Introduction - More Politics Can’t Fix This
If they ever figure out time travel, I have my list ready.
There are certain moments in history I would love to have seen and heard. Socrates teaching in the marketplace in Athens. Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg. General Cornwallis surrendering to the upstart American rebels at Yorktown. John Quincy Adams delivering his eight-and-a-half-hour argument to the Supreme Court in defense of the 39 free Africans captured aboard the Amistad. There are certain moments that changed history forever.
I’m not supposed to say that, as a historian. The job of the historian is usually to be a spoil sport. It says so right there on the back of our “Professional Historian” identification card. I’m supposed to point out that these moments are few and far between, that most of human history has been pretty ho-hum, that the odds that the time we happened to be born into are genuinely world-changing are . . . slim, and that the only reason we think our times are special is because we’re narcissists, every last one of us. Lots of historians are now even certain the great moments weren’t all that great: Socrates was just another wise guy trying to scrape a buck, et cetera. It’s a profession of party-poopers.
But here, in this book, I’d like to propose that we really do, in fact, live at one of the most extraordinary moments in human history. We’re living through a revolution that is going to utterly transform the ways we live and work. We’re living through an upheaval that will dwarf the upheaval our nation experienced a century and a half ago, when we morphed from an agricultural society into an industrial one. We’re living through an unprecedented explosion of innovation.
Just take a quick inventory of what’s in your pocket: namely, a supercomputer.
At this moment, you’re connected to 2 billion people worldwide through Facebook—over one-fourth of the population of the planet. Have a question for someone in Brazil? Four hundred years ago, a message from the king of Spain to his royal governors in the Americas took months to arrive. Today, it takes seconds. (In fact, the king of Spain is on Twitter: @CasaReal.)
Do you need turn-by-turn directions through Timbuktu? No problem. (And you’ll it—I’ve been there, and the sand is consistently in your eyes—among other places.) You can even have those directions read to you by Morgan Freeman’s glorious voice. But if driving is too much of a hassle, you can just order a ride from your phone (“Phil is arriving now!”), and use real-time satellite imagery to help him dodge police on your way.
Are the in-laws driving you crazy? You can catch the seventh inning from Wrigley under the table. (Just nod politely every now and then.)
It’s all there, and more, in your hand.
At the height of the Cold War, MIT had big contracts from the Department of Defense to help manage our targeting exercises to prepare for a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. Those computers—at the time, the most sophisticated machines ever invented—were the size of a gymnasium. And they were 2 percent as useful as the average iPhone or Android. (Additional fun fact: There’s more computing power in the average digital washing machine today than was used to put the first man on the moon in 1969.)
We’ve become accustomed to instantaneous answers and moment-to-moment connectedness. But the digital revolution that is making it possible was unthinkable just 50 years ago.
We’re the richest, most comfortable, most connected people in human history.
And yet . . .
In the midst of extraordinary prosperity, we’re also living through a crisis. Our communities are collapsing, and people are feeling more isolated, adrift, and purposeless than ever before. We’re not talking much about this crisis. Nonetheless, we all have a sense that something’s not right. Our marriages aren’t satisfying, our kids seem hypnotized. We quietly feel that adulthood has been a disappointment. We sense that somewhere along the way, everything went off the rails.
* * * * *
We have a crisis in this nation, and it has nothing to do with regulatory reform or marginal tax rates. This book is not going to be about politics. (Sorry to disappoint.) It’s about something deeper and more meaningful. Something a little harder to quantify, but a lot more personal.
Despite the astonishing medical advances and technological leaps of recent years, average life span is in decline in America for the third year in a row. This is the first time our nation has had even a two-year drop in life expectancy since 1962—when the cause was an influenza epidemic. Normally, declines in life expectancy are due to something big like that—a war, or the return of a dormant disease.
But what’s the “big thing” going on in America now? What’s killing all these people?
