BETTER, BUT NEVER GOOD

Posted in Rants on August 3rd, 2017 by Ed

You know how I love metaphors.

From the mid-1990s until the beginning of the recession in 2008 the academic job market was great. I can't speak for every field, but in mine a Ph.D. holder from a reasonably good institution would, if applying broadly, get a tenure-track academic job in a year or two of trying. This is not to say everyone got a great job, but as long as one was not terribly picky it appeared that a job could be found with time and effort.

Then state budgets collapsed and there was a severe retraction. The market went from Great to barely extant for the last few years of the previous decade. We're talking a dozen jobs for hundreds of job searchers. That kind of Bad. Everyone urged calm and predicted that it would recover. "Calm" is a hard thing to come by when you're unemployed. But I landed a temporary job, as some of you may recall, and then after four full years of applying for everything I got a tenure-track job.

The job market has of course gotten better. But here's the thing – it's still bad. It is dawning on people in this profession that the job market may never be Good again. It can only be considered good in comparison to the year(s) in which it was at rock bottom. By the standard of the years in which it was actually good, it remains solidly crap.

That same sinking feeling is creeping into the way I feel about the state of American politics at present. There's little doubt that this is the nadir; it can't get much worse without the system collapsing and being replaced with an entirely new framework. And someday Trump will be gone and things will be Better. Literally anyone, even the other GOP candidates from 2016, would be an improvement over this guy because at the very least they might manage not to get us all killed with their damn Twitter account.

But there's a distinct possibility that this, like the current job market across professions, is just a new normal. We've re-set the bar at an abysmally low level and we can expect politics to be Less Bad in the future, but it is time to face the fact that it will never be Good again. We've normalized some very abnormal things recently and even without Donald Trump there will be a Trumpist candidate in every election for the foreseeable future because nothing successful will avoid endless imitation. He won the nomination and the election, so why wouldn't someone try the same playbook?

Power will continue to flip back and forth between the parties, and if Democrats control some part of Congress in the future that will make things Less Bad. But all of the forces that made Trump possible, especially in the media and in the way Americans self-select twisted versions of reality to suit their own biases, will continue to exist. They'll continue to make following politics unpleasant and continue to keep dumb, spiteful candidates alive and active.

Liberals talk about the New Deal era a lot, almost as much as old white conservatives talk about the "good old days" of the 1950s. We don't even need to look that far in the past to find an era in which some consensus politics could be achieved (Nixon, for instance). As sad as it is, it might be time to face the reality that those days are gone for good, and any future politics can improve marginally upon what we have today without ever getting us close to Good again. Malaise is what a population feels when it sinks in that Better is still pretty bad – and the best they're likely to get.