Chaos in Washington, madness at the airport, holiday hangovers: The first month of 2023 was familiar enough. What might seem less familiar to Americans, however, are the cracks appearing in our walls.
Sure, Americans have long felt a decline — maybe a few shifts in the foundations; the yearly polls on trust in major institutions reflect that well enough. You might hear an uncle who says, “Wall Street’s a bunch of crooks!” or a neighbor who notices, “Washington politicians are only in it for themselves,” or even an old classmate who thinks, “Colleges are just a bunch of crazy activists these days,” but the complaints largely ended with the complaints themselves. Everything still worked well enough.
And then it didn’t.
While politicians, “the experts,” and their friends in corporate media managed to muddy the waters in the first year of lockdowns, by 2021 everyday Americans felt like they’d earned the right to wonder why their kindergarteners were in masks, or their local teachers still refused to teach. Modern homeschooling flourished like never before, while enrollment in Catholic schools increased for the first time in decades.
The easy and pervasive idea that you could drop your kids off at school and expect they’d get an education like you did back in the day was dead. The assumption that you could trust the hospital administrator went out with the idea that you could trust your favorite news anchor. Hell, even pastors and funeral directors stood in the way of the business of life, death, and salvation.
But these were just people, most reasoned; or at least these were just institutions. And anyway, these were “unprecedented times” and “we’re all in this together.” “The pendulum will swing back,” Americans confidently predicted. “This craziness will pass.”
Today, in the first month of 2023, we don’t have the luxury of thinking it’s all going to get better. Because far from the year America changed course and settled into “normalcy,” 2022 was the year the basic, behind-the-scenes systems we all count on started to break down.
People struggled to buy a car. Baby formula moved behind locked counters, where the cigarettes used to be sold. Baby aspirin and other simple medicines were in such high demand, friends and neighbors worked together to supply the most vulnerable. Container ships backed up for weeks while their contents rotted. Diesel shortages threatened the lifeblood of the American economy.
Even if you don’t have an infant or a child looking for medicine, even if you didn’t see the ships lining up the California coast or the Chesapeake Bay, or missed the growing unease in the trucking industry, you might have noticed the cost of meat fluctuating so greatly that some local restaurants charged “market price” for chicken fingers. Or maybe you noticed condiments and other basic items were out of stock in the fast food joints across your town. Or maybe a friend texted you to please keep an eye out for a certain type of formula for his baby daughter, who needs it.
The point is: “Good Morning America” could ignore it all they liked, but you noticed.
Washington Can’t Help You
Just as people noticed they can’t simply trust schools to give their kids a good education, people began to notice empty shelves — to notice cracks in the system. And more: No one really seems to expect the politicians to fix it.
Take the Southwest debacle, for instance. Sure, a couple of politicians from both parties threw the blame toward Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, wondering why the man ostensibly in charge of American transportation hadn’t taken stronger steps against increasingly unreliable plane travel. But was there any mass anger toward him from all those families stuck for days at airports? Not really. No one actually bought the idea that a former mayor of a small Indiana city with bad roads was going to fix this for them.
By the time the Federal Aviation Administration had to ground all flights across the United States for the first time since 9/11, citing a system outage, no one publicly even suspected a cyber attack by one of the United States’ many enemies. Nope, blaming total incompetence seemed to satisfy all but the most frustrated morning travelers.
Who among us was surprised to learn the $15.2 billion budget the FAA requested to fortify its systems was being divvied away toward promoting “environmental justice and climate change mitigation,” and fostering “more inclusive contracting and workforce development?” Or that the FAA had requested another $20 million on top of that, solely “to promote equity and inclusion?”
It wasn’t surprising at all. What’s more, we all understand that any agency holding priorities like these isn’t likely to fix its own house. So who is?
Not Mitch McConnell. Anyone counting on him to fix the fundamental breakdowns in American systems might be disappointed to learn he believes sending money to Ukraine “is the number one priority for the United States right now according to most Republicans. That’s how we see the challenges confronting the country at the moment.”
Could Joe Biden mend our foundations, then? The country’s oldest president ever rounded out 2022 by passing a trillion dollars in new spending and signing a federal anti-lynching law named after Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955. Why was this a priority? Because a movie came out on it the same year.
Then how about the GOP? Are they up to the task? “The fundamentals of the American economy are good,” Sen. John Kennedy told Fox News as the United States slipped into recession early last year. His belief — a belief that is shared by most of his Republican colleagues — is that the only problem with America is the Democrats are in charge at the moment. But would deregulation and lower taxes cure our disease?
No. The erosion of our civil society is coming from forces more powerful and diffuse than the politicians vying for office. The reality is that decades of American industries being sold abroad by the financial class (with the blessings of the political class) have wreaked havoc on the United States. When you compound the joblessness with the hopelessness and drug addiction and fatherlessness and abuse that follow in the wake, you see that far beyond the fundamentals of the American economy having been hollowed out, the very social fabric of the United States is rending.
And our financial class is not alone in keeping their priorities far from this American land. Powerful and popular oligarchs as politically disparate as Tim Cook and Elon Musk’s empires exist at the mercy of the deeply anti-American Chinese government. Billion-dollar fortunes don’t come cheap, but it’s hard for a country to remain sovereign when its own nobles are disloyal and, more than that, largely ignorant of the damage outsourcing and its ilk have caused.
