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Americans today are increasingly pessimistic. Across all political affiliations, citizens have adopted a victim mentality premised on the idea that the current power structure doesn’t work for their interests and instead caters to the desires of other groups. Somehow, in an age where the country can’t seem to agree on anything, everyone seems to agree that they are being exploited. With this staunchly negative attitude gaining almost universal traction, we need to strongly consider what the consequences of widespread victimhood are.

On the left, it seems all problems are now framed through the lenses of racism, sexism, ableism and other expansive issues. Although acknowledging these systemic problems is important, fixating on them prevents us from taking achievable steps to make tangible progress. While President John F. Kennedy told Americans to “Ask what you can do for your country,” modern Democrats seem more inclined to ask what their country has failed to do for them. 

Meanwhile, on the right, perhaps the most pronounced modern instance of victimhood occurred during the 2016 election cycle. As opposed to the optimistic “Morning in America” rhetoric of Reagan, then-candidate Donald Trump galvanized voters around the idea that they were victims of a corrupt “liberal elite” systematically destroying the nation. As president, rather than rallying Americans to rise above the threats of globalization, Trump increasingly led voters to believe they were oppressed by those in power, culminating in an erosion of trust in the electoral system.

The shift toward a victim mentality has permeated every facet of modern politics and now, in many ways, is the lens through which most of us see the world. Instead of viewing challenges as obstacles to overcome, we too often regard difficulties as insurmountable systemic issues. When victimhood becomes part of people’s identities, it ceases to be a constructive form of empathy and morphs into a mental roadblock

While past generations were defined by how they rose to combat seemingly hopeless situations during the Great Depression and World War 2, our society now seems content to point fingers and assign blame without making meaningful progress toward solving problems. We have become so obsessed with calling ourselves victims and analyzing how we are affected by forces beyond our direct control that we have lost the spirit of community and grit that enabled Americans to fight through prior hardships.

Perhaps the most profound instance of this frame of mind can be found in our lack of progress in combating wealth inequality. Although both the left and right can agree that the sharp decline in upward mobility over the past two decades is worrisome, by focusing the public conversation on who qualifies as a victim of intersectional forces, we are unable to truly solve the issue. Regardless of which aspects of racism, government mismanagement or other systemic factors have contributed to wealth disparities the most, the reality of the situation is that those who are suffering the consequences cannot be narrowly categorized and labeled. Unfortunately, rather than investing money in reforming our education system, we find ourselves distracted by debates over Critical Race Theory and parental roles in education.

Though many contend that these prominent arguments are critical to solving systemic issues, the opposite is in many ways true. Historically, social movements have had limited lifespans, so failing to capitalize on momentum and achieve real reform proves detrimental to any cause. While raising awareness about injustices is a substantial first step toward increasing compassion and support for social change, individuals often find their pleas drowned out by a chorus of vitriol because of the overarching nature of victimhood. To avoid the “culture war,” it is necessary to reframe the discussion from who qualifies as a victim to what actionable steps can be taken to correct the situation.

In order to escape our current stagnation, we must realign our priorities. We have no chance of resolving the complex problems in modern America with a pessimistic attitude or unproductive victimhood. Instead, we must shift our attention from divisive quibbles to the uplifting work of addressing issues together. Only then can we strive to meet the challenges of our time.

Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at nsnikhil@umich.edu.