What's the source of our national bad vibes? You get exactly one guess

The economy has come roaring back, and most people feel OK about their own lives. What explains the "vibecession"?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 12, 2024 9:33AM (EDT)

Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a Buckeye Values PAC Rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on March 16, 2024. (KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a Buckeye Values PAC Rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on March 16, 2024. (KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

If there's one thing that characterizes this election season so far, it's that the country remains as polarized as it's ever been in recent history, and "both sides" are highly agitated and upset. But nobody seems to be able to figure out exactly why. Is it inflation, the divisive nature of media, the unending pandemic, the fact that we all spend too much time doomscrolling or something else? There are plenty of theories but no consensus.

The most common explanation is that the economy is bringing everyone down. It's hard to explain why people are so negative about it, since the numbers are actually highly robust, with the best job market since the 1960s and rapidly rising wages, especially for people in the middle and working classes. For the first time in decades, economic gains are flowing to them instead of just to the uppermost 1%.

Here's Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, lying about this on Fox News along with a graph showing the reality (which Fox viewers will never see):

Inflation is often cited as the main reason for Americans' dissatisfaction, mainly because only older folks have ever experienced this kind of sharp rise in prices before (the last period of severe inflation was in the late '70s and early '80s) so it came as a shock along with the pandemic. Maybe people expected that when inflation eased prices would go back down to where they were before, but that's not how it works — and it wouldn't be a good thing if it did. Deflation would mean those wage gains and new jobs disappearing as well. Still, people remember that the price of eggs was a whole lot lower before 2020, and they're angry about it? But is that enough to cause this overwhelming sense of despondency across the culture at large?

The economic discontent expressed by many Americans these days has been called a "vibecession," defined by economics Substacker Kyla Scanlon as "a disconnect between consumer sentiment and economic data" in which "people feel bad about the economy, despite the economic metrics telling them that the economy is doing OK." As this chart points out, most people feel pretty good about their own personal finances. They just think everyone else's are getting worse:

That disconnect isn't just about economics. Gallup routinely polls people about their sense of personal satisfaction and their views on the direction of the country, and the same weird phenomenon shows up on those questions. In a recent poll, 78% of Americans say they're satisfied with the way things are going for them personally, a proportion that has held more or less steady for two decades, but only 20% express satisfaction with the direction of the country.

The constant drumbeat of stories about widespread dissatisfaction and despondency and it created a negative feedback loop: Even if people felt pretty good about their own lives, they were depressed by what they perceived as everyone else's despair.

That might lead us one to take a hard look at the media, since that's largely where people get their views of how the country is doing as a whole. I think it's fair to say that the "vibecession" was pushed pretty hard in the mainstream press for the first two years of Joe Biden's presidency, and that view has only recently become more balanced. Add that to a constant drumbeat of stories about widespread dissatisfaction and despondency, and it created a negative feedback loop. Even if people felt pretty good about their own lives, they were still depressed by what they perceived as everyone else's despair.

Another plausible explanation, of course, is that the whole country just went through a once-in-a-lifetime trauma that caused the deaths of well over a million people from COVID-19. Psychiatrists George Makari and Richard A. Friedman published an essay in The Atlantic last month arguing that we're all dealing with unprocessed grief:

Almost overnight, most of the country was thrown into a state of high anxiety — then, soon enough, grief and mourning. But the country has not come together to sufficiently acknowledge the tragedy it endured. As clinical psychiatrists, we see the effects of such emotional turmoil every day, and we know that when it’s not properly processed, it can result in a general sense of unhappiness and anger — exactly the negative emotional state that might lead a nation to misperceive its fortunes.

I'm sure that has contributed to the general atmosphere of doom and gloom that seems to define this feel-bad era. How could it not? But it's hard to imagine how Americans could have come together to acknowledge what happened when we couldn't even rally ourselves as a country in the midst of a major global crisis. We pretty much fell apart.

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And that brings me to my own personal hypothesis about what's bringing everyone down: it's "that guy," our national obsession, Donald Trump. From the moment he won the election in 2016, the entire country has been in a state of high anxiety. Recall that even in victory, Trump's supporters were angry and aggressive, and he immediately doubled down on his hostile rhetoric toward his opponents, further stoking that rage. The other side reacted with the massive women's marches that took place all over the world right after Trump's inauguration, which made the MAGA troops even angrier.

From that day until the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, there was never a day in which the country wasn't on high alert because of what the president was doing, whether it was a source of unmitigated joy for his followers or a trigger for barely contained panic for everyone else. Scandal after scandal, bizarre embarrassing behavior in foreign capitals and reckless, half-baked, inhumane policies were received by roughly half the population as brilliant creative destruction and by the other half — well, actually, by a majority — as incipient or actual disaster. All of that culminated in a presidential performance during the pandemic that was like something out of a surreal horror film and, of course, a riotous mob storming the U.S. Capitol.

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When Trump finally and begrudgingly flew off to exile in Mar-a-Lago, I think most people — including, perhaps, some of his followers — breathed a sigh of relief. There was a sense that, as a nation, we could all take a break. But Trump never went away. The angst and unease has never let up, for eight long years, and it's taken a toll.

Trump and the right-wing media spend all day, every day, working his supporters and enabliers into a frenzy over one thing or another. Trump has made his crimes into a spectacle, with him as the star of a great passion play: the Christ or Mandela figure of modern-day America. He has somehow convinced far too many people that unless Donald Trump is elected president again, America is doomed. Most other people — a battered and bruised majority — either don't want to hear about it anymore or lives in terror of Trump's return.  

Yes, America is in deep distress right now, but there's no real mystery about what's causing it. It's largely because of Donald Trump and what he unleashed after he came down that golden escalator in 2015. It's not going to get any better until he is finally defeated or otherwise leaves the stage. Until then it's likely to get much worse. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donald Trump Economy Elections Inflation Joe Biden Media Pandemic