The origins of American incivility and fear
One of the more striking things about the United States is the sense that it is in decline. Donald Trump’s main theme is that he would make America great again and that it has been in severe decline over the last decades. It was an effective campaign theme because it touched on a deep American dread. In Europe you will find a different sensibility, which is that while Europe has problems, they are nothing compared to the problems in the past – the Soviet threat, Nazi Germany, the mass slaughter of World War I. Europeans look at their past and are grateful to be living when they are. Many Americans feel a sense of a lost greatness and a looming catastrophe.
This sensibility is not new. During the 1970s, there was a deep and oft stated sense that America was in decline. At the end of the Vietnam War the enemy’s flag flew over a capital we had been defending. During the same time, there was a massive social and cultural divide. The culture of the lowermiddle class and that of the graduates of the best universities were in sharp contrast. On the whole, it was the lower middle class that fought the war and supported it. The universities were the centre of anti-war sentiment and contempt for those who supported the war. The contempt was mutual. The economic situation was catastrophic for many. Unemployment and inflation were both around 10% for a good deal of the decade. Interest rates were in the high teens, and buying a house was out of reach for many. At the end of the decade came the Iranian Revolution, with Iranians taking American diplomats hostage and the United States helpless to protect them. The disaster at Desert One followed – a task force sent to rescue the hostages collapsed, with planes destroyed and men dying before the rescue attempt began.
The sense of decline was rampant. It could be seen in crime and decay in the cities, the surge in Japanese exports to the United States, and the sense that the Baby Boomer generation, unable to settle into family or career, was destroying the fabric of society. The feeling was that the Japanese were surging ahead of the United States economically, the Soviets were surging ahead militarily and we were held in contempt by the world.
That was some 40 years ago and clearly the sensibility was wrong. What followed was the Japanese economic crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union, recovery of the hostages from Iran and the United States emerging as the only global power. Interest rates plunged, as did inflation, and we came into a period of intense innovation and economic growth.
Having passed through the 1970s, as we did, it would seem reasonable that it would serve as a benchmark. A lost war, an extended economic crisis and social stress had not led to catastrophe. Yet, there are few lessons taken from the 1970s to provide some perspective. Similar circumstances are expected to yield the same dreaded disaster.