The 2016 data point to three culprits: Alzheimer’s, suicides, and unintentional injuries—a number that includes drug and alcohol deaths. Two years ago, 63,632 people died of overdoses. That’s 11,000 more than the previous year, and it’s more than the number of Americans killed during the entire, twenty-year Vietnam War. It’s almost twice the number killed in automobile accidents annually, which had been the leading American killer for decades. In 2014, suicides hit a thirty-year high—and the sobering climb shows no signs of abating: the percentage of young people hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and actions has doubled over the past decade.
We’re killing ourselves, both on purpose and accidentally.
We’re literally dying of despair.
And this is not even to mention the data about how we’re having less sex and making fewer babies—both of which are, across history, signs of diminished hope in the future.
It turns out that the massive economic disruption that we entered a couple of decades ago and will be navigating for decades to come is depriving us psychologically and spiritually at the same time that it’s enriching us materially. The same technology that has liberated us from so much inconvenience and drudgery has also unmoored us from the things that anchor our identities. The revolution that has given millions of Americans the opportunity to live like royalty has also outpaced our ability to figure out what community, friendships, and relationships should look like in the modern world. As reams of research now show, we’re richer and better-informed and more connected—and unhappier and more isolated and less fulfilled.
There is a terrible mismatch here.
We’re in crisis.
* * * * *
I love to run with my kids.
In one uniquely memorable half-marathon, one of my daughters, then age 12, projectile-vomited just short of mile thirteen. I don’t mean she got down on a knee behind a tree; I mean she made a giant splash in the middle of a crowd. But this kid has a will of steel; I knew she wasn’t dropping out that close to the end. I was proud of her as she dug deep and continued to put one foot in front of the other. But I was also scanning the road ahead for water stations. It’s important to stay hydrated even if you haven’t decorated your shoes, but water was going to be new life for her. When we saw a table up ahead—manned by friendly people extending encouragement along with their paper cups—it was like seeing an oasis in the desert. We knew we were among friends.
When the Lincoln (Nebraska) Marathon came around last year, my team and I set up a water station like we do every May. We like to greet and encourage the 14,000-plus Midwesterners who lace up. I enjoy the marathon vibe: people coming out of their houses with coffee in hand to cheer on the runners, neighbors high-fiving strangers as they struggle by, dogs taking advantage of the Gatorade dribbling from discarded cups in the streets, homeowners setting up lawn sprinklers to provide some relief from the heat. Although I’d prefer to be running with my kids, I admit that sometimes it’s nice to be the one handing out the water, rather than the one in desperate need of it.
We had an ideal spot on Sheridan Avenue, a beautiful, old Lincoln, Nebraska, boulevard with tall elms and oaks lining the road. Our station was just past mile marker four, so some runners slowed down to enjoy the shade before tackling the miles ahead. I often have my kids with me as I work across the state, and my son was six that morning. Some of our friends had brought their kids with them as well. Our dozens of volunteers delighted in the race, and the kids delighted in the challenge of keeping the water cups filled.
Shortly before the first runners arrived, a small group of people set themselves up across the street from us. Protesters, with signs—a familiar sight for anyone in office. But this was different. As the first runners approached our water station, holding out hands for a cup, the protesters began to shriek, clutching at their throats: “It’s poison! It’s poison! Don’t drink it! He wants you to die!”
The runners flinched. The shrieking continued, as waves and waves of runners arrived. Some ignored the scene, but many declined a water cup with a soft, uncomfortable, “I’m sorry.” Nothing sours the occasion like murder charges.
Thinking back on it more than a year later, that morning still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve now had enough nasty experiences in my nearly four years in office to develop a thick skin. I’ve had property vandalized and blood thrown on my office door. I’ve had death threats that seemed credible enough to require police visits. I’ve had interview video selectively edited and then pushed on social media. A conspiracy theory circulated that I had masterminded a human trafficking network in Omaha (the rocket scientists behind that narrative failed to catch that the alleged ring began before I was born). My wife has had angry constituents show up at our front door; my kids have heard me cussed out during family meals at restaurants. But that marathon moment was uniquely painful.
