Why We Gave Up on the Future

In America, now, we are living at “the end of the future,” the historian Steve Fraser wrote this month in Jacobin, surveying the country’s political landscape and finding it pretty exhausted.

He didn’t mean that the United States has come to the end of a sci-fi roller coaster, but that we’ve largely turned our backs on the very idea of remarkable change. In what we used to tell ourselves was an optimistic nation, faith in progress has given way to a political and social age that has largely discarded visions of pathbreaking novelty, he writes, and increasingly focuses instead on intramural arguments about which elements of a nostalgic past to emulate.

On the right, Fraser describes a mangled MAGA vision of America before or without the new left, a vision that has, like a magnet, attracted “all the anxieties unloosed by the decay of an antiquated industrial capitalism.” And on the left, he sees empty revolutionary gestures alongside many varieties of a New Deal reboot — federal policy intended to restore American manufacturing, for instance, or unions straining to recover membership levels, benefits and protections common at midcentury.

The essay has won praise from a number of political theorists for identifying our “politics of restoration,” one that, Fraser writes, “tacitly acknowledges that the future, in the way that word has customarily been used, is dead. Or, if it lives on, it does so on life support.”

To me, this account of a sclerotic, backward-looking present leaves out a lot of discombobulating change, both within politics and without: a green industrial revolution unfolding and animating the Democratic Party agenda; the rapid transformation of the Republican Party into a shape-shifting cult of personality; the rapid development of a miracle vaccine and an incipient golden age for medicine, heralding great hopes for obesity and cancer and cystic fibrosis, among many other advances; the arrival of A.I., with all its attendant anxiety and hype; a new horizon for civil rights and some radical social experimentation around the meaning of gender identity; and a cohort of techno-optimists obsessed with accelerating the pace of progress, some of them so obsessed with the principle, they’re willing to discard the guardrails of liberalism along the way.

But as a measure of mood and political rhetoric, the stagnation diagnosis fits much better. As the imaginative and spiritual lives of Americans have become increasingly preoccupied with partisan politics and as those politics have grown increasingly hostile and zero-sum, we’ve come to see the future in increasingly bleak and zero-sum terms, as well. Joe Biden’s State of the Union invocations of an American comeback aside, the basic vibe across the political spectrum is pretty glum and exhausted.

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