A Nation Coming Apart

The meaning of the American idea in 2019

photo of cover of Atlantic December 2019 issue
The Atlantic

The 45th president of the United States is uniquely unfit for office and poses a multifaceted threat to our country’s democratic institutions. Yet he might not represent the most severe challenge facing our country. The structural failures in our democratic system that allowed a grifter into the White House in the first place—this might be our gravest challenge. Or perhaps it is the tribalization of our politics, brought about by pathological levels of inequality, technological and demographic upheaval, and the tenacious persistence of racism. Or maybe it is that we as a people no longer seem to know who we are or what our common purpose is.

Last year, Cullen Murphy, our editor at large, and I began a conversation with Danielle Allen, the author of a matchless book on the meaning and promise of America, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, about the causes of this dispiriting moment. Allen, who is the James Bryant Conant University Professor and the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, told me that our system of self-governance has been in crisis for a long time, since well before the dark night of Trumpism. Disenfranchisement and self-disenfranchisement; the radically uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity; institutions so dysfunctional that it would be irrational for citizens to invest in them; the rise of the technocracy—all of these threaten to place the American experiment in permanent eclipse.

“We have to think urgently about representation,” she told me. “The most important invention of the 18th century that allowed us to run a democracy at scale was representative government—the election of representatives to a legislature empowered by the people. We have to talk about this. We have to talk about technocracy, how it has driven massive sociopolitical change” without answering to the people who are experiencing those changes.

Out of our conversations, and others like it, emerged the idea for the special issue you are now reading, what we have called “How to Stop a Civil War.” We don’t believe that conditions in the United States today resemble those of 1850s America. But we worry that the ties that bind us are fraying at alarming speed—we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are both dire and possibly irreversible.

By edict of our founders, The Atlantic is meant to be the magazine of the American idea. In November 1857, when our first issue was published, the American idea was besieged by the forces of slavery. The Atlantic, then as now, stood for American unity, but it also stood for the idea that America is by its nature both imperfect and ultimately perfectible. The untiring pursuit of a more perfect union is at the core of the American idea.

When I discussed the notion of this issue with the editor of our print magazine, Don Peck, and his deputy, Denise Wills, we reached the conclusion that any Atlantic journalism confronting questions of American unity and fracture would have to be both analytical and prescriptive, and would require the services of some of America’s best writers and thinkers.

We have spread the feature stories in this special issue across three parts. In the first, “On the Forces That Pull Us Apart,” our ideas editor, Yoni Appelbaum (the author of our prescient March cover story calling for the president’s impeachment), dissects the exceptional challenges America faces as a unitary construct: He notes that no rich, stable democracy has made the demographic transition we are now experiencing. Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell diagnose the impact of social media on democratic practices and on our cognitive capacity itself. Tara Westover examines the rural-urban divide in the context of our national fracturing, and Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja argue that too much democracy is bad for democracy.

In Part 2, “Appeals to Our Better Nature,” Caitlin Flanagan goes directly at the most divisive and emotional issue of our time—abortion—and argues for mutual empathy; Tom Junod tells us how the legendary Mister Rogers, who was first his profile subject and later his friend, is misunderstood; and Andrew Ferguson asks whether the techniques of marriage counseling can be applied to the cause of national unity.

In Part 3, “Reconciliation & Its Alternatives,” we feature Danielle Allen’s dazzling treatise, “The Road From Serfdom,” along with a call from James Mattis to remember and refine the principles of patriotism and national purpose. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the brilliant creator of Hamilton, makes the case for the indispensability of art in a polarized time. And Adam Serwer, one of the great chroniclers of the Trump era, offers a dissent to the idea that we should prize a return to civility, and argues against reconciliation as a substitute for truth-telling.

Elsewhere in this issue, you will find essays, reports, and interviews from some of our best writers: Megan Garber, Sophie Gilbert, David Frum, Graeme Wood, Adrienne Green. The multitalented Amanda Mull launches her new column, “Material World,” and we’ve reserved our back page for the singular James Parker.

Our immodest hope is that this special issue, appearing on newsstands exactly 162 years after our first issue, will provide at least a partial road map for a country stuck in a cul-de-sac of its own making.

CERTAIN FEATURES OF THE ATLANTIC have remained constant over the preceding 162 years—our commitment to publishing carefully considered narrative and strongly worded argument, for instance. Some things change periodically, though, including our design, and even our nameplate itself. This month marks the beginning of a new era for The Atlantic’s design. After much deliberation and experimentation (and trepidation), we have decided to replace our traditional cover logo—our flag—with a simple, declarative A. This dramatic new exterior look is matched by a reimagining of our interior aesthetic.

Earlier this year, we asked two of the great book and magazine designers of our time, Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday, to serve as The Atlantic’s creative leaders. Their mandate was to rethink everything about the way we present ourselves to the world, and they immediately set out to challenge our habits and assumptions. Their first step was to immerse themselves in our archives, in order to understand the evolution of our design language across the years. Their second step was to propose a bold change to our cover nameplate. The A, they argued, is classic, confident, and iconic. We already use the A across many of our platforms—the Atlantic app shows up on smartphone home screens as an A.

The redesign of our print magazine is the first phase of a redesign that will soon stretch across all of our journalism—you will shortly be seeing our new design concepts manifesting themselves on your screens, for instance.

The crucial goal of the Atlantic’s renovation is to help readers better understand our words, through clarity in typeface and design, and through investment in superior photography and illustration. Peter, Oliver, and their enormously talented team commissioned our first unique typeface—we call it Atlantic Condensed—built on the typeface first used in 1857. And they have weeded away many of the interior design features that have accreted over the decades. The goal of this effort is to make The Atlantic visually arresting, classically informed, and radically modern, all at the same time. Peter, Oliver, and their design team have achieved something remarkable, I believe. I hope you will agree.