The coming election will be held at a time of insoluble cultural and racial conflict; a two-tier economy, one growing, the other stagnant; a time of inequality and economic immobility; a divided electorate based on educational attainment — taken together, a toxic combination pushing the country into two belligerent camps.
I wrote to a range of scholars, asking whether the nation has reached a point of no return.
The responses varied widely, but the level of shared pessimism was striking.
Richard Haass, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former director of policy planning at the State Department, responded, “So is the U.S. at a critical juncture? And is this juncture qualitatively different from previous difficult moments in our history?”
His answer to his own question: “I lean toward yes, as one of the comparative advantages of this democracy has been its ability to reform itself and correct mistakes, and our ability to do so now is much less certain.”
What worries Haass most is
In an email, Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, described the complex interplay of cultural and economic upheavals and the growing inability of politics to give voice to disparate interests as key factors driving contemporary dysfunction.
Some developments, Norris wrote,
These developments have, in turn,
What kinds of political systems, Norris asked, are most vulnerable to democratic backsliding when voters become polarized? Answer: two-party systems like the one operating in the United States.
In this country, Norris argued,
All of which lays the groundwork for the acceptance of false claims.
These destructive forces gain strength in the United States, in Norris’s view,
Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, sees other factors driving intensified conflict. In an email, he wrote:
Why is the country in this fragile condition? Goldstone argued that one set of data points sums most of it up:
In short, Goldstone continued, “a majority of Americans today are more pressured to get life’s necessities, more unsure of their future, and find it far more difficult to find avenues to get ahead. No wonder they are fed up with politics ‘as usual,’ think the system is rigged against them, and just want someone to make things more secure.”
Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an email that pessimism has become endemic in some quarters: “I find that many of my friends, relatives and colleagues are equally concerned about the future of the country. The worst part of this is that we feel quite helpless — unable to find ways to improve matters.”
That the leaders of one of our two major political parties “would support a corrupt, self-interested, and deranged former president,” Sawhill continued, “is certainly part of the problem but even more concerning is the fact that a majority of the public currently says they would vote for him in 2024.”
The biggest challenge, she wrote, “is what I have called ‘the great misalignment’ between the institutions we have and those we need to deal with most of these problems.”
The framers of the Constitution, she wrote:
The difficulties of institutions in prevailing under such concerted duress is becoming increasingly apparent.
Greg Conti, a political scientist at Princeton, in an essay published in December in Compact magazine, “The Rise of the Sectarian University,” describes the erosion of national support for the mediating role of key institutions:
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” is the most optimistic — or, perhaps, the least pessimistic — of those I contacted for this column. He replied by email to my query:
the 1960s, with the assassination of three of the country’s most beloved figures, including the president; urban riots in which dozens of people were killed and neighborhoods burned in a single night; an unpopular war that killed ten times as many Americans as died in Iraq and Afghanistan; fears of annihilation in an all-out nuclear war; a generation that rejected the reigning social and sexual mores, many of whom called for a violent Communist or anarchist revolution; a segregationist third-party candidate who won five states.
the 1970s, with five terrorist bombings a day in many years; the resignations of both the vice president and the president; double-digit inflation and unemployment; two energy crises that were thought might end industrial civilization; “America Held Hostage” in Iran; a sitting president almost unseated by his own party; etc.
the 1980s, with violent crime and homelessness reaching all-time highs; new fears of nuclear escalation; a crack cocaine crisis.
the 2000s, with fears of weekly 9/11-scale attacks, or worse, attacks with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; plans for the surveillance of the entire American population; widespread ridicule and hatred of a president who led the country into two disastrous wars.
Pinker has repeatedly made his case in recent days on X (formerly Twitter) posting “177 Ways the World Got Better in 2023” on Jan. 2, “From David Byrne’s Reasons to Be Cheerful” on the same day and “No, 2023 Wasn’t All Bad, and Here Are 23 Reasons Why Not” on Jan. 4.
Pinker, however, is an outlier.
Larry Kramer, who just retired as president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and is set to serve as president of the London School of Economics, wrote in an email that several major contemporary trends are negative, including:
A number of those I contacted cited inequality and downward mobility as key factors undermining faith in democratic governance.
Allen Matusow, a historian at Rice and the author of “The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s,” wrote by email that he belongs “to the school that believes that our democracy has not been in such peril since the Civil War, and the easy explanation is Trump. But the real question is why such a despicable demagogue commands the support of so many?”
Matusow specifically cited “income inequality and “the cultural resentments of those left behind.”
Trump’s contribution “to the left-behind,” Matusow wrote,
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, shares Matusow’s concerns over the detrimental impact of inequality. Cain emailed me to say:
These factors, Cain continued, work in tandem with
Dissension between Democrats and Republicans, Cain argued, feeds a vicious circle:
In the short term, Cain is not optimistic:
Perhaps the most trenchant comment I received was from Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard who replied to my inquiry at the height of the controversy over the former Harvard president Claudine Gay:
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