made enough money to retire. In the past, retirement was mandatory for many jobs, but without such externally-imposed limitations, people are working longer than ever.

Politics and democracy are marketed as a ‘force of good,’ that empowers individuals and affects change, but for the past four years especially, it seems politics and democracy have been more of a force of division, ill-will, and acrimony, than anything that could be considered ‘good.’ Not only is neither side satisfied with democratically-established outcomes–whether it’s Democrats challenging the ‘legitimacy’ of Trump being president or Republicans’ never-ending and futile battle against Obamacare–but both sides are expending inordinate energy attacking each other, particularly on social media and on TV, with nothing to show for it but but strained or ruined relationships and a more divisive political climate and society, not an improved understanding of the issues or any sort of reconciliation.

Is having half the country hate the other half, anything that can be considered ‘good? I would think not. I know it sounds kinda utopian or idealistic to say, but imagine if all that energy and all those collective thousands or millions of hours spent on politics, were concentrated into something productive? It’s understandable why people, especially young people (or some call zoomers), have become jaded about politics, democracy, and civic participation, as not only does it not provide fulfillment at an individual level, but backfires in terms of forming any sort of unity or compromise.