Indeed, America’s political, financial, technological, and educational elites have seemingly been the last to realize how hollowed out we are. When J.D. Vance first wrote his book “Hillbilly Elegy,” it shocked and amazed them. He was invited to give TED Talks. Copies of his book were given away at Koch Seminars. Yale and Columbia University invited him to speak.
Vance was treated as a prophet for telling the story of the present and the past — telling of what had been going on in America’s working class for decades. The folks at TED, the gang at the Koch Seminar, the crew at the universities — these people had had no idea how poor Americans lived (aside from the mentally ill drug addicts they stepped over on the way to work in the coastal cities where they lived — “but that’s just city livin’, man!”).
That book was published seven years ago now, and aside from the author winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, the situation is much the same — and the mumbles about this party or that party are as well. Soon, the mumbles won’t cut it anymore.
Different people might have had different problems with who was in charge in Washington, be it Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden, Donald Trump or George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell or Barack Obama. We wouldn’t get the foreign policy we wanted or the taxes we preferred or this treaty or that spending bill. But this time it’s different, and we know it. When we walk into a store and see empty shelves, and we think, “They were empty the last time I came here, and the time before that,” there’s a deeper problem than which party is best rewarding its donors from the White House.
Americans didn’t expect to have to think like this. In years past, we were able to appeal to Washington and retain some vague expectation that something would be done. Today, we know our petitions might as well be screams into the void.
The oligarchs aren’t going to save us, either, despite wielding significantly more real power than the aging legislative branch of the United States. We might place our hopes in the soft powers of Elon Musk or Tim Cook’s consciences, but the only entity that holds hard power over these men is China.
And the difficult reality is, in our current state the American people aren’t prepared to fix what’s happening, either. If you had told James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and their friends that America in 2023 was fiercely divided on both their history and their heroes, had lost its middle class, was no longer Christian or even very religious at all, disagreed on where they’d come from, and fought over where they were going, then asked these men what we could get, they’d reply in no uncertain terms: We can have tyranny.
The founders aren’t coming back to save us, but understand this: Even if they bent time and space to stand here at the heads of our government, they couldn’t fix our problems for us. That will have to come from within the people.
A Moment of Clarity
An addict’s first step toward recovery is acknowledging he has a problem. To get there, he has to hit rock bottom — what friends call “a moment of clarity.” Worse yet (and to the anguish of their loved ones), an addict’s idea of rock bottom is far lower than we would wish it to be. We might see clearly from the outside, but when you look out from the mind of the afflicted, it all seems murkier; there’s a reason for this or that calamity — an excuse for everything.
A worried observer in the year 2016 might understand this frustration. At the time, they easily could have tracked skyrocketing fatherlessness, historic debt levels, a swelling population of mentally ill vagrants, collapsing police morale, a porous border, multiple decades-long military stalemates, increasing racial hostilities, mass deaths of despair, and a public so hungry for serious change we wavered between Bernie Sanders and Trump for president. An observer of this might have thought, “Surely this moment will bring clarity.”
It didn’t, and less than four years later, our churches were forced closed, our schools turned away the children, our “science” was co-opted, our hospitals kept us from our wives and our dying loved ones, our cemeteries rejected their mourners, our government worked daily with corporate leaders to censor dissent, and our own neighbors informed on those who stepped out of line.
But then the systems our rotten institutions are charged with maintaining finally began to fail. And maybe — maybe — we might wake up this time. Because that’s what we need: a major project of dedicated renewal by a people who understand the state we’re in and the stakes of our project.
The citizens of the American colonies might have lacked the breadth of knowledge we so easily access today, but among that people, the most widely recognized works were those of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. These are the sorts of friends you need when you decide to wake up and repair your foundations.
Who are our friends today? These great works still exist, but just as the founders won’t flick a switch and save us, neither will the works of an English playwright. The resources in a more interconnected age will undoubtedly be more myriad.
They might include a popular book that spreads the untold word of the suffering in our working classes or an essay on painfully coming to the understanding our systems are broken through the unnecessary death of a child. The champions might take the form of a public leader who openly fights the corporations that rule their town or state, or maybe a member of the ruling class who throws open the doors and tells the people just how corrupt their mansions are.
And they might not come yet. We know our country could sink lower and continue existing, if not recover. What if this isn’t quite the moment of clarity our country needs? Where will we go from here?
Then again, the beginning might already have come. That wouldn’t be without precedent: From the Thirty Years War, to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, to the twisting start of the First World War, mankind has a knack for knowing something big is coming while still missing the spark that sets it off.
Whether it’s already been sparked or is still waiting for a light, dramatic action is coming our way. Our foundations are infirm, and our house cannot stand. Not everyone will have an active role to play, but know this: We must be clear-eyed about our reality. We cannot blame it on Republicans or Democrats, this administrator or that bureaucrat, this mistake or that folly. We must look at the systems behind the people, and also in toward ourselves. Do we recognize what we see?
There’s a problem, and reading the Constitution on the floor of the House isn’t going to fix it. That means that more than book or politician or oligarch, we’ll need each other — each other, finally a true moment of clarity, and a revival.