How did we get to the Age of Grievance?


I have long appreciated Frank Bruni’s columns in the New York Times. So I looked forward to reading his newest book, The Age of Grievance

Bruni is a great writer who has come across to me as both wise and fair. And this book exhibits those qualities. It is also, I regret to say, disappointing.

Why disappointing? There is a lot of description of our culture of grievance and its manifold expressions on both the right and the left. I had hoped for something different. Namely, an explanation of how we had arrived at this point.

How had a nation that so prized self-reliance, personal responsibility and optimism flipped so thoroughly, and in a relatively brief time, to a nation where blame, complaint and assertions of victimization seem the song, or perhaps dirge, that most everybody is now singing?

It was only 15 years ago, in 2009, that another best-selling cultural commentator, Barbara Ehrenrich, published her book, Bright-Sidedsubtitle, “How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.”

Fifteen years ago our problem was that we are all way too upbeat, too hopeful, too “bright” and optimistic, and now we’re all dystopian, whiney, pessimistic and very, very “dark.” How — I wanted to know had this happened?

Was I asking too much?

Maybe there’s no answer? Or maybe the answer, one Bruni likes as a general life-posture, is “it’s complicated.” But still to go from a nation where Positive Thinking Is Undermining America to America: The Culture of Complaint, in a decade and a half is remarkable.

Is it the ubiquity of social media? Or the envy-inciting gap between the super-rich and everyone else? Maybe Covid? Or Donald Trump, the King of Grievance? Was it the Coddling of the American Mind, (Jonathan Haidt’s book) on campuses or the rise of identity politics? Maybe Fox and MSNBC, and their derivatives, sucking Americans into our chosen angry echo chambers?

Or possibly the whole “self-reliance,” rugged individual and optimism thing was all window dressing? Whatever it is, the shift from can-do to can’t-do, from “I can do it,” to “they made me do it,” from striving to whining has — at least to my mind — been significant and abrupt.

Explain it to me. This was what I was looking for. And what I didn’t find.

My own (non book-length) explanation is this: the twentieth century ended with America ascendent and democracy triumphant, which led us to think the twenty-first would be smooth-sailing. We expected heaven on earth, “the new world order.”

What we got has been a fair bit of hell on earth. The twenty-first century has been one trauma after another from 9/11 and global terrorism, failed foreign wars to the Great Recession, the Tea Party and Trump, police killings of black men, protests and riots, Covid and war in Europe. And hanging over it all, Climate Apocalypse.

It has been nothing if not “a time of testing,” and so far we aren’t getting a passing grade.

To his credit, Bruni devotes his last 60 pages to good ideas about what can and should be done to change course. The proposals are practical. Things like open primaries and rank-choice voting, job training for people in mid-life, and regulation of social media.

But his major solution was a surprise to me, albeit an agreeable one. If grievance gluttony is your problem, you might think the solution is gratitude. Count your blessings, be thankful, look on the bright side, etc.

But no, Bruni says the antidote to grievance is “humility.” Taking yourself a little less seriously. Be less inclined to be sure you are right and that you know it all. Imagining you have much to learn. Getting the facts before moving to Defcon-12 and full cancellation mode.

As an exemplar of what he has in mind, Bruni cites the popular Republican governor of blue-state Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, who is fond of quoting a verse from the New Testament, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, rather, in humility, value others above yourself.” (Philippians 2:3)

Which allows me to suggest — no surprise to my readers — that the atrophy of a once prevailing religious and truly Christian ethos and ethic (as opposed to the grievance-driven “Christian Nationalism,”) is a core part of the problem. That was, and is, a spiritual tradition that taught humility as a core value grounded in the knowledge that there is God, and it isn’t us.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Arthur C. Brooks, in his column yesterday in “Atlantic” magazine, suggests an additional reason. Recent generations of American have been inclined to constantly preach to our children that they are wonderful, even perfect. Then when life inevitably proves to be full of unending adversity and they discover that they are sometimes or even often inadequate to those challenges, that can easily lead to grievance. If I’m so wonderful, then it must be the fault of other people and their tribes; it certainly can’t be due to my own inadequacies and imperfections, because I don’t have any. The result – one’s instinctive response to life’s challenges and imperfections becomes GRIEVANCE. Perhaps this is adjacent to the emphasis that Bruni places on humility, which you mention.

  2. It’s actually very simple. We hit limits.

    Society across the globe has spent centuries with constant improvements, or at least visibility to same. In 1700 most people were still peasants under kings, as they had been for a millennium. In the next 300 years most people lived in an affluence their ancestors would only have dreamed of, especially in the “West” and Asia.

    Limits. Climate disaster will inevitably require a downsizing of expectations. Fewer cars, more transit. Smaller homes in denser space. Happeneing at the same time local labor and capital markets are colliding.

    But hilariously amplified to the elimination of limits in other areas, Global comms technology means we all aspire to a standard the previous makes impossible. Local cultures die. No one can really believe their religion is absolutely true…we can all read about every other on in real time, while learning the faults of our own. Biotech is radically changing what and how we are human biologically.

    TL/DR: The future is finding out Warp Drive is practically impossible, your job is now done by a computer, you need to define your own meaning, and everyone learns this instantly online.


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