Americans across the heartland, on both ends of the political spectrum, are exhausted and feeling dejected for good reason.
In our public lives we have or are living through one big life-altering crisis after another: the turmoil and divisiveness of the Trump presidency, the illness and death of the Coronavirus public-health emergency, and the financial hardships during and after the pandemic.
Then there are the slow-moving crises of weekly weather-related disasters, failing public infrastructures, anxiety over an impending recession, the decline of civility, chaos at the border, erosion of democratic norms, mass shootings, falling life expectancies, extremists on the right and left, and disruptions due to climate change and the need to decarbonize energy.
On more personal levels, middle-class families are stressed daily about other crises such as finding childcare, the rising cost of living, struggling public schools, affordable housing, poor health conditions, mental illness, drug abuse, food and water safety, reproductive rights, wages not keeping up with inflation, funding college, friendships fraying over politics, addictions to social media, and lifelong savings plundered by the wild swings of financial markets and traders who exploit them.
So many things are broken and in need of improvement if not complete reform: the healthcare system, congress, courts including SCOTUS, electoral college, rampant gerrymandering, consumer protections, internet safety, road and air travel, cost of higher education, voting rights, school to prison pipeline, migration policies, environmental degradation, income inequality, weapons of war on our streets, neighborhood policing, consumer rights, and the list goes on and on.
As a country we seem no longer capable of doing big things or even making progress on small ones. Our public institutions, for-profit businesses, and governments at local, state, and federal levels all seem ill-prepared, insufficient, inept, or simply indifferent at guiding us through most of these challenges, that is unless there is money to be made.
As a result, Americans are faced with endless demands on their attention and money to help fund, fix, or fight the resulting bedlam because so many institutions have failed us. Our mailboxes and phones are full of pleas to help with dozens of causes that are all important. It’s overwhelming to think we must become activists, if not disobedient protesters, on so many issues to have any chance of improving the situation.
How will history record what or who is to blame? The list of the responsible villains is long: unfettered capitalism, unregulated globalization, greedy billionaires, career politicians, bureaucrats, aspiring autocrats, the media, illegal immigrants, conservatives, liberals, and of course we the pubic in the voting booth as well as those who don’t care enough to show up.
Yet, what most crises have in common is that they were made possible by an overly optimistic belief in that perpetual growth of our country’s population and economy would solve all of our problems. However, it now appears that the complexity and costs due to growth have become non-linear with the benefits and risks from it. As we have grown, we have simply created larger problems that have become entrenched and intractable.
While the country’s population and economy have grown at impressive rates, we simply did not invest in scaling institutions and infrastructures to keep up with the demands put upon our society because of this growth. The benefits and profits of perpetual growth were largely privatized while the cost and burden socialized to others or externalized to future generations.
This is true in our roads, education, health care, public safety, courts, public utilities, energy, and nearly everything else that once made this great country so exceptional. Now we keep falling lower and lower in so many measurements in quality of life.
We seem hopelessly stuck in an increasingly unsustainable model of capitalism which demands we must continually grow at all costs. And to little surprise, that dogma is now costing us dearly.