These folks planned and organized others to show up in the morning at a water station at an amateur race to scream at runners that they were being poisoned. Why? Because we don’t see eye-to-eye on every policy issue. How do you explain that to a bunch of confused six-year-olds?
Something is really wrong here.
But truth be told, I don’t think the protestors were actually yelling like that because we have different positions on policy. Something deeper is going on.
* * * * *
In 2007, my wife had a fluke aneurysm, which in turn produced three strokes. For two months, there was a decent chance Melissa would die.
We’d been married twelve years, and I was in shock that my best friend and the mother of our young children might not survive. For the first couple weeks, I sat in the hospital day and night beside her, my life frozen. I wasn’t paying my bills, getting the mail, sleeping, showering enough. The list of ugly was long. I forgot that I had left my car—back on day one at the hospital—in a spot that would become part of a rush-hour lane the following morning. After tickets and towing, those mistakes ended up running to about $800. Life was suddenly too big for us, even the small stuff.
One night, I decided to get some fresh air. I went to a restaurant a block from the hospital, so I could order some food that didn’t come on a metal tray. I stood in the waiting area—and stood—and kept standing. The host had overlooked me, several times, and seated other parties. All I wanted was to get my name on the list, so I could eat some food and get back before the doctor returned. Yet, there I stood—alone in the dark waiting area. Ignored. Suddenly, the anger welled up.
“Excuse me,” I said, my pulse humming. “Don’t you see me?” Then, I proceeded to let him know how he’d mistreated me and exactly what I thought of it. This wasn’t any YouTube-worthy, viral video rant—but it was still a mistake. As a kid and then in college, I had a bunch of jobs—from stadium vending to retail to painting dilapidated houses—that required me to interact with angry folks on occasion. I’d resolved not to be one of them. I’ve never once sent food back, in a huff with the chef. I’ve always felt solidarity with the TGI Friday’s server, not with the jackwagon reaming him out. But . . .
. . . there I was: the jackwagon. As the host rushed to put me on the list, I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t yelled, but I’d been rude to a guy for a simple mistake. I needed to apologize to him.
This stranger wasn’t my problem. My problems were the stacks of bills and the confused kids and the uncertainty. My wife might die. I felt lonely and powerless. I didn’t mean to get upset—but here, finally, was a problem I could fix. I could get my name on the dang list. I could get something to go my way. For a few seconds, I had the relief of a scapegoat, someone I could blame.
* * * * *
One of the rewarding things about being an elected official is getting to meet and listen to Americans who love our country and are concerned for our future. But the most common conversation I have with patriotic Americans these days—the most common, by far—is depressing rather than uplifting. I get the question endlessly when I’m out and about in Nebraska: “Why can’t you guys in D.C. just get some common sense stuff done?” (Sometimes it’s an order: “You people need to do your eff’ing job!”)
When I talk with people one-on-one, or in small groups, it becomes clear how the dysfunction in D.C. is affecting their lives: “I don’t know what to plant if I don’t know if there will be crop insurance this summer. You get that, right?” “Why can’t you all do a common-sense infrastructure investment bill without breaking the bank? I’m a trucker, but I’d pay more gas tax for better roads and bridges.” “How is it fair to kids brought here as babies—through no choice of their own—to wonder if they’re gonna get deported? And how is that complicated mess an excuse for not securing the border?” “Shouldn’t my son, who’s been deployed to Afghanistan three times, know what our actual plan is in a war that started seventeen years ago?” “Why do we never have a budget?” “Will the annual spending bill happen in the middle of the night on the eve of a government shutdown again this year?”
This book is not about politics—but it is at least tangentially about the question: “Why can’t you guys in D.C. get anything done?”
