On the face of it, this is a question for historians, who, by virtue of their training, can (or ought to be able to) see long-term trends. Much of what we experience today, after all, has been seen before. That's why George Santayana remarked, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This is a point lost in our 24/7 media frenzy, whose purveyors promote the novelty and urgency of the most minute and trivial of events as though it's all new and of the greatest import.
Since this is an introductory essay, I can only make a few, general observations. First and foremost, I believe we have lost sight of our civility and our basic civic values. We think that our neighbors aren't very smart and they're lousy parents. That was the gist of an op-ed, written by Catherine Rampell for The Washington Post at the end of 2015. The author cited studies from the Pew Research Center and the American Family Survey to show that, whereas Americans think very highly of themselves, they also have little faith in the people that live next door or down the street from them. All those folks are lazy, have unhappy marriages, and can't control their children. Everyone around me is stupid, but I'm always right and I always have the right answers. Put like that, it sounds pretty obnoxious, doesn't it? So why do we indulge in it?
We'll talk more about that, too, although I'm not a big fan of endeavoring to get at the root causes of things. I will leave that to the experts, although the reader should feel confident that whatever I say here will have some basis in credible and citable research. Otherwise, it seems to me that, these days, the "blame game" is a convenient way to point the finger at the other guy, while absolving one's self of any part in the mess.
Our current national malaise is shameful. We have the enormous privilege of living in a free society, a Republic of free individuals who have an impressive array of rights. People forget that or take it for granted. Allow me to point out that a good portion of the world does not have it so good. In fact, most of the people living in recorded history did not have it so good. In most places at most times, the vast majority of the population lived in squalor, hopelessness, and destitution under the thumb of a few chosen or appointed elites. The talents of the vast majority were dismissed, ignored, or never developed. The established political or social order kept folks down like so much cattle.
We don't need that here. Moreover, we don't deserve it. The sorriest part of our current social climate is that our lack of civility is so out of character with who we are as Americans. No one can deny that our history as a people includes prominent and ugly strains of racism, injustice, and bigotry. Yet we have also integrated generations upon generations of immigrants into the American melting pot. Many of these immigrants--Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Madeleine Albright, and Martina Navratilova, to name just a few--have made great contributions to our politics, society, and culture. According to recent research, we are the most philanthropic people on earth, outgiving the British and Canadians two-to-one and other countries at a much higher rate. This is a long-standing tradition for the people of the United States. From organizing relief for starving children in Belgium during World War I to rescuing the Vietnamese boat people, America has given of its resources and its people much more than the rest of the world combined.
However we got to where we are now, it’s time to turn in a different direction, back toward civility, back toward solving problems together as free citizens in which “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” means something. The American people are better than an angry mob. Together, let’s start acting like it.
Next time, I will establish a couple of rules for posting here. I welcome open discussion and since I don't have all the right answers, I would like to hear what you think, too. Maybe we're the ones that can stem the decline (assuming there is one).
NB: Sections of this blog post are excerpted from my op-ed, "Putting the 'civil' back in American civic life," which appeared in the Alexandria Gazette of 4 November 2016.