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American Crisis

How we lost our faith in the future and how to get it back

by
Walter Russell Mead
April 20, 2023
Via Meadia
Walter Russell Mead analyzes the revolutionary changes upending American life in the hope of rekindling the American dream for Gen Z and beyond
See all in Via Meadia →︎
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Readers whose memories go back before the Age of Trump may remember the Via Meadia series of essays and news notes at The American Interest. What drove Via Meadia was my conviction that history was far from over, that American society was heading into a period of turmoil, and that internationally the “holiday from history” that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War was rapidly coming to an end.

Via Meadia traced the meltdown of post-historical society in both world and American politics. Overseas, revisionist great powers like China, Russia, and Iran were moving steadily and effectively to undermine the foundations of the American-led world order. At home, the framework of social order inside the United States was beginning to come unglued. Institutions and ideologies that used to work reasonably well most of the time were losing their effectiveness, and the politics of both the left and right wandered off in strange and sometimes troubling new directions.

Since then, I’ve continued to write about the increasingly dramatic international scene in my Global View columns at The Wall Street Journal. But I’ve also been paying attention to the domestic scene, and increasingly I feel the need to get back to writing regularly about what’s happening inside the United States.

Not since the 1970s have Americans felt this pessimistic about where the country is headed. Some believe that our best days are behind us, others that we never really had any good days. America, they say, was never anything more than an oppressive society built on the theft of Native land and the exploitation of African slaves. American liberal ideology was never more than a disguise for white supremacy; American capitalism was always only a system of exploitation.

Meanwhile, public confidence in institutions ranging from the federal government to the media to religious institutions has rapidly—and justifiably—declined. The price of essential services like education and health care has escalated beyond all reason. Voter discontent with the status quo, and disdain rising to hatred against what many perceived as an entitled and incompetent establishment boiled over among Democrats and leftists as social movements ranging from Occupy Wall Street to the Bernie Sanders candidacy sought to redefine the Democratic Party. On the right, such sentiments powered Donald Trump’s rise to the White House in 2016 and they continued to curdle during the COVID pandemic and the Biden years.

I’ve written about a generational failure in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Something similar is happening at home. Our federal government, and many of our city and state governments as well, pile up huge debts without meeting the basic needs of the American people. Too much of our leadership class in universities, the media, and the corporate and intellectual establishments has lost sight of essential truths—and lost the ability to communicate with the rest of the country. And in the absence of genuine leadership, more Americans are turning to angry, misguided voices, both on the left and the right, peddling quack solutions to the real problems we face.

The domestic coverage at Via Meadia 1.0 struck a chord among readers all over the country, from many different political perspectives and of all ages and professions. Many people reached out to say that they found hope and inspiration in some of the ideas we presented there. (The internet being what it is, many wrote in with less positive assessments.) That kind of coverage seems even more needed today, and so with the support of my friends and colleagues at Hudson Institute and the good people at Tablet, I’ve decided to get back into commentary on the domestic scene.

Via Meadia 2.0 is launching as a series of Tablet essays, podcasts, and reports. Although the content will occasionally nod in the direction of world affairs, and my podcast partner Jeremy Stern may sometimes pull me into commenting on my Global View columns, Via Meadia 2.0 is going to center on domestic life. The goal is to illuminate the causes of America’s current political distemper, analyze the most important American issues of our time, and develop ideas and proposals for a new kind of American politics in the rapidly changing environment of a tumultuous period in American history.

This is anything but a parochial focus. America’s success at home has always been the foundation of American security and success abroad. At a time of growing international danger, when the framework of world peace has come under the gravest threats in decades, America needs to succeed at home if we are to fulfil our potential as a stabilizing power worldwide.

Writing intelligently about the United States is harder than it looks. If there is one thing I’ve learned in decades of travel, study, and work in the United States and abroad it is that everybody thinks they understand America but that in fact very few people do. The United States of America is a complex society with a rich history, great cultural and geographic diversity, a social system that is often not very transparent, and a set of founding institutions and ideas that exist in tension with each other and with newer ideas and institutions that have developed over time. Our religious culture has been shaped by salvationist Christianity, but our civic culture and national ideology are grounded in an essentially secular liberal outlook.

