12 Reader Views on Where America Is Going Wrong

Too much pessimism might be one of the ways.

American flag waving
Raymond Boyd / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Soon after, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked readers, “What worries you most about the direction of the country?” For Adam, the answer is rooted in a perception that we’re underestimating what is at stake when we act:

The thing I worry about the most is breaking unfixable things. I think the modern era, especially defined by the GOP (but also by the far left), is more about performance than production. Our leaders don’t seem to care about fixing problems, or even proposing solutions, just popularity contests, scoring points, and seeing how far they can push the envelope to stay in power. This didn’t used to worry me as much. While Congress was always a procrastinator, they tended to get their homework done on time.

But I fear in the next few years, something will break that can’t be fixed. Republicans are telling us they’re going to try to steal the next election. Democrats seem to be jamming their heads in the sand to avoid the issue and hope that two centuries of rule-following will save us. It won’t. The more America breaks, the more other nations will step in to fill the void. What if the dollar ceases to be the world reserve currency? Most Americans can’t comprehend the benefits we gain from this status, or the economic and lifestyle pain we’ll suffer if it goes away. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. There’s no going back. What if a debt ceiling fight takes us over the edge? That might be all it takes. And can anyone tell me with a straight face they trust the leaders in Congress as responsible stewards of the country to NOT take us over that cliff? Damn the consequences?

Congress has gotten used to passes and do-overs. But there are things that will break us, will fundamentally alter life as we know it, well below the apocalyptic threats of climate change or nuclear war, but a new era of real, actual, American decline (not the made up American decline BS used in election ads). And we’re so polarized, so used to choosing and accepting less than we deserve in our leaders, I fear we’ll lower the bar and accept it.

B. laments the abandonment of rationalism:

As a healthcare provider recommending COVID vaccination to skeptical patients, we are now educated by the CDC and our medical organizations that the best way to do this is, “don’t try to convince them using facts.” In a nutshell this is an example of what worries me the most. The abandonment of any effort to make difficult decisions using rationalism.  

So instead of approaching these decisions by using as much science, math, and reason as we have available—and acknowledging that almost all difficult decisions need to be made using incomplete information—we’ve now moved to a faith-based system. We choose a source of information like a cable news network or a minister or a politician or an internet community. And then just believe whatever they say rather than trusting institutions, fact-checking, and content experts. When both sides do that, there is no room for either compromise or getting anyone to agree that they might be wrong (now or in the past). We are thus left with no ability to address complicated, difficult issues like climate change, budget deficits, entitlement programs, or healthcare reform.

Jill is thinking about income inequality:

I am particularly interested right now in the debate spawned by Matthew Stewart’s The Birth of a New American Aristocracy, the 9.9%, who “own more wealth than all other Americans put together, and are perpetuating wealth inequality like never before.” I am surprised to find myself in this class, and pondering how to get more clarity about “the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents,” and what can be done about this.

Matt worries that we don’t invest more in the quality of education for all:

If we want to stay a leading force in the world, we should prioritize having the best educated population. Right now it seems like we are being forced into an absurd debate over preventing kids from being “groomed” or “indoctrinated.” It’s an argument against activity that’s not occurring, doing damage to the teaching field, school boards, and the overall effectiveness of education. We could be spending time and resources to give young generations the best education available, but we aren’t. It’s going to haunt our country and inhibit our ability to progress as a competitive economy.

What makes me optimistic is to see the independent thought of the younger Gen Z population. They seem to understand social media and information in a different way that I hope allows them to identify mis/disinformation more naturally than older generations. They have skills and talents which will allow them to be successful in new ways. Millennials are uniquely well educated as a generation and will offer a lot of value as leaders. I look forward to a world more generally controlled by Millennials and Gen Z.

