It is, obviously, self-referential to quote yourself, but I do it to make a point. I wrote the following on New Year’s day, 1994. America 16 years ago was a relatively content nation, though full of political sparks: 10 months later the Republicans would take the House for the first time in 40 years. But beneath all the action was, I thought, a coming unease. Something inside was telling us we were living through “not the placid dawn of a peaceful age but the illusory calm before stern storms.”
The temperature in the world was very high. “At home certain trends—crime, cultural tension, some cultural Balkanization—will, we fear, continue; some will worsen. In my darker moments I have a bad hunch. The fraying of the bonds that keep us together, the strangeness and anomie of our popular culture, the increase in walled communities . . . the rising radicalism of the politically correct . . . the increased demand of all levels of government for the money of the people, the spotty success with which we are communicating to the young America’s reason for being and founding beliefs, the growth of cities where English is becoming the second language . . . these things may well come together at some point in our lifetimes and produce something painful indeed. I can imagine, for instance, in the year 2020 or so, a movement in some states to break away from the union. Which would bring about, of course, a drama of Lincolnian darkness. . . . You will know that things have reached a bad pass when Newsweek and Time, if they still exist 15 years from now, do cover stories on a surprising, and disturbing trend: aging baby boomers leaving America, taking what savings they have to live the rest of their lives in places like Africa and Ireland.”
I thought of this again the other day when Drudge headlined increasing lines in London for Americans trading in their passports over tax issues, and the sale of Newsweek for $1.
Our problems as a nation have been growing on us for a long time. Their future growth, and the implications of that growth, could be predicted. But there is one thing that is both new since 1994 and huge. It took hold and settled in after the crash of 2008, but its causes were not limited to the crash.
The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us.
The country I was born into was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought—wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances—that their children would have better lives than they did. That was what kept people pulling their boots on in the morning after the first weary pause: My kids will have it better. They’ll be richer or more educated, they’ll have a better job or a better house, they’ll take a step up in terms of rank, class or status. America always claimed to be, and meant to be, a nation that made little of class. But America is human. “The richest family in town,” they said, admiringly. Read Booth Tarkington on turn-of-the-last-century Indiana. It’s all about trying to rise.
Parents now fear something has stopped. They think they lived through the great abundance, a time of historic growth in wealth and material enjoyment. They got it, and they enjoyed it, and their kids did, too: a lot of toys in that age, a lot of Xboxes and iPhones. (Who is the most self-punishing person in America right now? The person who didn’t do well during the abundance.) But they look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won’t be made at a great enough pace, that taxes—too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it—will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up. And then there is the world: nuts with nukes, etc.
Optimists think that if we manage to turn a few things around, their kids may have it . . . almost as good. The country they inherit may be . . . almost as good. And it’s kind of a shock to think like this; pessimism isn’t in our DNA. But it isn’t pessimism, really, it’s a kind of tough knowingness, combined, in most cases, with a daily, personal commitment to keep plugging.
But do our political leaders have any sense of what people are feeling deep down? They don’t act as if they do. I think their detachment from how normal people think is more dangerous and disturbing than it has been in the past. I started noticing in the 1980s, the growing gulf between the country’s thought leaders, as they’re called—the political and media class, the universities—and those living what for lack of a better word we’ll call normal lives on the ground in America. The two groups were agitated by different things, concerned about different things, had different focuses, different world views.
But I’ve never seen the gap wider than it is now. I think it is a chasm. In Washington they don’t seem to be looking around and thinking, Hmmm, this nation is in trouble, it needs help. They’re thinking something else. I’m not sure they understand the American Dream itself needs a boost, needs encouragement and protection. They don’t seem to know or have a sense of the mood of the country.
And so they make their moves, manipulate this issue and that, and keep things at a high boil. And this at a time when people are already in about as much hot water as they can take.
To take just one example from the past 10 days, the federal government continues its standoff with the state of Arizona over how to handle illegal immigration. The point of view of our thought leaders is, in general, that borders that are essentially open are good, or not so bad. The point of view of those on the ground who are anxious about our nation’s future, however, is different, more like: “We live in a welfare state and we’ve just expanded health care. Unemployment’s up. Could we sort of calm down, stop illegal immigration, and absorb what we’ve got?” No is, in essence, the answer.
An irony here is that if we stopped the illegal flow and removed the sense of emergency it generates, comprehensive reform would, in time, follow. Because we’re not going to send the estimated 10 million to 15 million illegals already here back. We’re not going to put sobbing children on a million buses. That would not be in our nature. (Do our leaders even know what’s in our nature?) As years passed, those here would be absorbed, and everyone in the country would come to see the benefit of integrating them fully into the tax system. So it’s ironic that our leaders don’t do what in the end would get them what they say they want, which is comprehensive reform.
When the adults of a great nation feel long-term pessimism, it only makes matters worse when those in authority take actions that reveal their detachment from the concerns—even from the essential nature—of their fellow citizens. And it makes those citizens feel powerless.
Inner pessimism and powerlessness: That is a dangerous combination.