Citizens are right to be discouraged. Governing really does always seem to take a backseat to partisan screaming and point-scoring. I see it up close every week, and nearly a dozen different senators, just in recent months, have confessed to me that they wonder if we’re “wasting our lives.” Contrary to popular misconceptions, no one runs for Senate to get rich, and the near-constant travel away from family makes most of the thoughtful folks here ask questions like—to quote one of my colleagues—“whether this is a responsible way for a grown-ass man to spend his time.”
But I notice, too, that constituents are rarely just interested in solutions; they’re also interested in assigning blame. I have been regularly informed by Nebraskans that our dismal situation is the fault of Mitch McConnell (“boo!”) or Elizabeth Warren (“hiss!”)—or any of a dozen others, on either side of the political spectrum, whose names have taken on a sort of talismanic role: shorthand for all sorts of diabolical scheming.
Political discontent is nothing new in American history, of course. But there’s something different about the way Americans view policymakers today. Answer honestly: Do you have a visceral reaction when you read any of these names: Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Chuck Schumer? Many people do. The assumption now isn’t just that folks are incompetent, but that they are evil.
We really don’t like each other, do we?
There’s an interesting military phenomenon that applies to this political moment. In urban combat training, there is a well-documented tendency to shift our focus from a distant but important target to a less important but nearer target. If you’re being attacked and your threat is fifty yards away, but a closer target pops up, you’ll turn your attention to the new target—even if it’s less of a threat. We tend to want to knock down the easier stuff. Conversely, we tend to want to ignore or deny the challenges that are more difficult.
It seems clear that in America today, we’re facing problems that feel too big for us, so we’re lashing out at each other, often over less important matters. Many of us are using politics as a way to distract ourselves from the nagging sense that something bigger is wrong. Not many of us would honestly argue that if our “side” just had more political power, we’d be able to fix what ails us. Fortunately, we can avoid addressing the big problems as long as someone else—some nearer target—is standing in the way of our securing the political power even to try. It’s easier to shriek at the people on the other side of the street.
It’s comforting to be able to pin the problems on the freaks in the pink hats or the weirdos carrying the pro-life signs. At least our contempt unites us with other Americans who think like we do.
At least we are not like them.
I’m not sure what caused those protesters to tell marathon runners that I was feeding them poison, but I am sure it wasn’t my position on the omnibus spending bill. (I was against that monstrosity, by the way.) We’re angry, and politics is filling a vacuum it was never intended to fill. Suddenly, all of America feels marginalized and ignored. We’re all standing there in the dark, feeling powerless and isolated, pleading: “Don’t you see me?”
Why are we so angry?
* * * * *
Melissa and I married in 1994, and my first work after college took me all over the country. Because we didn’t want to be apart, and since she was eminently employable as a science teacher willing to work in rough schools, we decided to follow my gigs from place to place, rather than to hassle with constant commuting. And so, for our first decade of marriage, we bounced back and forth across the country, two nomads with frequent renter cards at U-Haul. In ten-plus years, we paid taxes in a dozen states.
However, when we started thinking about the children we hoped to bring into the world, we knew we didn’t want them growing up on the move. We wanted them to grow up in a close-knit neighborhood. We wanted our kids to live where they knew people, and where they were known. We envisioned other parents helping keep an eye on them. We saw, in our mind’s eye, Little League and Main Street and familiar faces in the church pews. I imagined something similar to my own childhood.
In Fremont, Nebraska, in the 1970s and 80s parents had a sort of informal alliance—adults versus kids, the community versus chaos. While my friends and I were free to roam the whole town on bikes, we knew that lots of the adults in town had been empowered by our parents to guide and correct our behavior. Twice in the first few weeks after I learned to drive, I arrived home to find Dad ready to quiz me about choices I had made at specific intersections. Other adults in town had already phoned in my ill-advised decisions. I didn’t enjoy getting caught, but there was a sense of “we.” The town was in it together.
Now, ready to begin our own family, Melissa and I wanted to find a place like that. But it seemed to exist only in my memory.
At first, we wondered if we couldn’t find it because we had been wandering for too long. Maybe we were like a country music song, doomed to ramble because we’d warped our souls.
