The Atlantic’s September Issue: Kurt Andersen on “How America Lost Its Mind”

Plus: Jean M. Twenge warns that smartphones may have teens on the brink of a mental-health crisis; Emily Yoffe investigates the irrelevance of innocence in the age of the plea bargain; and Olga Khazan looks into why women bully each other at work

Washington, D.C. (August 8, 2017)—Long before alternative facts, the upheavals of the 1960s started loosening the country’s grip on reality. And it’s that tumultuous era—when anything and everything became believable—that explains the rise of Donald Trump.

This is How America Went Haywire. As Kurt Andersen argues in the cover story of The Atlantic’s new September issue, the country has mutated into Fantasyland. Being American means we can believe anything we want; our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. What’s happening now in politics is just the ultimate expression of this mind-set. Andersen has written that Donald Trump tapped into an American vulnerability for conspiracy theories and “took advantage of the transformation of the GOP (and of presidential politics into show business) to become fantasist-in-chief. Trump lies shamelessly and compulsively, and because politicians in general fib and dissemble, his supporters excuse that.”

Also in the September issue: Jean M. Twenge explores whether smartphones have destroyed a generation of young people; Olga Khazan goes in search of answers to the thorny question of why certain women cut down other women at work; and Emily Yoffe reports on America’s justice system in the age of the plea bargain.

The full September issue of The Atlantic is online today, August 8.


COVER: “How America Lost Its Mind,” by Kurt Andersen
Today, two-thirds of Americans believe that angels and demons exist; a third believe that climate change is a hoax; almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism; only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. According to Kurt Andersen, the election of Donald Trump revealed that a critical mass of Americans has become untethered from reality—a drift that traces its origin to the 1960s, “the big-bang moment for truthiness.” As Andersen sees it, a number of factors have led Americans—both on the elite left and the populist right—to give ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation. How did we get to be like this? Andersen argues that this great unbalancing was the product of two momentous changes: a profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the ’60s, when anything and everything became believable, and today’s information era, which empowers real-seeming fantasies of the ideological, religious, and scientific kinds. People see our shocking Trump moment—an era of post-truth and “alternative facts”—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. But what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history. Writes Andersen: “Trump doesn’t like experts, because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts.”

Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?,” by Jean M. Twenge
The post-Millennials were raised on the iPhone—and the effects have been seismic. More comfortable online than out partying, they are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis, foregoing actual experiences for virtual ones. Today’s teens are less likely than their predecessors were to date and have sex, to work and manage their own money (a key factor of independence for prior generations), to get driver’s licenses. Or to simply hang out with friends. Jean M. Twenge, who has spent 25 years researching generational differences, says the distinction of the cohort born between 1995 and 2012—which she has dubbed iGen—is that they are living their lives on their smartphones. And evidence strongly suggests that trading in-person interactions for social media, which exacerbates the ever-present teen concern about being left out, is making this group seriously unhappy. What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence, but how its effects will follow them into adulthood.

Innocence Is Irrelevant,” by Emily Yoffe
This is the age of the plea bargain. Most people adjudicated in the criminal-justice system today waive the right to a trial and the host of protections that go along with one, including the right to appeal. Instead, they plead guilty. The vast majority of felony convictions are now the result of plea bargains—some 94 percent at the state level, and some 97 percent at the federal level. What does it mean to have a criminal-justice system where very few cases go to trial? Reformers have practical suggestions for improving this system, but, as Emily Yoffe reports, no amount of tinkering will matter much unless Americans stop trying to use the criminal-justice system to manage social ills.

The Queen Bee in the Corner Office,” by Olga Khazan
Researchers have long tried to understand why certain women cut down other women at work. And as Olga Khazan goes in search of an answer, she finds evidence that women aren’t the villains of this story—the modern workplace is. When there appear to be too few opportunities for women, research shows, women begin to view their gender as an impediment; they avoid joining forces, and sometimes turn on one another. And that’s when the so-called queen bees emerge. This environment breeds conditions that cause women to say, in survey after survey, they prefer working for men over women, and to quickly label female bosses as “emotional,” “catty,” or “bitchy.” In one study of law-firm secretaries, nearly all of whom were women, not a single one preferred to work for a female partner. With the cause more clearly understood, Khazan points to solutions: companies providing better support for working moms; employers making more of an effort to show talented women that they’re valued, thus giving them less reason to tear down one another; and women being more confident in their success.


The Rise of the Violent Left,” by Peter Beinart
For progressives, the ascendancy of Donald Trump raises a fundamental question: How far are you willing to go to stop it? In Washington, the response centers on how members of Congress can oppose Trump’s agenda, but as Peter Beinart writes, in the country at large, some militant leftists are offering a very different answer by way of the growing “antifa,” or Anti-Fascist Action, movement. Trump supporters and white nationalists, meanwhile, see antifa’s attacks as an assault on their own right to free assembly. The result is a level of political street warfare not seen in the U.S. since the 1960s.

Are Index Funds Evil?,” by Frank Partnoy
Index funds, the investment vehicles that have long been thought to offer the possibility of stable returns to regular people, may actually be harming the economy. The law professor Frank Partnoy dives into new research suggesting that index funds could be decreasing competition and making it easier for U.S. corporations to collude. Writes Partnoy: “Ultimately, the new theory of common ownership is a theory about inequality: To the extent that passive investing shifts costs to consumers, it makes the rich richer, and the poor poorer.”

The Gentleman From Arizona,” by McKay Coppins
When Democratic Senator Tim Kaine traveled to Florida and in fluent Spanish praised the patriotism of newly naturalized citizens, Republican Senator Jeff Flake tells McKay Coppins, describing his frustration with his own party: “I almost cried … I just thought, That should be us. That was us, and now it’s not.” Coppins spent time with the senator from Arizona, at a nearly three-hour constituent town hall and in his Capitol Hill office, to find out how the politest politician in Washington is navigating the decline of civility in the Trump era—and trying to hang on to his Senate seat.

This month’s Big Question asks, “What was the most important letter in history?” Up for consideration are Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” first published in The Atlantic in 1963; the intercepted Zimmermann telegram; and a message “unlikely ever to be answered, the Golden Record accompanying the Voyager spacecraft.”