Tony believes that we’re doomed by the “attack on truth” that he perceives:

When I was a student in the late 90s and early aughts at Evangelical colleges, we were terrified of “postmodernism.” Perhaps ironically, we now find ourselves in a cultural moment foretold by those Evangelicals, but for different reasons and with many of them on the “other side” of truth. The fact that charlatans and pathological liars are allowed unfettered access to airwaves and social media is disastrous. It works for an anarchic state perhaps but not for a functioning republic. What we are seeing now is the nightmare underbelly of democracy that the Founders tried to prevent by implementing certain checks and balances. I see no evidence that this experiment is leading in a direction other than failure.

L. has concerns about excessive questioning of everything, but finds hope at work:

I’m a middle school educator, teaching social studies in the Bronx. What troubles me is the denigration of institutions. I don’t just mean government. We as a society have questioned and doubted so much (on both the left AND the right) that the familiar groundings of society—family, education, commerce—become objects of constant suspicion.

Social media is a huge culprit in this: any medium that makes a fool an instant expert is a conduit for anarchy. However, I found hope in my classroom. We were discussing the difficult legacy of the Declaration of Independence. 41 slave owners were among the 56 signers of a document that stated “all men are created equal.” I asked if the flaws of these men invalidated the ideas in the document (an idea that gets wide circulation in critical studies). One by one, my students disagreed. They all said basically the same thing: the ideas are too important to throw away. They are ideas worth fighting for, ideas that should be what we as Americans should work towards every day. I almost cried.

Sophia fears “an environment that is increasingly efficient, polluted, ugly, controlled, tamed, tracked; a culture in which children and adults are increasingly afraid, lonely, and anxious despite objective safety; and a culture in which people die after years of slow deterioration of mind and body,” while she finds hope in “genetic engineering; an explosion of beautiful art in the form of writing, television, movies, and fashion; an end to farm animal exploitation through the invention of lab grown meat; and assisted suicide legislation and more ‘good death’ culture.”

Like other readers, Isaac worries about social media’s effect on society:

Social media as it exists today degrades human experience. I am fairly young but I don’t use it. I believe the epidemics of anxiety, loneliness, and depression that are wrecking my generation are due in large part to the commercialization of social interaction. These platforms exploit human weakness and our tendency to believe things that we agree with, intensify in-group out-group thinking, and turn truth into a political football.

What worries me is that these platforms will remain central to all forms of public discourse, and that Americans will find it impossible to act as one people. We face numerous existential challenges. We cannot surmount them without a shared set of facts and values. I think that it is possible to create beneficial social media––there are values to connection––but that is not what we have today and unless there is a recognition that these businesses are sucking our attention dry at the expense of the things that matter most (love, compassion, truth, reason) we are going to be unable to surmount our challenges and I think we will be in an increasingly isolated, atomized, and alienating culture.

What gives me hope is this: America is a strong country. We have spent the last decade at least with no clear enemy, no clear purpose, and a pervasive need to self doubt and eat our own. If we play to our strengths, recognize the incredible gift of our democracy, our geography, and our people, then we could accomplish almost anything.  

Errol fears that we are too pessimistic:

I worry that we’re entering a world of overcorrection.

I love this country, where you can break free of the worst and incorporate the best of the culture you’ve come from. That is one of the best ideas a society has ever had. But now mixing cultures is cultural appropriation and a bad thing. We’ve allowed the most immigrants ever in the history of any government, yet we’ve somehow become the border wall country. I’m not saying we are without serious problems, but we do do good and have a rich positive history as well. We invented airplanes and movies. We landed on the moon! These are pretty remarkable progressive steps for the species. The world is worse without the US in it, and while we can and should do better, it would be nice to acknowledge the good once in a while and to take a break from the constant negativity.

Martin worries about the degradation of local control:

My concern is that so many individuals, especially those in the current political class, are forgetting that we are a Federal Republic with a principles-based constitution underpinned by a liberal (in the classic, not political, sense) set of values. I guess you can ask, why does this matter?

