The mood of our time seems to be disgruntlement. It has become the predominant attitude toward public life: people are disgruntled with government, with politicians, with parties, with voters, with taxes, with big banks, with Big Oil, with roads, with debt, with their prospects, with experts.
The mood of the early 1980s seemed more heady, encapsulated in Gordon Gekko?s paean to greed, culminating in what Christopher Lasch termed ?the culture of narcissism.? Do you remember the bumper sticker, ?the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys?? It would be hard to imagine that now. That mood ceded to what Robert Hughes called ?the culture of complaint.? He was of course referring to political correctness and the ways in which particular groups asserted claims about their status or treatment.
Now, while there is plenty to complain of, the mood has shifted more to frustration than petitioning. Complaint assumed that there is a court of hearing and that one deserves one?s day in court; now it seems that court is closed. Webster?s defines disgruntlement as sulky dissatisfaction; it might have roots in anger, but it is more an expression of powerlessness or futility.
The Tea Party movement draws off this general sense of disgruntlement, offering media events rather than effectual action. The Republican Party is disgruntled with the Democratic Party as well as with government itself (though they serve in and are paid by that government), but the feeling is not exclusive to the Right. The Democratic Party is disgruntled with the frozen state of politics, and liberal-left types are disgruntled with the lack of action of the current administration.
While the culture of complaint sometimes veered to the sanctimonious, it assumed a kind of social hope in the institutions that might redress the injury that caused complaint; disgruntlement shows little hope. It expresses the evacuation of politics, holding that government does not represent the interest of the people and that one is at the behest of large entities, whether corporations or government. Thus we?re only left with grumbling.
My colleague on Arguing the World, Kevin Mattson, sees the direction of our politics as ?the politics of stupid.? But I think it is not stupidity, but rather frustration and inability to have an effect–a feeling which is not entirely irrational. (Mattson, in fact, expresses disgruntlement.)
Disgruntlement is the structure of feeling of neoliberalism, the worm-eaten fruit of years of deeming government to be a problem rather than a conduit for social good and the market to be the natural motor of life. It is a side effect of the counter-redistributive tenor of the 1990s and early 2000s, the backlash against social welfare and so-called entitlements. No one likes them, but no one likes the world without them either.
Disgruntlement reflects a public culture of affect. We look to the emotion that politicians or commentators express. It has become the new model of television news. FoxNews leads the way in dispensing with any pretense that one reports the news in a professionally dispassionate way; rather, the news is about our reactions and the affects induced. Television commentators like Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs do not take the dispassionate bearing of Walter Cronkite, who emblematized the decorum of the public sphere. The signature gesture of disgruntlement is the frown of frustration or contempt, an affect mastered by apostles of futility like Bill O?Reilly.