Americans fear that America is falling apart. A litany of dysfunctions needs no reciting. The disruptions they cause are deep and pervasive, and they compound each other. The overall effect exceeds the sum of the parts, even raising forebodings of national failure. The fear in itself poses a daunting challenge, which saps the spirit, which feeds further deterioration.
This malaise is no academic sociologist’s divination. All too many Americans suffer personally from the dysfunctions, in forms ranging from lines at the DMV to shortages at the store to online spam and hacking to confusing pandemic guidelines. Personal experiences corroborate news reports of disaster and disorder, in mass murder, wildfires and floods, riots and insurrections, foreign threats, crumbling infrastructure, and social instability. A fragmenting public discourse breeds mistrust, which alienates people from any “other,” in its own vicious cycle. Low workforce participation; windfall hunting via market speculation and gambling; and peoples’ retreats into narrow affinity groups all reflect a kind of despair. So do addictions and suicides.
A politics of polarization exploits and deepens the malaise. Two parties have ossified into warring camps, committed to opposing each other regardless of the substance of any issue. They pull issues apart into hostile interpretations, and agglomerate their collections of hostile narratives into systemic dogmas. A mutually belligerent intransigence dominates public discourse, hardening differences of opinion into alienation. In a zero-sum trench warfare the two sides perpetually escalate their efforts against each other, which deepens the division in a self-perpetuating cycle. Any voice that would seek compromise or common effort gets consigned to no man’s land. Power becomes ever more important, and solutions, reason, or comity ever less. No one needs to read books predicting civil war to see how it could happen.
Against such pressures, the idea of truth itself becomes harder to maintain. Competing partisan narratives re-cast facts into self-serving partisan interpretations. Adversaries learn to dismiss each others’ versions as “weaponized” contrivances. The feeling that “nothing is true and anything is possible,” deliberately promoted in Russian propaganda, is now fueled in our own politics. When there is no clarity either of truth or impossibility, there is chaos.
Political malpractice is not the sole cause of this chaos. Truth has become a bit confusing as society finds wider contexts that seem to override old norms. Everyone now has to contend with new knowledge that might prove “my” truths wrong. For instance, new communications technology can now show people intimate portrayals of very different cultures and societies. Anyone can see how “my” precepts about morals, nature and society may be incomprehensible to others, who in turn live by incomprehensible norms of their own. At another level, science has been undermining certainties at least since Einstein showed time and distance are not fixed, and Heisenberg that an object’s location is a matter of probability, not fact. Any fact seems refutable, and politicians pull us into their wars for “our truth,” against “their subversive claims.”
The 2020s have seen the disruption of a whole 20th Century order: representative electoral government and market economics; loosely Protestant ethos enmeshed in liberal doctrine; and technocratic institutional management. Antithetical movements abroad – Nazism and Fascism and Soviet Communism – pulled us to dedicate ourselves, in its name, to defeat those enemies. When the last of them died so did our many of our bearings. At the same time our 20th Century radar screen became flooded by Jihadists, gene splicing, pandemics, racism, social media, stock market collapses, climate issues, “deniers” of all sorts, gender identities, populists, the Big Bang, and more. The world suddenly turned into a mass of confusing, intertwining, intractable, and ubiquitous new problems, some attacking us from directions that hadn’t existed before.
Americans’ 20th Century sense of common sense has collapsed. As the chaos grows, a crisis of existence seems to loom. The events of 2020-21 may have been only a warm-up. Massive institutional reform may not defuse it, and it is hard to picture our institutions fixing themselves anyway. As cascading dysfunctions inundate us, can we even see their causes? As they sweep our mental landmarks away, today’s crises push us to questions like “What is the point of existence? What is humanity’s purpose?”
Systemic doubt is not new to America. Nor is widespread disorientation caused by tectonic shifts in worldly life. In 1903, publisher S.S. McClure prefaced an issue of his magazine by recounting that era’s dysfunctions and institutional failings. Government, business and unions were corrupt, and universities ignorant. To solve the new problems, no matter where the public turned, “There is no one. None but all of us.”
One-liners do not solve problems but a point follows from McClure’s note. Who are “all of us?” If we see a common identity, we may feel that we share basic underlying desires. If we see one fundamental point of commonality, we have bedrock from which to take our bearings, and a lens through which to parse the chaos. With clear orientation, and only with it, we might learn to navigate a new age. Navigating together, we may overcome alienation and join in common cause.
No shared orientation is possible if we focus on beating the “other side.” Division should soften when people see they share common ground. In America today, any image of common ground needs certain qualities to overcome the division. People of different political outlooks must be able to stand on it together without renouncing their views, beyond lip service and without simply calling it something the “other side” violates. Second, its features must withstand new discoveries in the cosmos; it must have substance that, in rational confidence, we can believe in even if every fact we know is disproven. Any such bedrock truth must also carry an affirmative meaning; it cannot amount to a statement of mental resignation, no “life is strange” fatalism. Last, it must be something that we can feel, even implicitly, might really work. Newly conjured doctrines or high ideals that lack resonance with people as we handle life’s gritty demands will only get “mugged by reality.”
America does have real common ground, in an identity named in the nation’s self-conception of 1776. We have largely held it implicitly. Its essence is easily overlooked amid ideas and movements it enables, rules and habits adopted in their name, and debates and disputes over them. Now we should spell it out:
In the Declaration of Independence, a new “People” conceived itself, separating from another and joining the “Powers of the Earth,” naming itself only as “We” who
… hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers form the Consent of the Governed …
This is the same “We the People” that adopted the Constitution, the charter for the nation’s governing state. The Declaration’s renunciation of the signers’ ethnic motherland means this people renounced ethnic identity. It is the same nation that Lincoln steered the Civil War to preserve. The holding of the Declaration’s truths – of rights, and government to secure them – defines America’s nationality.
The Declaration’s creed does not give prescriptions to fix America, but it yields a way to talk about our issues that should allow for an honest public discourse. This blog’s purpose is to speak from that orientation, to show that our common identity does exist and does provide a base for comity.