Three massive news events Monday exposed the demons possessing America.
The Wall Street Journal published a poll finding that the COVID-19 pandemic wrought a crisis of confidence in America, a rot in the soul of the nation.
Back in 1998, Americans overwhelmingly rated these things as “very important”: patriotism (70%), religion (62%), and having children (59%). By 2019, those numbers had dropped, but not precipitously, to 61%, 48%, and 43%. In 2023, they fell to 38%, 39%, and 30%, the Journal’s poll found.
Also Monday, a female shooter who identified as transgender killed three adults and three children in a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, before officers fatally shot her, police reported. She had attended the school years ago, and her motives remain unclear at this writing.
Mass shootings have become tragically common, and no state experiences them as frequently as California, which has imposed the gun control measures activists demand in the wake of such tragedies.
In the third big news item Monday, Wayne State University suspended a professor who wrote on Facebook: “I think it is far more admirable to kill a racist, homophobic, or transphobic speaker than it is to shout them down.” The professor pointed to the assassination of Symon Petluria, an antisemitic Ukrainian politician, and his murderer’s subsequent acquittal. Keith Whittington, a politics professor at Princeton University, wrote that the Wayne State professor’s post is “almost certainly constitutionally protected.”
What is going on here?
Americans are entering a period of extreme distrust in institutions, coupled with ideological polarization and social disintegration. The lockdown isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic only intensified these growing trends, which are likely to push our country to a breaking point.
A dangerous combination of social isolation and ideological polarization is driving Americans to view each other not just as opponents but enemies. Few Americans would express the Wayne State professor’s advocacy of killing those who disagree with him, but his words show where this growing mistrust ultimately may lead.
William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their 1997 book “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy,” and Ray Dalio, in his 2021 book “Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order,” describe historical cycles that predict this kind of social disintegration. They also give hints about what happens next.
Strauss and Howe present a cyclical theory of history based on the life cycles of generations, noting that about every 80 years, our nation goes through a major crisis: the American Revolution (1776-1783), the Civil War (1860-1865), and the Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945). The next major crisis should be happening right about … now.
Of course, Strauss and Howe aren’t Nostradamus—they’re not just using an 80-year calculation to try to predict doom and gloom. They explore four different archetypes that generally match the character of various generations, and they coin the term “millennial” to describe my generation.
While baby boomers are a “prophet generation,” spawning the hippie movement and the evangelical explosion of the 1970s, and Generation X is an artist generation that seeks personal fulfillment and helps unravel society, millennials are supposed to be a “hero” generation that works to achieve success, a new Greatest Generation.
That’s not a moral endorsement, but a description of the role that millennials seek to fill—we’re not necessarily noble heroes, but we are aching to fix what we see as societal problems, from climate change to gender pronouns.
Strauss and Howe don’t predict that America will succeed in the crisis ahead, or that millennials will prove our mettle. We need to rise to the challenge and combat real crises, not the boogeymen that often haunt our dreams.
While these two authors focus on generations, Ray Dalio focuses on debt cycles in his more recent book—and once again, America is headed for crisis. The U.S. has a national debt of $31.6 trillion, more than the 2021 gross domestic product of about $23 trillion.
The good news is most other countries are also in dire fiscal straights, and the U.S. dollar is still the world’s reserve currency (other countries use the U.S. dollar as the main rate of exchange). The bad news is the U.S. faces the kind of headwinds that led the Netherlands and Britain to lose their reserve currency status—as internal disorder (which Dalio measures in terms of wealth and values gaps, polarization, and populism) reaches extremely high levels.
So, if Americans increasingly distrust one another, how do we rediscover the faith in our fellow citizens to come together amid a crisis?
Every potential answer to this question seems trite. Americans can listen to one another and help each other more. We can volunteer with local civic groups, open our homes to those in need, and have more meals with friends, neighbors, and church groups. We can and should do all of these things, but they may not solve the problem.
Unfortunately, polarization has driven a wedge between churches—even those in the same denomination—and led Americans to mistrust organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, which both seem tilted in a leftward direction on social issues. Conservatives and liberals should listen to one another more, but we may still vehemently disagree even when we understand how the other side thinks.
Social disintegration and polarization appears to be an intractable problem, much like mass shootings. We can remain vigilant to protect ourselves and our families and pray for God to soften hearts, but public policy can’t prevent a murder, and it can’t stamp out hate and distrust.
Fortunately, Strauss and Howe suggest the trend is likely to reverse itself quickly if we face a unifying crisis such as World War II. Any such crisis will have to be worse than the pandemic, which seems only to have pushed Americans away from one another.
Conservatives see the crises of ballooning debt, a mass of drugs and humanity pouring across the border, the rising threat of China, and children growing up without both parents, if they are even born at all. Liberals see climate change, mistrust of minorities, and growing wealth gaps. Ultimately, conservatives and liberals will work together when one crisis becomes so big that neither side can afford to ignore it.
Let’s hope that awakening won’t come too late.
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