2021 will be defined by the fight between builders and holders

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Nobody got away easy from 2020. Each of us, in our own way, carries some kind of scar from the last year. As we enter into “The Twenties” we’re all wondering how things might get better. More than ever, we want to peer into the future to gain comfort, to know that our world won’t hurt us any more than it already has.

Because of the events of 2020, I believe that our world will be defined less by liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, rural and urban. Those are situational definitions where people react to the world based on current circumstances. Even “liberal” and “conservative” is situational, since few people are liberal in all things, or conservative in none. Most people’s political outlooks change depending on their present situation, like whether they support minimum wage, foreign wars, or even a deeply moral issue like abortion.

Instead, America in 2021 will experience a battle between the builders and the holders. Where builders believe their main challenge is to make better versions of everything, holders struggle to keep things the same, or even tear down changes made by builders that alter the customs they cherish.

Builders are constantly struggling to improve themselves and their world, with adaptation and invention being their key tools. For decades, American industry has been the tip of the builders’ spear, as not only new products, but new ways of living and seeing the world have emerged from a broadly optimistic view of what’s possible. Conservative leaders can be builders too, as Reagan and Thatcher tried to scrape away what they saw as an ossified welfare state holding back innovation. 

On the flip side, holders crave stability and permanence through resistance and destruction. Holders identify with tradition and authority figures who promise to reenforce traditions and to hold back the changes at any cost, so the world can remain recognizable to those who struggle with change.

Groups of builders or holders recognize one another and often align together, regardless of politics or other circumstances. They sometimes band together in large organizations for the purpose of building or holding, some of which are quite large. In the United States, the National Rifle Association has become an organization of holders, nominally seeking to uphold the American Constitution’s right to bear arms but with an overarching political message to resist racial equity and immigration. The NRA’s main goal is to stop change, to act as a veto on society. It is a simple message, and therefore relatively easy to organize around.

Builders are less unified, and as a result have many competing organizations and messages. Environmental organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, technology companies like SpaceX or Google, or the entire field of medicine view their world as full of potential improvement. Exactly what kind of improvement, and exactly how the world should be improved is an unresolved conflict between builders often putting them at odds. When there are many big problems to be solved at once, like today, builders can compete to the point of styming each other’s efforts, so that nothing really moves forward.

The spirit of builders has driven America forward and set us apart from other nations, which ordinarily struggle to satisfy the demands of holders. Anywhere you see a people beset by tradition, you’ll find the holders. America has so few national traditions, in part because of its youth, but also because as a people, we were so busy doing, we didn’t stop long enough to create traditions. Since the mid-Twentieth Century, we’ve begun to build a series of traditions around the flag and military, many of which barely existed and were rarely observed.

For instance, the pledge of allegiance and American Flag Code were not federally recognized until 1942, as the nation juiced up patriotism in response to the Second World War.  But we’ve had holders almost as long as we’ve been a country. Soon after the United States had established itself, it began to struggle with holders, notably with the Know Nothings in the 1850’s, an anti-immigrant xenophobic movement. Then, the temperance movement, the John Birch Society, the Klu Klux Klan – all of these groups resisted societal and technological change.

The Trump Presidency has put holders up front and center. Americans, frightened by multiple waves of change – economic, societal, climate, and technologic – are desperately seeking consolation that everything will work out. Donald Trump’s answer: “Don’t worry about it. We’ll just go back to the way things used to be,” is reassuring and easy to consume. It is a holder’s mantra to keep things the way they used to be.

The karmic counterweight to the Trump Presidency has been the Pandemic. While holders tried to ignore the virus, keeping bars open and refusing masks, the only way through the Pandemic was to adapt to it. We had to change our society through isolation, change our economy to emphasize delivery, and pour resources into esoteric and complex biosciences the man on the street has no hope of comprehending.

The Pandemic only served to accelerate pressures on holders who wanted to Make America Great Again, emphasizing that the only way forward was to build something new and better.

Because the pain of the Pandemic is acute and universal, it has been difficult for the holders to succeed. But 2021’s bigger, more existential problems like climate, racial equality, and the role of immigrants in America, will not be thrown into the same relief. While the solutions may involve conservative or liberal ideas, be driven by the working class or the fabulously wealthy, at every step of the way, it will be a struggle between the builders making and the holders resisting.