It’s a season – an era, really – of American pessimism.
Pessimism comes in many flavors. There is a progressive pessimism: the country is leaning towards MAGA hat-trick fascism or a new version of “The Handmaid’s Tale”. There is a conservative pessimism: institutions from elementary schools to the Pentagon are all captured by the revival. There are Afropessimism: Black people have always been excluded by systemic and ineradicable racism. There is the pessimism of the white middle and working classes: the country and the values they have known for generations are being hijacked by smug and self-centered elites who look down on them with contempt.
There is also the pessimism of the environment: we are losing the institutional capacity, the cultural norms and the moral courage necessary to find pragmatic compromises at almost all levels of society. Zero sum is now our default setting.
These different pessimisms can lead to contradictory conclusions, but they are based on undeniable realities. In 2012 there was approximately 41,000 overdose deaths in the USA. Last year the number exceeded 100,000. In 2012 there was 4.7 murders per 100,000 population. Last year, the rate reached about 6.9, an increase of 47%. Ten years ago, you rarely heard of carjacking. Now they’re through the roof. Shoplifting ? Same. The country’s mental health was in steep decline before the pandemic, with a 60% increase in major depressive episodes among adolescents between 2007 and 2019. Everything we know about the effects of blockages and school closures suggests that it got much worse.
The economy tells a similar story. “21st century America somehow managed to produce significantly more wealth for its wealth holders even as it provided significantly less work for its workers,” observed Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute in a historical. 2017 Commentary Essay. It is partly because of the loss of meaningful work – and the consequent evaporation of pride, purpose and dignity in work – that we get the startling increase in death rates among Americans. middle-aged whites, often by suicide or drug addiction.
The list goes on, but you get the point. Even without the daily reminders of Carter-era inflation, it feels like another era of Carter-style malaise, with an unpopular president who tends to inspire more sympathy than trust.
So why am I always optimistic when it comes to America? Because as long as we are bent, our adversaries are brittle. As we find ways to bend, they can only remain static or break.
This week has brought two powerful reminders of this point. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin gave his usual Victory Day speech on May 9, in which he appealed to nostalgia for a partly mythical past to promote lies about a totally mythical present, all in the name of a war that turns out badly for him.
Putin belatedly discovers that the powers to humiliate, overthrow and destroy are weaker forces than the powers to attract, inspire and build – powers that free nations possess almost as a birthright. The Kremlin might still be able to fight their way to something they might call victory. But his reward will mainly be the rubble he created. The rest of Ukraine will find ways to flourish, ideally as a member of NATO and the European Union.
Meanwhile, in Shanghai, more than 25 million people remain under strict lockdown, a real-world dystopia in which hovering drones warn local residents through loudspeakers for “control your soul’s desire for freedom.” Does anyone still think that China’s handling of the pandemic – its deceptions, its poor vaccines, a zero-Covid policy which has obviously failed and now this cruel lockdown which has brought hunger and drug shortages to its richest city — is a model for the rest of the world?
Despite all its undeniable progress in 45 years, China remains a Potemkin regime obsessed with the maintenance of magnifying illusions: about internal harmony (aided by a vast system of surveillance and prison camps); on technological innovation (helped by an unprecedented theft of intellectual property); on unstoppable economic growth (helped by manufacturing statistics). Illusions can gain status for Beijing. But they have a heavy price: the systematic denial of the truth, even to the regime itself.
Leaders who come to believe their own propaganda will inevitably make miscalculations, often catastrophic. Look again at Putin, who really believed he had a competent military.
Which brings me back to the United States. Just as dictatorships advertise their strengths but hide their weaknesses – both to others and to themselves – democracies do the opposite: we obsess over our weaknesses even as we forget our formidable strengths. This is the source of our pessimism. But it is also, paradoxically, our deepest strength: by refusing to look away from our flaws, we not only recognize them, but we also begin to fix them.
We rethink. We adapt. In bending, we find new ways to grow.
We have a demonstrated record of right-wing demagogues, demystifying left-wing ideologues, promoting racial justice, reversing crime waves, revitalizing the political center and re-energizing the American ideal. Our problems may be difficult, but they are neither insoluble nor new.
Those who don’t have our freedoms won’t be so lucky.