We are also an American society. That is, we share characteristics with other countries in the Americas like Mexico and Brazil that set the countries of our hemisphere apart from countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Like many other American countries, the United States has more ethnic, cultural, social, and religious diversity than most European countries. The turbulent history of the hemisphere has left its mark on many American societies, where levels of crime, inequality, and violence are extraordinarily high by world standards. At the same time, our cultural roots are more Anglo and Protestant than most of our fellow American states, giving us much in common with countries like Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and of course Canada. As is the case throughout the Western Hemisphere, our intellectual classes and social elites have historically looked to Europe for aesthetic and intellectual values, while much of our population has had little knowledge of or interest in European history and culture. Serial waves of immigration, the latest and largest of which is taking place now, have reshaped American politics and culture, while leaving many of the essential elements of the national character largely unchanged.

Most of the time, however, our national conversation fails to do justice to the rich complexity of our national life. There are some outstanding exceptions both on the left and the right of American political discourse, but the quality of too much of our national conversation, mediated as it often is by cable news and social media, is too superficial, too one-sided, and too polarized to address the real issues in American life. That would be dangerous enough in ordinary times, but we live in demanding times. The disruptive economic and social consequences of the information revolution combine with the decadence and decay of the midcentury American model of regulated industrial democracy to plunge American society into a maelstrom of interconnected economic, social, racial, political, cultural, and ideological crises.

Between the domestic upheavals in American society, the international turmoil at a time of renewed great power competition, and global threats ranging from nuclear war to climate change, many Americans feel angry, frustrated, and afraid. To make matters worse, America’s leadership class has lost its way, and too many of the politicians, intellectuals, artists, educators, and religious leaders who ought to be pointing the way forward are locked into stale ideologies and failed institutional models, lacking the vision required to move up to the next stage of American life.

Our country is rocked by a set of related but distinct waves of destabilizing change. The first centers around the decadence and decay of what I’ve called “blue model society,” the set of institutions, ideas, and practices built on the foundations of the American economy of the mid 20th century. Once widely admired and emulated as the highest form of social organization, and still the object of widespread political nostalgia, blue model society suffers today both from the ways the emerging information economy disrupts the economic assumptions on which it depends and, crucially, from the increasing consequences of the flaws and shortcomings analyzed over the years by observers like Daniel Bell, Jane Jacobs, and Christopher Lasch. The toxic long-term social and environmental consequences of a mass-production and mass-consumption society based on the technologies of the Industrial Revolution are unfolding around us today in ways that pollute both the natural and social environment.

The hyperindividualism and hedonism that characterize declining blue model society intersect with the massive consequences of the sexual revolution in ways that challenge some of the most deeply rooted institutions and values in American (and indeed in human) life. The 20th century brought three extraordinary changes. The development of antibiotics brought most STDs under control, turning syphilis from a major scourge into a nuisance. Oral contraception and the somewhat later development of a “morning-after pill” reduced the likelihood of unwanted pregnancy, and the easy availability of abortion made pregnancy optional. And a combination of increased educational opportunity for women with the decline in the importance of physical strength for most jobs led to a revolution in gender roles and the mass entry of American women into all levels of the labor force. These changes would have been profoundly disruptive under any circumstances and at any time. That they came as blue model hedonic individualism was creating a new kind of impulse-friendly social climate (“If it feels good, do it” was a slogan popular among boomers in their youth) magnified their impact on social life. The social and political impact of these unprecedented changes will continue to unfold for some time.

Even as these changes roiled American society, the information revolution was getting underway. Like the Industrial Revolution before it (and the Neolithic revolution thousands of years before), the information revolution involves massive changes in every dimension of human life. It will drive every human institution from the family to the state into a series of far-reaching and, from where we now stand, bewildering and unsettling transformations. We’ve witnessed declines in manufacturing and clerical jobs as rapid as the declines in agricultural jobs during the Industrial Revolution, even as giant corporations rise and fall with breathtaking speed. Just as the Industrial Revolution produced new and powerful business corporations, and a new class of “Titans of Industry” with previously unimaginable wealth and power, so the information revolution is generating new kinds of corporate and individual power—even as thorny problems of governing the new economy test the wisdom and competence of government. The recent acceleration in the development and deployment of artificial intelligence reminds us, if we needed the reminder, that the information revolution is still in its early stages, and the coming decades are likely to see more change, and faster change, than anything we’ve experienced to date.

