Listen: Is America Going to Make It?

James Fallows gives us some historical perspective.

If you watch the news, the country seems deeply divided about the coronavirus. But polls have shown an uncommon unity among Americans.

On this episode of the podcast Social Distance, the staff writer James Fallows joins to share some historical perspective and answer the question he’s found himself grappling with across his decades-long career: Is America going to make it?

Listen to the episode here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Is this the worst time ever?

James Fallows: The unemployment rates are going to be the highest that almost any living American has ever seen. I say almost because there are people who were around, of course, in the depths of the depression.

When I was a little kid, just before I went to kindergarten, polio was still an active fear. I remember the summers when we couldn’t go to the pool and couldn’t go out and picnic, because of the fear. This is the first time since then where we’ve had such a widespread public-health fear.

I would say that right now is not even the worst time overall for the U.S. in even my lifetime; 1968, I think, still has 2020 beat as the worst year in modern American history, with Martin Luther King Jr. being killed and Bobby Kennedy being killed and a president stepping down and all the tumult of Vietnam too. That was a worse year overall than this has been so far, but it’s only late May.

Wells: I don’t mean to be cheeky with the question, because, of course, I know that we’ve been through horrific times in this country, but it feels incredibly critical right now.

James Hamblin: People keep using the word unprecedented. And yet when I hear you talking about unprecedented times, I take it seriously.

Fallows: I’ll give you my voice-of-history overview here. I did a piece for The Atlantic a couple of years ago where I said that I realized that every article or book I’d ever written had really been about just one question: Is America going to make it? The story of the U.S. is trouble and the response to trouble.

But one thing that’s particular to this moment is that national leadership is the worst in my lifetime, and arguably the worst in our history. We’ve never had a head of federal government as unmatched to the duties of that role as we currently do. The question is how all the other sources of resilience and health in the country balance that singular but very important point of dysfunction and the party that supports him too.

Wells: What does good leadership during a crisis look like?

Fallows: In my sordid youth, I worked as a speechwriter in the Carter White House, and what’s interesting beyond party and beyond era is that in a time of crisis, every effective leadership message boils down to a very simple matrix. If you look at FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech or if you look at George W. Bush after 9/11 or Reagan after the Challenger explosion, they always do three things.

First, they express empathy and compassion. We recognize this has been hard and terrible. We recognize you are scared. We recognize that people have lost loved ones and lost livelihoods. I recognize, as the sort of head of the national family, recognize how terrible this time is. The second thing they do is express long-term confidence. We’ve been through hard times before. This is hard. But we know how to persevere. The third thing they do is provide a plan. Tomorrow, we’re going to do this. Next week, we’re going to do that. A year from now, we’re going to be in this position.

That is just the three-part summary of what any leader says in a time when that leader’s people are distressed, injured or wounded, afraid, et cetera. And we have not heard a single message of that sort from the White House.

I think there’s kind of phantom-limb pain. People recognize they should be hearing it, and they are hearing it from mayors and they are hearing it from governors and they are hearing it in their communities. And that’s the contrast.

Wells: Phantom-limb pain is an interesting way to describe that. I feel like I have totally felt that.

Hamblin: I like that comparison as well. If governance has become so dysfunctional, how can we as a country unite against the virus? It feels like, initially, nearly everyone was unified around the need to shut down and take extreme measures to prevent this, but now it’s growing into a wedge issue. How do we keep that from getting worse?

Fallows: Part of the responsibility is for all of us in the media to keep things proportional. There is a small group of people who think the disease is a hoax and won’t wear face masks, but it’s a small group. It’s a cinematic group and a dramatic group, but it shouldn’t be all over cable news all the time.

Wells: I have often been totally locked up at home consuming national news sources, and it’s hard not to feel completely disempowered by it. You must have a method for somehow putting into context the things you hear in the national news.

Fallows: I hadn’t thought about this until you all brought it up, but I’m realizing that we have a whole country right now of people whose firsthand experience is being attenuated. Most of us are seeing the world through the media or through Zoom calls, and there’s only so many Zoom calls you can stand. It’s a nationwide, maybe perilous experiment of what it’s like when most people can’t see the world except out their own windows.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I find myself turning to historical times of trouble. The U.S. is in most ways a success story, but it’s a success story in constant turmoil, constant injustice, and constant trauma. I find it weirdly reassuring to read what people have been through before and how their struggles fit into our struggles too.

Hamblin: We did an episode about the World Health Organization, which emerged in the late 1940s in the aftermath of unprecedented turmoil. What can we look forward to coming out of this moment, if indeed our history is as cyclical as you’ve suggested?

Fallows: We have all the problems now that we did in the original Gilded Age, from grotesque inequality to dislocation to even pandemic. All of these fabulous reform movements that blossomed out of that, from the women’s rights-movements, the good-government movement to the environmental movement. That is the hope: that minus two world wars and a world depression, you could begin to build a better world. You can imagine that a year or two from now, people would be thinking, Yes, we’ve come through this horrible time. But let’s see what we can do.

I worked on the Jimmy Carter campaign back in the 1970s, after the only president ever to resign, after the Vietnam War, after lots of economic shocks. But there was, for a while, a sense of possibility. The early Kennedy years had that same sense of promise and possibility. The question is converting that potential into reality.

Wells: You said at the beginning of our conversation that all of your work has been about whether America will survive. What do we have to do to ensure that the answer is yes?

Fallows: There’s a difference between complacent optimism and conditional optimism. Complacent optimism is the assumption that things will get better. Conditional optimism is the assumption that things could get better. The question is, what will it take to, again, to convert the potential to the actuality of a different republic? That specific task of converting the “could” to the “will” is what I feel most driven to work on in the months and years ahead.