It’s Valentine’s Day: I Love You America for Better, for Worse, for Richer, for Poorer, in Sickness and in Health

More and more Americans are saying to themselves – and even openly – “the country is not ok; the kids are not ok; I am not ok.”

A dysphoria seems to have taken over our culture and politics, crowding out older optimism, resilience, wisdom and self-confidence, which replacement does not bode well for the country’s future.

Actually, though many have forgotten, in July 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter spoke to the American people about their dysphoria, as he perceived it:

“I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.  The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways.  It is a crisis of confidence.  It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.  We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.  The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”

In the February 5 issue of the New Yorker, I found a cartoon, where the cartoonist tries to capture, in a wry fashion, the dysphoria being experienced by so many Americans:

This special issue of Pegasus, “The De-Enlightening of America: The Onset of Systemic National Dysphoria”, provides readers with data on the state of the American people and their culture, politics and economy – lots of data, none of which can cheer the heart, validate old understandings of who we are as a people or provide a basis for optimism.

The issue does not attempt to provide any explanations for what the data reveals.  Nor does it speculate about the future.  Such insights are left for the reader to propose.

However, historical perspectives relevant to what the data might be revealing can be found in the thinking of two very serious students of history – Sir John Glubb (1897-1986) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406).

Sir John Bagot Glubb, British lieutenant general, estimated that the average length of greatness for a regime, people or nation is 250 years. America is 248 years old.

For Glubb, socially created polities rise and fall in these stages.  First, an age of pioneers.  Then an age of conquests.  Then commercial success.  Then affluence.  Then an age of intellect and finally, an age of decadence.

Decadence is marked by defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, a welfare state and weakening of religion.  Decadence results from too long a period of wealth and power, selfishness, love of money and loss of a sense of duty.

Ibn Khaldun suggested those stages.  In the first stage, founders of an umran (dynasties) are very energetic, vigorous, aggressive, but very kind, patient and accommodative, tolerant and creative. In the second stage, rulers show less enthusiasm for those qualities, but the economy grows faster than in the first stage.  In the third stage, the ruling elite becomes complacent in satisfaction with the status quo, sitting back and enjoying their privileges.  Wealth is still created, but there are now bumps in the road.  In the fourth stage, leaders begin to increase the extractions of rent from the people, while failing to take responsibility for the common good.  The elite, more and more, depends on a few self-seeking opportunists – grifters – and the economy suffers.  In the last stage of sumptuous luxury for the elite, resources – natural, human and social capitals – are squandered, while a challenger arises from the margins of society to subjugate the kingdom.

Depressing data on America – befitting the last phase of Glubb’s and Khaldun’s theories of national destiny – just keeps on coming.  On January 31, after this special issue was written, there were three additional reports in the press.

One report was that total cases of syphilis in the U.S. in 2022 were over 207,000, a 17% increase and the highest number of cases since 1950.  Cases of chlamydia had not increased and cases of gonorrhea had declined.

Secondly, a children’s advocacy group, Common Sense Media, released polling results.  Two- thirds of youth ages 12 to 17 said things are not going well for children and teenagers.  Less than half reported optimism that they would become better off than their parents.  Among those polled between the ages of 18 and 26, only 15% reported being in excellent mental health.  More than half the teenagers believed that public schools were doing only a poor to fair job in providing education.  Only 8% believed that public schools were “excellent.”

Thirdly, America’s New Majority Project reported that Americans’ trust in various professions, from professors to members of Congress, has dropped recently.

Gallup’s 2023 Honesty and Ethics poll asked 800 respondents from Dec. 1 to Dec. 20, 2023, to rate the honesty and ethical standards of 23 listed professions.  Nearly all answered negatively compared to previous years, following a downward trend in ratings since 2019:

-56% rate doctors highly, down from 65% in 2019.
-45% rate police officers highly, down from 54% in 2019.
-42% rate college teachers highly, down from 49% in 2019.
-32% rate clergy highly, down from 40% in 2019.
-19% rate journalists highly, down from 28% in 2019.
-12% rate business leaders highly, down from 20% in 2019.

Members of Congress have the lowest honesty and ethical standards, according to those surveyed:

-Only 6% rate members of Congress highly.
-Congress members were rated worse than car dealers, stockbrokers and insurance salespersons.

Where America goes from here is an open question.  Let us hope for the best.