The United States has become what you might expect if you challenged a team of therapists to design a country purely on the principle of schadenfreude. Like those cooking shows that give contestants a single secret ingredient and thirty minutes to work it into an entire meal, America feels like it was whipped up in a hurry with, from soup to nuts, only the delight in others’ misfortune as a common policy thread. How did this happen?
When I was small, some adults in my life – usually men, always white – were fond of repeating that “if you’re not liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart, but if you’re not conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain,” which, like so many aphorisms, passes off wordplay as wisdom. An earnest little egghead in sneakers, I’d marvel at this supposed truth and wonder what inner transformation between youth and old age could so reliably flip one’s political switch. The more I grapple with America’s flourishing cruelty, the more I start to understand the answer.
It’s worth first clarifying what we mean by “liberal” and “conservative.” They’re fluid terms because they each stand for a broad and shifting category of values and positions. The most useful definitions account for this. The late American philosopher Richard Rorty argued that liberals believe our best days are ahead of us, while conservatives believe our best days are behind us, which tracks with the general conservative pining for a better time that never was.
Contemporary social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes “liberal” and “conservative” as predispositions associated with certain personality types, which I’ve found to be an even finer way to slice it. In his research he has found that people who are risk-averse and prone to seeking safety tend to be more conservative, while people who are comfortable with change and enjoy new experiences tend to be more liberal. This feels so true to me that it almost belabors the obvious.
It seems, then, that what those adults in my life were preaching was a necessary conversion in adulthood from an open and adventurous spirit to a kind of functional protectionism in our day-to-day lives. Why this would be inevitable is beyond me, as is why it would signify the layering of intelligence upon heart, when it feels more like the elimination of heart altogether, and its replacement with something that is substantively less like intelligence than cowardice.
I mean, I get it. I’m old now. Well, not old, but older. I turn forty in almost a month, the age those towering giants of my youth were when they spouted their wordplay and bubbled ballots for the likes of Ronald Reagan. But I’m probably more liberal now than I’ve ever been. And I think it’s because I see something those adults looked past. The very fact that they looked past it meant they didn’t have to contend with who it made them and could freely interpret their fear as prudence, with so much life experience to back them up.
The primary difference between old Joe and young Joe is the amount of stuff I have now. Physical stuff, sure, but mental stuff, too, which is a heavier haul. I walk around with more accumulated memory now than I ever did, and all the little neurotic triggers that travel with it as I recall myself in unending succession, sometimes in horror and sometimes in joy, often consciously but usually not. My capacity to sneak up on myself with good intel is expanding, and I don’t like it. Aging, I think, means getting closer to death and having ever more to answer for, which feels like double jeopardy.
How to cope? There are two choices in reach of the human creature, as far as I can see. The first is to decide you’re not going to hold all that stuff so tightly. Author George Saunders describes this as “a simple matter of attrition.” In a commencement address at Syracuse University in 2013, he said, “As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.” The result? “Becoming kinder happens naturally, with age.”
I share Saunders’s confidence that it happens naturally, or at least it can if we don’t get in its way, and like him I prefer to think of it as the direction in which we’re trying to head. But there’s plenty of gray hair in Congress, and not much kindness to go around. And that’s because the second choice is to hold all that stuff more tightly still. American conservatism is nothing if not white-knuckled.
We see it most clearly in grandpa stereotypes. Cane-wielding old coots complaining about whippersnappers and forever admonishing them to “get off my lawn.” A natural response to the accumulation of memory, much of it painful, is to build up a bigger and bigger self-concept as a brace against it, or an overdesigned vessel for carrying it. What’s so important about my lawn? This is what the adults in my life looked past, even as they worked at it doggedly.
And it’s what some of them continue to miss. The opportunity to release the self, rather than double down on it. Doubling down on it, and on all the barbed wire it takes to preserve its lengthening border, begets Donald Trump. President of the Old Coots. Many of whom are not so old after all. Who are skipping the liberal heart and going straight to the conservative brain, which isn’t so much rich with wisdom as rife with panic. Schadenfreude works as a policy framework because someone else’s misfortune is the implicit triumph of your stuff.
I know this because, according to Haidt’s rule of types, I should be fiercely conservative. I’m not proud to admit it, but I’m cravenly averse to taking risks. I do fear change. And, when I manage to have a new experience, it’s usually because I distracted the voice in my head long enough to achieve something counter-instinctive.
The adults who shaped me are similar. Most are as conservative as I’d expect myself to be. Were I not gay. Were I not gay and forced, from an early age, to reckon with the dreaded knowledge that my basic identity, and with it my potential for happiness and love, were initially located outside of my own comfort zone, and demanded the very change I feared, in my heart and brain.
This is how both of these organs became liberal right away and never looked back. It’s a choice I have to remake again and again as I age, because a person moving unreflectively through life is a fast-growing territory to defend. The territory is of course a willful hallucination. But the United States of Schadenfraude seems eager to forget this permanently.