Anomie and the threat to American Democracy

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

James Carville, 1992.
Writer's Note: For a fuller explanation of the concepts of anomie, one great starting place is the personal website ( of Prof. Dr. Christian Wickert who adapted his class curricula to create the pages. The links below are to his content. Further reading is available on Prof. Wickert's website. Or comment below and I'll see what I can find. There are a number of basic and moderately advanced videos on this topic at YouTube.

The original concept of Anomie (“a-nuh – mee”) comes from Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist of the late 19th Century. Durkheim was trying to explain the increase in suicide as the early stages of industrialization swept France. A modern way of looking at Durkheim’s theory is that as technology changes impact the lives of individual people, it creates economic shifts that make societal changes. The old ways no longer work and individuals become desperate as they watch the economic and social deterioration of their lives.

In the 1930s, the American sociologist, Robert Merton, expanded the concept from a focus on the individual to a focus on social structures. Society has “rules” or “norms” or expectations of behavior. In return for following these norms, the individual has a meaningful life.

When this social contract or the “collective consciousness” is no longer in sync with the social and economic reality, people’s lives are disrupted. This creates tension in the life of the individuals. As that tension grows, the willingness, even the ability to adhere to the past’s social norms melts away.

In the academic field of criminology, a major branch of sociology, anomie in the United States is being tied to economic inequality and perhaps more telling, the significant decrease in upward economic mobility.

By the 1980’s Robert Agnew added another dimension to the related theories of anomie. Specifically the role of an individual’s stress in General Strain Theory. Agnew also ties together a number of threads of thought including the psychology of stress and emotions, and methods of social control.

These theories from the social sciences give us a structural framework to understand the rising discontent in western civilization and especially in the United States. It explains rising suicide rates, addiction rates, violence in the homes, and increasing criminality in our streets. It explains individual isolation and the breakdown of the sense of community.

The answer to this politically is, it isn’t society’s fault that bad things happen. It is the responsibility of the individual who made bad choices. We need to help these bad people from making bad choices by increasing the consequences for doing bad things.

And so the argument about what is wrong with America goes back and forth. It’s illegal immigration. It’s drugs. It’s poor parenting. It’s gen K’s fault. It’s healthcare. It’s the deficit. It’s socialism. It’s capitalism. It’s guns. It’s bad cops. It’s lazy kids. It bad education. And on an on ad nauseum.

The reality is that it is bad policy. Policies that have killed the “American Dream” during the past two generations. Policies that destroyed hope, not just for a better future for “my “our” children, but policies that destroyed hope for a better future, period.

We need to correct the policies that destroyed the middle class here in the United States.

It’s the economy, stupid.

Anomie explains the breakdown of social morality and the shared sense of community when important implicit social promised are not fulfilled. Is it really any wonder that with the death of the American middle class dream, that people are upset? To the point to trying to do something about it?

Of course not.

Happy people do not start revolutions.

There is no single cause of this mess we call our daily lives. But if we want our civilization to survive our lifetimes, we need to start making investments into the future.

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