A new survey by the American Psychological Association has a stunner of a finding:
Almost six in 10 adults considers this moment the lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember.
It doesn’t matter what else they’ve lived through: World War II. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Watergate. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Those were all plenty bad. But people are telling pollsters that those low points don’t hold a candle to today.
The Donald J. Trump presidency, racial rifts, “alternative facts,” “fake media,” Russian manipulations, wealth inequality, immigration, terrorism — we’re on edge.
“Compared to last year, Americans are more likely to report symptoms of stress, which include anxiety, anger and fatigue,” the APA says in its report.
“We’re seeing significant stress transcending party lines,” Arthur C. Evans Jr., APA’s chief executive officer, said in a news release. “The uncertainty and unpredictability tied to the future of our nation is affecting the health and well-being of many Americans in a way that feels unique to this period in recent history.”
The most common stressor? The future of our nation, said 63 percent of the 3,400 interviewees, proportionally matching the American population at large, in a Harris Poll in August.
Right behind that: money (62 percent), work (61 percent), the current political climate (57 percent) and violence and crime (51 percent).
But … really? Is our national condition truly so dire?
We’ve been through worse, right?
We humans do tend to see our current situation in extremes as the past fades away. Maybe we’re so wrapped up in the moment that we can’t summon up the fears we had in those old days — which usually turned out OK in the end.
Because look what we’ve lived through. In World War II, America had to defeat the Nazis and Japanese Empire or live in a world with democracy on the ropes. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous point of the 40-year Cold War, we were only hours away from a nuclear war that would have killed tens of millions in our own homes. These were truly existential threats; threats to our existence.
In Vietnam, thousands of American soldiers died each year in a war fueled by government lies. In Watergate, we had a presidency that acted like a crime cartel. On 9/11/01, thousands of our fellow citizens died in a surprise attack by a little-known enemy that used our own commercial airplanes as weapons.
And although we were all in it together in WWII and right after 9/11, we haven’t always stood united. We seemed to crack apart in the ’60s, when the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, civil rights leader Martin Luther King and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy cut down our hopes with bullets; when the civil rights movement forced the nation to confront the immorality of racism, and urban riots triggered cries for “law and order”; when Richard Nixon set his “silent majority” against hippies, black militants, women’s libbers and millions of uncaricatured others. You had tumult in the streets, radicals preaching revolution, parents refusing to speak to sons and daughters.
But something does feel fundamentally fractured this time. It seems half of America doesn’t know how to talk to the other half of America — and has lost interest in trying.
United, divided in opposition
The two halves not only don’t speak the same language, they don’t accept the same sets of facts. How can self-government operate when debate ceases to have meaning and compromise is a dirty word?
No wonder Congress is now a place where action goes to die. No wonder we’ve seen the rise of a man with authoritarian impulses in the White House, with an immovable core of supporters cheering him on. When people long for the man on the white horse, it’s a sign of frustration with democracy itself. A sign of lost confidence in the people’s ability to solve problems.
Now consider that a large majority of the electorate thinks that man is galloping the horse in the wrong direction, maybe even into an abyss. This is real trouble, a kind we haven’t experienced before.
Given all this, it’s no wonder that the APA poll says that the news itself is making people nervous; 56 percent of Americans say that, while they want to stay informed, checking the news stresses them out. (And, mea culpa, 72 percent say the media blow things out of proportion.)
I know the feeling. I, myself, cringe to look at the morning headlines, wondering what new bursts of bile the president has hurled onto millions of smartphone screens. Praying we’re not inching closer to nuclear war with that other thin-skinned leader who swears he’ll never back down, the guy in North Korea.
It’s hard to read with your fingers splayed over your eyes.
Make love, not civil war
And the divisions keep worsening. They “reached record levels under Barack Obama’s presidency,” the Pew Research Center says in a new study. “In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.”
Everywhere you look, the gulf between Democrats’ and Republicans’ worldviews is widening, Pew says: race, immigration, the role of government — even where people prefer to live (most Republicans want to live in larger houses, farther apart; most Democrats want to live in more walkable communities with smaller homes).
Each party has become more ideologically uniform, with less room for different opinions. Each, more hostile to the other party’s views.
America, we are Hatfields and McCoys. The magnitude of the split between Republicans and Democrats now “dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education,” Pew says.
Where are we going with this?
How many of us have looked at controversies like the Confederate statue removals and wondered if the United States is … disuniting? Some in California have mirrored those in Texas calling for their states to secede — and the idea seems a little less wacky all the time.
Who here hasn’t secretly imagined a new civil war?
More important, how do we pull ourselves out of this? How do we stop the spiral from unraveling? How do we turn things around?
Let’s hear your suggestions.
It seems half of America doesn’t know how to talk to the other half of America — and has lost interest in trying.