Sustained collective action has also become more difficult. Institutions are turning to behavioral “nudges,” hoping to move an increasingly suspicious public to do what once could be accomplished by command or law. As groups based on tradition and consistent association dwindle, they are being replaced by “event communities,” temporary gatherings that come and go without long-term commitment (think Burning Man). The protests spawned by Trump’s election are more about passion than organization and focus. Today’s demonstrations are sometimes compared to civil-rights-era marches, but they have more in common with L.A.’s Sunset Strip riots of 1966, when more than 1,000 young people gathered to object to a 10 p.m. curfew. “There’s something happening here,” goes the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth,” commemorating the riots. “What it is ain’t exactly clear.” In our new politics, expression is a purpose itself.
A polarized and distrustful electorate may stymie the national government, but locally most communities are either overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic. In 2016, 8 out of 10 U.S. counties gave either Trump or Hillary Clinton a landslide victory. In these increasingly homogenous communities, nobody need bother about compromise and the trust it requires. From anti-abortion measures to laws governing factory farming, the policy action is taking place where majorities can do what they want without dealing with “those people” who live the next state over or a few miles down the road. At last count, 1 in 4 Americans supports the idea of their state seceding from the union.
Solutions and action shrink to the size of the individual. Increasing numbers of New York state parents have been holding their children out of end-of-year school tests in a kind of DIY education reform. In some Los Angeles schools, so many parents opt out of the vaccination regime that inoculation rates are on a par with South Sudan’s as people make their own scientific judgments. The “we medicine” of community health, writes Donna Dickenson, is replaced by the “me medicine” of individual genetic testing, tailored drug regimes and all manner of personal “enhancement” technologies. And where once antitrust laws were used to break up monopolies in food markets, Michael Pollan concludes that today, we must “vote with our fork.”