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Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence and Us

The movie Us illustrates why reversing America's culture of contempt must be a priority.

Article by Christopher Walsh April 18, 2019 //   5 minute read

I wonder if Jordan Peele, the creative mind behind the movie Us, knows about the Democracy Project, our public opinion research conducted in partnership with Freedom House and the Penn Biden Center.  It examines the health of American democracy, and while strong conceptual support exists, there are serious doubts about how the system works in practice. In Us, Peele’s allegorical exploration of society overlaps with several of the project’s key findings, particularly how social divides are affecting perceptions of American democracy. Caution, there are Us spoilers ahead…

In the movie, the main character, Adelaide, and her family find themselves being hunted by their “evil twins” who live underground. It is explained that these doppelgangers, called the “Tethered,” are the product of an experiment; for every person living above ground, a double exists below. Like marionettes, the doppelgangers mimic the actions of their counterparts, except with fewer resources, poorer living conditions, and no hope for the future. Their discontent inspires a grisly revolution against the surface.

We know from the Democracy Project that Americans view societal divides, particularly discrimination and partisanship, as primary drivers in weakening our democratic system. This suggests Americans recognize that our shared values rooted in freedom, justice, morality, and reason bind us as a nation and a people – or as Jefferson put it, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Less encouraging is our perceived failure to live up to this ideal with various demographics feeling ostracized based on race, religion, gender, and politics.  There are certainly terrible stains on our country’s history in these regards that remain part of our national fabric. As one focus group participant said, “Our system was set up to be a democracy for a very specific subset of people. We’ve progressed, but some aren’t seeing the democracy that others are seeing.”

These feelings fuel resentment contributing to what Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institutue, calls our culture of contempt. Such animosity is causing us physical and emotional trauma that erodes our democracy’s cohesiveness.

In his book Them, Senator Ben Sasse (R – Nebraska) argues that loneliness caused by the disintegration of value-based communities is what’s fracturing our country. National Review’s Jonah Goldberg believes such institutions – such as houses of worship, social clubs, recreational sports leagues, and other civic-minded groups – play a vital role in shaping our character and ability to engage constructively within a diverse society. Essentially, connections that reinforce the values and common purpose embodied by our founding documents build resilience to contempt.   This means learning to disagree better in a civil competition of ideas, identifying our common goals, and compromising to create shared solutions.

Us provides a dark vision of where contempt could lead if left unchecked, but it also plays with our perceptions of the film’s “monsters.” Our instinct is to fear them – and with some justification given their violent campaign to replace us on the surface.  And yet Adelaide’s doppelganger proclaims, “We are Americans.” This line captures the root of their anger.

In the film, the Tethered are fellow Americans with whom we should empathize (they’re quite literally us, after all); instead, they have become an underclass stripped of dignity and humanity. In their desperation and rejection, they lash out against perceived oppressors who don’t even know they exist. Is that not an allegory for every political discussion ever had on social media?

Us illustrates why reversing our “culture of contempt” must take priority if we’re serious about revitalizing American democracy.  Too many Americans, for different reasons, feel isolated and rejected. Solving the challenges of a changing global economy, adapting to new technologies, improving education, and expanding opportunity are all part of the equation, but does anything change long-term if we continue finding refuge in alienation and hatred?  

Perhaps change starts by reenergizing civic communities that reinforce American identity as shared values and purpose. It also requires innovating to make such communities more accessible, meaningful, and lasting in the mobile economy. Our democracy’s vitality may depend on it.