These are not the villains you’re looking for

What if the problems we see today–wokeness, cancel culture, increased political division, distrust of institutions and governments–can be blamed on a lack good villains?

America saw strong economic growth and stability starting in the 40s and all the way through through the Cold War, ending in 1991, in which the Axis powers, and then shorty after, Russia, filled the role of the villain. In spite of the cultural upheaval of the 60s, most people seem to be in agreement that the there was more national cohesion then than now. Same for the early 90s during the Gulf War and again in the early 2000s, when Saddam Hussein and then later Bin Laden were the putative villains. Indeed, public support for the Iraq War was as high as 79% shorty after the invasion in 2003, at least momentarily unifying the country.

This cohesion was short lived as the war became a quagmire. Bush’s approval ratings, which peaked at a then record 92%, the highest of any sitting president, fell to as low as 22-30% (estimates vary) by the time he left office. The election of Obama saw the culture wars intensify, especially regarding Obamacare and concerns over the national debt. But the killing of Bin Laden in 2011, which arguably marked the denouement of the post-911 era, was in retrospect the start of the escalation of the culture wars even more so, and increasing national division, not just between the major political parties, but also within them.

First there was Occupy Wall St., which spit the center/classical-liberal-left from the more radical democratic-socialist-left, which is a sort of precursor to the woke-left, followed by the debt ceiling standoff in late 2012/early-2013, and growing Republican opposition to immigration, particularly opposition to the Gang of Eight initiative, which foreshadowed the rise of Trump just a few years later, who successfully ran on anti-immigration platform. Romney’s 2012 defeat, similar to how Hillary’s defeat in 2016 forced much soul-searching among the left, saw the neoconservative ‘old guard’ begin to weaken. Obamacare came close to dying, but Justice Roberts, in 2012, cast the saving vote. The four years the followed saw the so-called GamerGate movement, the rise of the alt-right, BLM, the election of Trump, as well as the Unite the Right incident at Charlottesville.

Just three years after the Gulf War ended, Newt Gingrich in 1994 ushered in the Republican Revolution, whose legacy is one of making national politics not so much about policy but about tribalism, and also the popularity of conservative talk radio and political cable TV also surged. Just as the WW2 gave rise to the counterculture of the 60s, the Gulf War led to the rise of gen-x culture: alternative music, MTV, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Coen brothers movies.

The absence of good villains means we either have to invent subpar ones or we turn on each other. For a few weeks after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there was remarkable unity across the aisle in supporting Zelensky. ‘MAGAts’ and ‘Wokettes’ alike had Ukraine flag emojis in their Twitter usernames, and even now I still see many on the alt/center-right with Ukraine flag emojis. By contrast, the pandemic had the opposite effect of only making everyone more divided, with zero cross-party unity at all, from the very onset. Who would have guessed that after nearly a decade of increasing division, it would finally take a war, of all things, to unite otherwise two incorrigible tribes.

But Putin is no Hirohito or Hitler, being more incompetent (or maybe Machiavellian) than evil or ruthless. Unlike Saddam Hussein or Bin Laden, condemnation of Putin never rose to the level that anyone was compelled to want to anything about him, beyond finger wagging and aiding Ukraine (such as intelligence and remittances). Similar to how the Iraq war became a quagmire and public support waned, Putin finds himself in a similar situation of spinning his wheels. Three months into his invasion, he cannot even secure even a part of Ukraine, let alone take it over. Not surprisingly, the public has moved on, having been promised a World War in February and gotten just more bluster and crying wolf. But why wait for nuclear war when the culture wars are just a click away on Twitter or Facebook.

This has also lead to the post-2020 ‘Substack boom,’ which can be considered a successor to the IDW. The alt-center/middle has found a large audience of disaffected liberals, centrists, and center-right conservatives. Except for the most diehard of liberals, it’s hard to find anyone who is enthusiastic about Biden. Biden and Trump have among the lowest approval ratings of recent presidents, at around 38-40%, compared to 50% for Obama and 55% for Bill Clinton. Even George W. Bush polled higher than Biden. Perhaps if Putin was more successful at his invasion and Biden had more centrist appeal (like Bill Clinton), then maybe military action would be on the table, the threat of nuclear war notwithstanding. This would make wedge issues less relevant, like in 2001-2003. Indeed, Freddie’s most critically panned posts were ones in which he expressed reservations of the pro-Ukraine narrative, showing just how popular war is, even among the left, if war can be framed in social justice terms.

The lab leak theory was supposed to lay the blame of Covid on the feet of China and Xi Jinping, but that too went nowhere. The outrage over the leaked Roe v. Wade memo is just the latest resuscitation of a culture war that will never die. This is why the media keeps jumping from one ‘current thing’ to the next, whether it’s Roe v. Wade on the verge of dying again (for the dozenth time), school shootings (in which both sides default to predicable jeremiads about gun control or lack thereof), Covid (an overblown flu), George Floyd (a glorified drug addict), and so on. They are trying to find something that sticks to unify the country behind a narrative, and nothing is really working. What these all have in common is that rather than uniting the entire country against a single villain, they only serve to divide it against the villains we created out of our opponents.