But as we met with college friends who were also looking to “settle down,” we discovered that they were wrestling with the same anxiety. Perhaps it was because they, too, had been transients. But then I started talking about things with high school friends, some of whom had never left our Nebraska farm town—and they offered their own troubling reports. They said that if you go to a game at our high school gym on the weekend something’s different—less community, less enthusiasm. Elementary kids aren’t packed in the stands, imagining what it’ll be like when they’re old enough to wear the black and gold. They’re not off to the side, working on their own crossover dribble with friends. And, after 2007, if kids huddled together at all, it was just each child “parallel playing” with their own phone or iPad—“alone together,” to quote social scientist Sherry Turkle.
What was going on? What had happened to the tight-knit places so many of us had called home? I started looking into the studies of consumerism and “overchoice.” Has the popularity of new sports like soccer and lacrosse—and the rise of year-round sports specialization—fractured the hometown basketball and football crowds? Is our disjointed feeling caused by having too many cable television channels, so that no one watches the same shows anymore? Has social media “friendship” changed our understanding of, and attention to, real-life friendship? Do the bigger houses we live in today—more than three times as large as sixty years ago, on average—offer us comfort but also generate isolation? Has our upsized real estate contributed to the rise of messy exurban sprawl at the expense of small towns and inner cities, with their town squares and neighborhood centers?
All of these factors are part of the complicated explanation, but the net result is simple: Most Americans just don’t have community thickness like we used to. We don’t feel that we’re connected to our neighbors in any meaningful ways. We don’t feel like we’re part of something bigger. No longer are parents keeping an eye out on the roving bands of kids, making sure they aren’t up to no good. No longer is the town packing the stands for the game.
This isn’t a nostalgia-induced lament. This book isn’t a couple hundred pages reducible to the old adage, “You can’t go home again.” Rather, it’s an exploration of why America seems to be tearing apart at the seams. In fact, that doesn’t have to do primarily with Republicans or Democrats. Most policymakers don’t seem to understand what’s happening—and they certainly don’t have any grand answers. It has to do with the deep bonds that join people together, that give their lives richness and meaning—and the fact that that those bonds are fraying.
We can’t fix this with new legislation. We don’t need a new program, a new department, one more election. If our 2016 presidential election was the most lurid and dismaying election of our lifetime—and it was, without a doubt, a five-alarm dumpster fire—it was still only the consequence of deeper problems, not their cause. If we could wave a magic wand and make all of the political acrimony disappear, it might bankrupt some of the cable news networks, but it wouldn’t do much to fill the hole millions of Americans feel in their lives right now. Getting rid of political strife would be like whitening the yellowed teeth of a smoker. It would simply erase one characteristic of a toxic situation, camouflaging problems that go much deeper.
What we need are new habits of mind and heart. We need new practices of neighborliness. We need to get our hands dirty replenishing the soil that nourishes rooted, purposeful lives.
* * * * *
While Melissa and I were coming to the gut-punch realization that the in-it-together community in which we wanted to raise our babies might no longer exist, I happened across a Sports Illustrated article that used the beautifully bizarre compound adjective: “that hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling.”
That was it.
The “hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling” was what I’d known as a kid. My dad was a football and wrestling coach, and he had keys to the basketball gym, so my buddies and I logged enough hours there that it came to feel like an extension of our homes. (When President Trump accused me in 2016 of “looking like a gym rat,” my family beamed with pride. There is no higher compliment.) On Friday nights, my family piled into the car and we drove down to Fremont High. The community assembled in the gym. Those game nights were the best.
