Are We On The Wrong Track?

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This morning while reading your emails I got this question from TPM Reader EG: “How has your experience of politics in this country over the last six years changed your understanding of this country?  Do you sense a secular before and after that we are transitioning to?”

That’s a very big question and I don’t know what my answer is. But I do have a few observations to share, which maybe are part of an evolving answer.

First a few preliminaries.

Implicit in this question, I think, is one of national decline. Basically, are we moving into a new reality in which things are getting worse, in which the American democratic order is under permanent threat or even on the way out. I don’t think everyone’s a pessimist. But it’s hard for me to imagine many people asking this particular question in the present national context and meaning, “Don’t we seem to be entering a new age in which everything or most things will be more awesome than they were previously?”

It’s a conceit of American politicians to say they’re “optimistic about America,” that its best days are in front of it. I’ve written before that I believe optimism is mostly a moral rather than an evidentiary stance. It’s a way of approaching the world rather than an analysis of it. That said, I’ve also learned from experience and recent history that the United States is a remarkably resilient country. Adam Smith famously said that there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. They can absorb a lot, in other words. This seems to be particularly true of the United States. In several phases over just my lifetime we’ve had some big national foe or rival. Some other country is about to lap us and then suddenly they’re not anymore.

I think this resilience is largely rooted in the fact that the U.S. is just a very big and diverse country. And here I don’t principally mean diverse in the way we usually use the word today — meaning ethnic, racial or gender diversity, though I don’t exclude those. It’s just a really, really big country, both in terms of its geographical reach and population size and has a huge number of regional, regional-cultural and quasi-ethnic subcultures. There’s just a lot going in the country and that is quickened by ongoing immigration from various parts of the world. When one chunk is tapped out there’s usually some other new thing or place or regional economy stepping forward.

We see some tiny hint of this in the recent media frenzy about country/folk singer Oliver Anthony, whose working class anthem Fox News and much of MAGA world interpreted as a protest song about Hunter Biden’s laptop only to find him claiming the song was actually an attack on people like them. (This turnabout will basically never stop being funny.) Lyrics about welfare cheats and woke politics make clear Anthony is also no liberal, as do his YouTube page which included links to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about 9/11. I don’t want to freight this one guy with too big an argument. It’s simply a reminder that it’s a big and weird country and there are countless breeds of radicalism in it. Here I don’t mean that with a necessarily negative connotation. We tend to telescope them down to a handful which are at the center of the national political conversation. There’s BLM/Antifa, Qanon and then … well, that’s kind of it. But there’s a lot more out there, even with the homogenizing force of national media.

There is however one cluster of data that I do keep coming back to as a signal of some more thoroughgoing breakdown that goes beyond headlines about Trump or MAGA craziness.

Back in 2003 I wrote a review essay for The New Yorker about the frenzy of neo-imperialist thinking that swept so many of the country’s elites in the brief span of time between the 9/11 attacks and the start of the Iraq War. It didn’t make it into the piece. But one of the books I was given to review was After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order by the French demographer Immanuel Todd. Lefty books predicting the decline of American empire are a dime a dozen. In part I didn’t include it because the arguments didn’t seem entirely persuasive to me. Even more it was just very different kind of book than the others I was reviewing. But what made and makes Todd hard to dismiss entirely out of hand was a 1976 book he’d written predicting the decline and collapse of the Soviet empire. In much of the world in the early 1970s, the Soviet Union seemed a robust incumbent superpower on the world stage, as ephemeral and transient as mountains or water. Many U.S. foreign policy elites believed the Soviet Union was as on the march around the world. The way the Reagan cult would have it, Reagan was a sunny optimist who realized the old Soviet Union just needed a good shove to usher it off the stage. Far from it. Read what the rightwing intellectuals around Reagan were saying at the time and it’s a message not of optimism but pessimism about the America’s staying power against the Soviet colossus. The idea that in little more than a decade it could teeter and collapse seemed absurd. Equally interesting was the basis of Todd’s argument, which was not geopolitical big think or game theory but a more quotidian analysis of demographic and trade data — notably rising infant mortality.

As we’ve moved into the Trump era I’ve returned to this many times, particularly what now seems to be clear evidence of declining lifespans in the United States. Some recent decline is tied to the exogenous impact of the COVID pandemic. But the trend significantly predates COVID and the key drivers have been an increase in suicide, accidental overdoses, other deaths caused directly and indirectly by chronic addiction — what Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “Deaths of Despair.” Suddenly the United States has dropped off the track still ridden by virtually every other prosperous industrial democracy in which life spans continually drift higher and higher.

The opioid epidemic and the importation of fentanyl are clear vehicles of this trend. But as Case, Deaton and many others have observed, these cannot be seen as the true underlying cause. Or at least not those alone. There is some deeper breakdown or shift afoot, something so thoroughgoing that it shows up in the nation’s vital statistics much as one might see a diagnostic signal of some underlying disease in an individual patient. To me the rise of the culture of mass shooting seems inevitably, though in a way that is hard to connect formally, part of the same underlying social malady.

Of course, illness doesn’t inevitably lead to decline or demise. As Smith says, there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. So this observation, which is by no means unique to me, doesn’t make me a declinist. We can arrange these facts as part of a chaotic and painful transition. That’s how I mostly see it. But who knows? Does this change my basic view of American history or understanding of the country? I wouldn’t put it quite that way. But there does seem to be some underlying breakdown, something operating beneath the waves and independent of the daily headlines, that seems genuinely new, different and ominous.

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