In a Federal Republic a significant portion of decision-making can be pushed to local communities. What is unfortunate is that each time there is conflict between various layers of government our politicians in one party or the other seem to want to aggregate power farther from the citizenry. Over the past 20 years we have watched both California and Texas push for nationalization of their legislative priorities followed by the cry for “states’ rights” as soon the Federal government changed hands. And in both cases we have watched as these states have mandated behavior at the county, city and even school board level in conflict with local desires. As long as the principles enshrined in the 14th amendment (“… nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”) are met, federalism allows for a multitude of laboratories in which to innovate and learn. Just as none of us really think technological innovation should occur only in one location, we should not believe that of political innovation.

Michael is so worried that he has thought about where else he might move:

I am frankly terrified about the direction of the country. I have never felt this pessimistic about where we are heading. It appears we are in an endlessly polarized environment where there is no unity and little or no concern for anyone who is not “in our tribe.” As someone who has been a liberal democrat all my life, and has mostly, but not always, lived in the northeast US, I appreciate that to some extent I live in a “bubble” surrounded by like-minded people. But many of us pay attention to current events and my concern is shared by many. I just had lunch with a close friend yesterday, and we were talking about what other countries might be a more hospitable, less stressful place to live. I have had more than a few sleepless nights thinking about this.  

What am I optimistic about? One thing that I find both reassuring and perhaps a source of optimism is that my three adult children seem far less troubled than I am. They are busy with careers, relationships, house hunting, etc. Maybe as someone who is semi-retired, I just have too much time to think about things. It is almost as if the best case scenario is that as the federal government becomes less empowered (due to the “originalism” of the Supreme Court), states will evolve separately and perhaps people will gravitate to states that are more welcoming to them. We would no longer be a united country (I think that train has left the station anyway), we would be in more of a cold civil war. The enormous downside of that, of course, would be a fractured response to International events. It appears we are headed toward a more conflictual world stage and having a fractured and ineffectual US would certainly not help.

For Eric, there’s nothing to be pessimistic about but pessimism itself:

I actually don’t worry that much about the direction of the country, but I do worry about issues with the country. The thing that worries me most is the popularization of the end-of-the-world framework, often seen in a religious context, being applied to American democracy. This concerns me, because, right now, this type of pessimism is broadly and simultaneously permeating both the left and the right. I can’t think of a precedent for this. There are always fatalistic pockets of society, but American fatalism appears to have gone mainstream. Democracy is just an idea. It exists solely in our collective imagination. If enough of us stop believing it’s a good idea, then it won’t withstand an organized assault.

This is a serious problem. But, as I said, I’m not that worried. We’ve been through divisive times before. We survived an actual bloody Civil War over the right to own humans, so we’ve fought it out over the most serious issue. I think it’s a strong precedent for success. And we’re seeing tons of participation in the allegedly rigged process, from both sides.

We’re living through the first time in human history when we all hear the thoughts of anybody who wants to speak their thoughts out loud. And a lot of people (but not all) seem to want to speak. But sometimes we forget that talk is cheap. People say all kinds of things that they don’t mean, especially from behind a keyboard, especially if they’re anonymous. There are people who say abhorrent things that they actually believe. But there are a lot of people who speak incredibly flippantly about all sorts of stuff who, when push-comes-to-shove, would be forced to admit they don’t mean it. Just think of the “tough guy” talk some people use behind their keyboards, who are actually sad, pathetic wimps.

The freedom to say things inconsequentially via social media has dovetailed with the desire for attention and a perverse incentive structure that rewards extreme speech, so a lot of people appear disenchanted with American democracy, but they’re living their best lives thanks to it. Now, it may be the case that the insincere language reaches such a fever pitch that coming generations internalize it without realizing how performative it is, and then we could be screwed. But I think humans will adapt to a world with social media and will find solutions to the malaligned incentive structure. People will continue realizing that American democracy, for all its flaws, is still pretty awesome, and we’ll keep improving it.

Thanks for your contributions. I read every one that you send. See you Wednesday.