America also faces what must be called a spiritual crisis. Here again we can speak of a confluence of forces contributing to a crisis that, unless coolly and carefully analyzed, can seem overwhelming. Part of the crisis stems from the nature of the times that we live in. Human life has never been this rich, and the potential to solve problems ranging from hunger to cancer has never been greater, but human civilization has also never been under this kind of severe, ongoing threat. Polls reveal that a large majority of younger Americans fear that climate change will materially harm them during their lives. The return of great power competition and Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war revived Cold War-era fears of nuclear annihilation. The COVID pandemic served as a vivid reminder of the dangers of global outbreaks of disease. These fears reinforce concerns based in the social and economic stresses flowing from the information revolution as whole job categories and industries disappear in the face of technological change to create a public mood of anxiety and unease that naturally and inevitably spills over into politics.

Unfortunately, the religious institutions and belief systems that traditionally helped people manage their fears have been hollowed out in many American communities and faith traditions. In the absence of formal religious affiliation, or the weakness of a particular set of religious institutions, the human needs that religion meets do not disappear. Politics sometimes becomes a new religion for people losing touch with the old kind. For those concerned, for example, that irreversible climate change is only decades away from destroying human civilization, political events like elections become plot points in an unfolding apocalypse. If the other side wins the next election, humanity may die! The collapse of politics into wars of religion and ideology exacerbates polarization and creates fanatics on all sides.

We must also speak of a crisis of the American public square, as the inherited cultural and religious traditions that once enriched American homes and communities yield to the power of a corporatized synthetic national culture that is often less tolerant, and less rich, than the older traditions it seeks to displace. As the old ethnic and regional subcultures fade away, we are left with an ersatz national “tradition” informed by superficial pop culture, pop psychology, and the logic of consumerism.

Finally, there is the crisis of the chattering classes. Academics and journalists, two groups of people whose business it is to make sense of events and help the rest of the country understand what is going on, have been particularly hard hit by the economic and social changes of recent decades. The overproduction of Ph.D.s mixed with the declining growth in student enrollments means that fewer and fewer young academics can hope to attain the status and security of reasonably paid, tenured jobs in their fields. And even for those who get tenure, college professors (it pains me to acknowledge) are often not as well-respected or as relatively well-off as they used to be.

Journalism, too, is not what it was. Print journalism is a shadow of its former self, and by and large internet publications do not pay the kinds of salaries and freelance fees that magazines like GQ, Newsweek, and Life used to offer. Compared to professions like law, banking, and medicine, many journalists—including, tragically, pundits—are less well paid and less professionally secure than they used to be. To make matters worse, given both the proliferation of internet publications and the decline in public confidence in the media, journalism is a less prestigious occupation than it once was. Anchors and prominent columnists can no longer count on the kind of authority their exclusive and prestigious platforms formerly gave them.

It is small wonder that under the circumstances, many academics and journalists take a dim view of the American reality, see more perils than opportunity in the new economy, and communicate their gloom and disenchantment to their readers and students. It is never good policy to starve the poets; the gloomy tone of so much of today’s academic and journalistic commentary reflects the diminished circumstances in which so many of the chattering classes now live.

The most important event of our time is not the decadence and decay of the old social order. It is the opening of an unprecedented opportunity to build a new and better way of life.

Given all this upheaval we should not be surprised that American politics and public discourse reflect the emotions of fear, suspicion, and rage that are natural human responses to the stress so many of us are living with. The problems facing American society are real, they are serious, and they appear to be getting steadily more severe. I’ll do my best in these essays to analyze and explore them.

But if our problems are troubling, our opportunities are astounding. Never in human history has a society had the resources we have today in the United States. Never have new scientific discoveries offered so many ways to improve human lives. Never have there been so many ways for so many people to enjoy levels of affluence and ease that their parents and grandparents never knew. Never has it been possible for human beings to live as well as we can today while reducing the impact of human civilization on the natural order and preserving the environment on which we all depend.

The most important event of our time is not the decadence and decay of the old social order. It is the opening of an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity to build a new and better way of life.

America was once the country of the future. Too many of us lately have lost our sense of the possible. But America’s time does not have to be over. We can renew our youth like the eagle. We can run and not be weary. The most extraordinary chapters in the American story have yet to be written.

That at least is the conviction that has grown on me through many years of observation and study. It’s my fondest hope and my fervent prayer that the readers who choose to follow me in this series of essays will come to share that conviction and rise up from their tablets to build an America better, wiser, richer, greener, happier, and more just than any society anybody in this long-suffering world has ever seen.

Walter Russell Mead is the Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at Hudson Institute, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, and the Global View Columnist at The Wall Street Journal. He co-hosts What Really Matters, a weekly news and history podcast from Tablet Studios.

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