The year 2020 shattered America’s shared reality.
Twenty years ago, the sociologist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone used the decline of bowling leagues since the middle of the 20th century to symbolize America’s declining social engagement. This year, he published a sequel of sorts, The Upswing, in which he identified more stray threads of our social unraveling: in lower marriage rates, church attendance, and trust in government; in falling membership in all chapter-based associations; collapsing social trust among young adults; and even a decrease in mentions of community versus identity in novels and nonfiction books.
But no measure of communitarian pessimism could have prepared Putnam for the circumstances of the past nine months. America’s bowling alleys haven’t just depopulated; they’ve gone dark, along with thousands of churches, restaurants, bars, cafés, gyms, theaters, and almost every other physical space that could preserve or nurture a physical community.
It would be hackish to accuse Netflix or Warner Bros. of being the main accelerants of American loneliness. But the fact is that cinematic entertainment, which was born as the ultimate communal ritual, an experience whose technology required simultaneity and togetherness, has become the ultimate personal activity, an incomprehensibly long spectrum of different stories mostly consumed in a state of solitude.
This media shift—from the scarce and communal to the abundant and privatized—also describes the evolution of the news industry. In the past 20 years, newspaper circulation, advertising revenue, and employment have cratered. But overall, news—that is, sources of new information, of varying truthiness—didn’t decline; it exploded. The web created a phalanx of news publishers, not just websites but also Facebook pages, Instagram personalities, newsletters, podcasts, and so on; at the same time, Google and Facebook duopolized digital advertising, creating a situation where publishers were multiplying as advertising declined.
In ecology, the term niche partitioning describes the way that competing species become hyper-specialized in an attempt to co-exist in an environment with scarce resources. I think that’s what’s happening in the news industry. As the number of competing publishers increases, it makes sense for each of them to carve out an ecological niche. This niches-get-riches race leads logically to a set of more outlets that embrace a more unabashedly partisan perspective—just as they did in the late 1800s.
With weekly religious attendance at low ebb and live TV in structural decline, national elections are arguably the only activity that Americans do together in shared time. But shared time is not shared reality. Led by the president, Republican lawmakers have petitioned to sabotage the results of the election, based on fantastic conspiracy theories. The GOP fever dream, which is credulously reproduced across Trump-friendly media, is clearly contagious: More than 80 percent of Trump voters believe that Biden’s win is illegitimate, a figure corresponding to about 60 million people. There is nothing unique about reality and fantasy blending together in politics. But the speed and severity with which Trump’s “Stop the Steal!” mind virus has infected the GOP is the sign of a compromised civic immune system. A far-right cohort has been effectively quarantined from reality in one corner of our honeycombed media landscape.
There is no going back to the 1950s. We will never again be enfolded by those bespoke mid-century circumstances, the scarce broadcasts and broadsheets. The dividing forces are too strong and too many. The film experience pushed out across millions of flatscreens; the live-television networks splintering into millions of digital entertainment queues; the news dissolving into innumerable political realities: One by one, these are not evil trends. But they add up. Or, more aptly, they divide. They individuate.
People ask me if I’m optimistic about 2021, and the answer is that, in a way, I’m ecstatically optimistic. The economy will reopen, and life will reopen. People will come out of their homes; they will send their kids to school; they will hug and kiss and live. But underneath the high tide of economic growth and social normalization, I think we’ll feel something else, an eerie undertow of isolation and anxiety.