We are angry. We are divided. We are fearful. We are distraught about the state of the Republic and the experiment that is America.
Although the anxiety is apparent enough, what is less obvious is that America is grieving, or more accurately, America is pervaded by unacknowledged grief. We usually associate grief with a loss: a person, a pet, a marriage, a career. We grieve something that we once had but is gone or will soon be gone. A past that is no more. But human beings also grieve the promise of a future that will not occur: a dream, a hope, a project, an effort that will never to come to fruition. We can grieve the past and the future. America is grieving both.
Post-WWII America is gone. We will never again dominate the world’s economy as we did in the 1950s and 1960s.* Our technological advantage over other countries, almost a birthright, can no longer be assumed. Our trust in the government in Washington is nearly gone.** Our schools as sanctuaries from inhuman violence. Gone. The opening of new frontiers. Gone. Deep commitment to infrastructure.*** Gone. Privacy. More or less gone. The list could go on and on. We have lost much. (Just to be clear: I am not making any claims here at all about the worth or value of the things I mention, only that losses such as these, along with others, contribute to this American grief.)
Our grief, acknowledged or not, is not only directed at what we have lost or will lose relatively soon. The deepest cut may be to our almost spiritual belief that progress is inevitable. That the future will be better than today. That life will certainly be better for our children and grandchildren. Yet an increasing number of us no longer believe this. And even if we cannot yet admit the failed promise of tomorrow, we can feel it approaching, serpentine, narrowing the distance between us and our grief.
In such a time, our time, demagogues appear, promising, for example, to make America great again. They promise a return to a better time, to a time before our losses occurred. They promise to make the future as bright or brighter than the past, often a past that never actually existed, a Hollywood past of happy families living wholesome lives all across the land, before THOSE people (fill in the blank) changed things. They promise to stop our grief, without ever naming it.
Of course this grief did not create our problems. There are a host of social, technological, and economic forces that have led to drastic and disturbing changes in America. But if grief didn’t cause our problems, it can nonetheless be a serious impediment to addressing them. Because in not acknowledging the grief, we become a nation in denial. And this is a dangerous place to be. You can’t face the actual future—for example, a future of a warming planet—if you haven’t mourned both the past and a future that used to be graced by the expectation of unending progress.
But here a caveat: Talk to young people. They typically do not grieve our past because the world of unfettered American dominance and security at home is outside of their experience. They are children of Columbines, endless unwinnable wars, and a looming environmental catastrophe. They often worry that there will be no future for them, but they do not grieve the loss of the promise of progress, because they don’t bring to the table the conviction that progress is inevitable. They haven’t known a future that isn’t already compromised by climate change, which was manufactured by what earlier generations saw as industrial progress. But here is what’s crucial. They may be scared and anxious, yet they are not encumbered by grief, for the past or the future, and, therefore, they can be more realistic about the future. Unlike their parents and grandparents, burdened with grief, but unwilling to fully acknowledge it, they are able to approach tomorrow without the chronic sentimentalism that handicaps earlier generations. We must hope that twenty-first century America will travel with them into a future freed from grief.
* There is more competition out there, and our economy is simply not growing at the rate it once did. The rate of real GDP growth in the United States has clearly slowed since the 1950s and 1960s. But this is cold data. For those who grew up in an earlier era, there are also symbolic declines. The symbol of American enterprise and style, the Detroit-made auto, was put out to pasture by foreign competitors. And today the most valuable auto companies are now based in countries that the United States defeated in WWII. “The 10 Most Valuable Auto Companies in the World,” US News, September 5, 2019.
** From “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2019” (Pew Research Center):
Public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).
When the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time.