Populist, Piggishly Nostalgic Do-It-Yourselfers: Our Pictures of Ourselves in 2011

The Atlantic has always done a splendid job with immediate meta-cognition, at taking a few […]

Ethan Richardson / 12.20.11

The Atlantic has always done a splendid job with immediate meta-cognition, at taking a few steps back from the cogs of the e’er-turning world “spinning madly on,” and communicating not only what’s going on, but what’s going on behind what’s, uh, going on. It’s hard not to celebrate journalism that is doing this kind of work–and we’re completely unbiased here–the kind that looks deeply into what we’re looking at everyday anyways, and asks what frameworks are at play. The news behind the news, in other words. It’s not always good news, but there’s something good about analyzing what greater narratives we’re telling ourselves about ourselves.

And so comes “The 10 Biggest Ideas of the Year,” the 10 most prevalent–and arguably intertwined–metanarratives that seem to keep showing up in popular culture, national news, dinner-table conversation. What came first, though? Did these metanarratives stem from the goings-on in the world in 2011? Put simply, did the news make the metanarrative, or did the metanarratives make the news?  It seems to me that all of these “Ideas” are the newest embodiments of the old symptoms (self-justification, pharisaism, general and latent humbuggery)–but judge for yourself. For another great, glimpse into this kinda perspective, their decade survey is pretty unstoppable, too!

POPULISM (Or the cravings for [and limits of] communion)

On September 17, a group of protesters pitched their tents in Zuccotti Park, a large square of flat stone in the Financial District of New York City. They called their movement “Occupy Wall Street,” a somewhat ominous name softened by a canny, welcoming slogan: “We Are the 99 Percent.” For the last three months, the Occupy movement has exhilarated and confounded observers as it spread across the country, touching off protests in Oakland, Los Angeles, and around the world.

In Washington, D.C., another populist movement, the Tea Party, had insinuated itself into the DNA of the GOP. In a year where the ultra-conservative House almost shut down the government twice over deficits (not to mention the insane game of chicken over the debt ceiling), it’s hard to imagine Washington as polarized on spending without the influence of the Tea Party pulling the GOP to the right. The president, perhaps feeling the stiing of populism envy, responded by adopting the motifs of the Occupy movement. In a speech this month, he called income inequality the defining economic issue of our generation. We are all the 99 percent, indeed. Even, apparently, the 1 percent in Washington.

MEN ARE (more than usual) PIGGISH

It has been a year of high-profile, low-brow infidelity. New York City congressman Anthony Weiner’s career was killed with a Tweet. Oregon Rep. David Wu resigned just months later facing scandalous rumors. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 25-year marriage ended after the Los Angeles Times reported that he was the father of a teenage boy — with the family’s longtime housekeeper. And, of course, there was Herman Cain, whose entertaining denials were no match for the parade of accusations from allegedly harassed employees and another woman who claimed to be his long-time lover. But wait, another GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has signed a marriage fidelity pledge! (It’s not retroactive.) So, perhaps there is hope yet for the future of the American male politician.

CULTURAL NOSTALGIA (Or “We Do What We’ve Always Done–Copied“)

I would have liked to write something new about how America is obsessed with nostalgia, but I just feel like the older stuff we’ve written is better.

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again,” John Barth wrote in The Atlantic‘s Fiction issue this summer. “The Internet allows us to indulge more than ever in cultural tokens from our childhood,” Meghan Lewit agreed on our site in August. “Our obsession with musical nostalgia is strangling pop,” James Parker echoed in our October magazine.

Is nostalgia eating the world? Maybe. But as Barth’s quote makes clear, every age is an age of nostalgia. The present tweaks the past and calls it progress. Consider pop music. Lady Gaga might just be “David Bowie + Grace Jones + Madonna + Marilyn Manson + Fischerspooner.” But the fact that no other artist before thought to stir together those ingredients makes her, by definition, original. Remember Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ah, back then they really knew how to coin an aphorism.


Every year, Gallup polling asks respondents to rate their confidence in 16 institutions, including the military, small business, newspapers, schools, and Congress. This year marked a 30-year low across the board. Since 2003, every category has seen its public confidence plummet except for one: HMOs … which, at 19 percent confidence, have the second-worst rating, tied with Big Business. The biggest losers are in Washington and New York, the twin nodes of American institution. Confidence in our banking system has fallen by half in the last 10 years to 23 percent. Amazingly, government does even worse. Congress is at an all-time (and all-institution) low at 12 percent and the institution of the presidency, once consistently in the 60s, has collapsed to 35 percent confidence. As the crisis of credit and the crisis of employment have lingered, Americans have responded with a crisis of confidence in the institutions that were supposed to save us.


Institutions crumbling? Do their job yourself. In the wake of institutional collapse, we’re beginning to see the beginning of a new kind of peer-to-peer economy that cuts out the big man. If you need money, check out the growth in personal lending. If you need clothes, try ThredUp. If you need a car, an office space, or a bed, try Zipcar, co-working, and Airbnb. Say goodbye to the wasteful buy-and-hold market of the 20th century. Welcome to the sharing economy.

The quietest revolution in personal tech is in health. Medical apps like FitBit and Zeo help us manage our weight, track our calories, follow our sleep, and discipline our workouts. They have the potential to bring health care into the pocket of every smartphone owner. If managing health is key to preventing costly treatments down the road — and since medical inflation is at the heart of our crisis in government spending and middle income earnings — it would not be hyperbole to say that the DIY revolution in health has a chance to become one of the biggest ideas of not only this year, but also this decade.

What ideas would you add? I’d certainly want to proffer up the most recent wave of intrigue with the psychological relationship between “Anxiety and Control“–about the up-and-down nuances of the anxious mind, the cravings for and impasse of human control, the magnetic opposition of the two when it comes to the “Good Life.”