Obviously, we cared whether the basketball team had a winning or losing record—but there were more important concerns. The gym was packed either way—with bankers and farmers, nurses and preachers, teachers and parents who the teachers wanted to “have a word with.” There were no rich and poor here—there were only Fremont Tigers. Everyone showed up for games, not just families of current athletes. I used to think of those bleachers as “homeroom” for the town: the place where everyone gathered, made plans, swapped news and gossip, and solidified friendships. I have faint recollections of discussions of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, but I always had the sense that those discussions were subordinate to the stuff that really mattered. People walked away from political conversations without thinking ill of each other, because that kind of talk happened in the context of an actual relationship centered around local things that were a lot more important.
Right now partisan tribalism is statistically higher than at any point since the Civil War. Why? It’s certainly not because our political discussions are more important. It’s because the local, human relationships that anchored political talk have shriveled up. Alienated from each other, and uprooted from places we can call home, we’re reduced to shrieking.
So, the first part of this book is about the collapse of the local tribes that give us true, meaningful identity—family, workplace, and neighborhood. It’s about the evaporation of social capital—the relational resources that help us navigate the world—and about the precipitous decline in recent years of the institutions that Alexis de Tocqueville, nearly two hundred years ago, saw were the heart and soul of America. It’s about the waning influence of the Rotary Club and the Scouts, the VFW and the local bowling league. It’s about the mountain of data showing that shut-ins are getting fewer casseroles with instructions written on a notecard: Bake at 325 until brown on top! This book is less about legislative failures in Washington, D.C., than about the death of Little League in River City.
The second part of the book will gesture toward some of our cultural fights, but I’m not trying to persuade anyone about politics. Rather, we’ll explore how anti-tribes—of news consumption more than political activism—have cropped up to try to fill the void left by the collapse of the natural, local, healthy tribes people have traditionally known.
These anti-tribes aren’t succeeding at addressing our emptiness, and they’re poisoning our nation’s spirit in critical ways. Lacking meaningful attachments, people are finding a perverse bond in sharing a common enemy.
The third and final part of the book asks what we do about it. If America is going to survive—and that’s never an assumption to be taken for granted in a republic—we will have to find a way to restore the bonds of community that give individuals a place in the world where they can enjoy the love of family and friends, express their talents, and serve others in fulfilling ways. Chapter 5 explores what it would look like to recommit to America’s history of principled pluralism. We want an America with free speech, religion, press, assembly, and protest—even for those we disagree with. In spite of the endless disagreements that flow from diversity, we want to be free to build local communities where we shoulder one another’s burdens in compassion and generosity. Chapter 6 looks at the habits required to live in community in a digital age that constantly promises us we can be free from real places and real people. That’s a sham. If we really want to be happy, we must plant roots and tend them. That means, in large part, thinking carefully how to get the best out of the technology that liberates us from inconveniences—without letting our devices cut us off from the richest parts of life. (As we’ll see, that task is becoming especially pressing as genuine bad actors look to exploit our problems by manipulating new technologies to further undermine our interests.) Chapter 7 wrestles with the ways our lonely generations are segregating themselves from one another—and the refusal, among many, to accept the reality of aging bodies and ultimately death. Finally, chapter 8 suggests how we might rebuild our crumbling institutions over the coming decades. Just as institutions were rebuilt to accommodate the urbanization and industrialization that swept the country 150 years ago, so too will we need to go about rebuilding institutions of community and trust for our mobile age. We will focus here primarily on how housing will likely be adapted to a mobile age, but soon we will also need to ask: How might secondary and higher education lend themselves better to our new economic modes? How might we rethink mid-career retraining, as job turnover becomes more and more frequent, and more people become permanent freelancers? And as life expectancy increases and workers retire earlier, how will people more meaningfully benefit from productive service to their friends and neighbors in their golden years?
* * * * *
Above all, this book is an urgent call to name the problem that’s ripping us apart.
It’s not taxes or tweets; it’s not primarily politics or polarization; it’s neither an unpredictable president nor the #Resistance that wants to impeach him. It’s not a new bill, or a blue-ribbon commission. The real culprit has less to do with us as a polity and everything to do with us as uprooted, wandering souls.
Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness, when only a recovery of rootedness can heal us.
What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word.