It’s hard to say exactly when it started, but our politics has become exceedingly neurotic. The idea of neurosis predates its most famous clinical expositor, Sigmund Freud, and the term’s definition has shifted with changes in Western culture in the 125 years since Freud’s work on neurosis began. It has gone from describing a disease of the nervous system to its present meaning—a kind of charming and nerdy comic pessimism. To say our politics is neurotic is not to draw directly from either of those senses of the word. It is to say, rather, that we spend much of our shared cultural and political life in a state of collective panic over problems that are relatively small or don’t in fact exist. And in focusing on these distortions, we lose sight of the genuine political challenges that need addressing.
Just as the individual neurotic may suffer from an invented personal malady or take a minor problem and turn it into an all-consuming crisis, our increasingly neurotic citizenry has become adept both at summoning false emergencies from the ether—as with hate-crime hysteria on the left—and elevating moderate challenges into existential ones—as with illegal-immigration fever on the right.
As those two examples demonstrate, our national neurosis is bipartisan. Neither side wants to hear it, but Americans on both the left and right are inclined to bouts of unwarranted catastrophizing about this or that political issue. While liberals and conservatives don’t frequently focus on the same non-crisis, their mirror-image neurosis is one of the few things they have in common. And there are some issues—free trade, for example—about which both sides harbor unwarranted fears (or, if we stay with psychology, phobias). No prominent political camp, then, is working to redirect public attention toward more realistic concerns.
To make matters worse, the American media have taken to amplifying or even generating neurotic distress for fun and profit. In particular, major newspapers and television networks have become a clearing house and legitimizing institution for the unfounded anxieties of the American left. As a result, those anxieties have come to dominate our shared existence as citizens, infusing the public square with fantastic speculation, conspiracy theory, and deep panic. Think of when the New Yorker ran with uncorroborated stories about drug-fueled rape parties involving a Supreme Court nominee. Or, on a larger scale, consider what we witnessed during the two years of so-called Russiagate: a daily, round-the-clock collective media effort to promote the idea that the president of the United States was somehow brought into office through a covert and illegal alliance with Russian president, Vladimir Putin—despite any substantive evidence of such a pact. Indeed, the baseless notion that the 2016 election was fixed in the first place took off in the press at light speed the moment Trump was elected. Around these stories and others there formed a kind of mass delusion, a widespread acceptance of fairly obvious falsehoods.
There are other ways of thinking about this strange state of affairs, but they don’t fit as neatly as the diagnosis of political neurosis. For example, there’s the idea that the United States is more divided than it’s ever been. The biggest problem with that theory is that it’s not true. Doubtless, we are very divided at the moment, but not more so than ever before. There were deadly battles between political opponents during the years of the country’s Founding and, of course, there was the Civil War. But even in the modern age, the country has been more divided. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, tensions surrounding the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, and radical leftism spilled into the streets in the form of violent clashes and murderous domestic terrorism. It’s worth noting that, despite these eruptions, the political crises that were tearing the country apart—institutionalized prejudice and an ongoing war—were real.
Here is the verboten truth: We live in an age of unprecedented blessing. And perhaps that’s why it’s also an age of political neurosis. Humans are social and political creatures by nature and must engage one another to solve problems—whether or not those problems exist. Could it be that with fewer large-scale policy crises than we’ve ever had, we find ourselves exaggerating or inventing them? The evidence is compelling.
A glimpse of the past few decades of American history reveals an astounding record of progress. And yet, for each genuine accomplishment, a fake crisis has popped up to take the place of the one that’s been resolved:
Free trade. Decades of the increased free flow of goods and services among nations have lifted the global poor out of unspeakable misery and contributed to significant gains in quality of life for all Americans. And yet, free trade is now viewed by some on the American left as evil colonialism abroad and, by a large contingent on the right, as the ruination of America’s working class.
As a candidate for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton demonstrated her skills as a political weathervane in coming out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (which she had earlier supported). And Donald Trump has made cracking down on free trade, at least rhetorically, a signature feature of his presidency. As things now stand, polls show that the American right (once the home of free trade’s staunchest defenders) is more anti-trade than the left.
These attitudes are at odds with reality. Between 1990 and 2010 alone, access to affordable goods and services provided by free trade lifted almost a billion people out of poverty around the world. And according to Homi Kharas and Kristofer Hamel of the Brookings Institution, as of September 2018, “just over 50 percent of the world’s population, or some 3.8 billion people, live in households with enough discretionary expenditure to be considered ‘middle class’ or ‘rich.’” Put another way: “For the first time since agriculture-based civilization began 10,000 years ago, the majority of humankind is no longer poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty.”
Despite widespread belief to the contrary, Americans have not been deprived of the gains. The domestic benefits are numerous. The absence of harsh tariffs on imported goods has allowed poorer Americans to purchase these goods for lower prices. Without tariffs on imported resources, American industries that consume those resources have been able to keep their costs low, allowing for growth and high employment. And while it’s true that free trade can cost jobs in inefficient industries, it also frees up resources for growth in new industries. Finally, if free trade were at the heart of an American employment crisis, how is it that, since Trump’s election, America’s trade deficit has hit an all-time high (contrary to his stance) while unemployment has steadily decreased?
The benefits accrued by free trade are a direct result of U.S.-led multilateral trade agreements that have been forged over decades. But talk of these benefits has been supplanted by complaints about exaggerated or imagined problems.
Capitalism. Along with free trade, American capitalism has helped raise the standard of living for all U.S. citizens. And yet, the American left is neurotically fixated on the idea that capitalism is evil and that its wealthiest practitioners must pay. This has become a rallying cry for Democratic socialists such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who celebrated Amazon’s pulling out of plans to locate its second headquarters in Queens, where it would have provided 25,000 jobs. According to Ocasio-Cortez, this showed that “everyday Americans still have the power to organize and fight for their communities and they can have more say in this country than the richest man in the world.” (Locals, not incidentally, were overwhelmingly in favor of Amazon’s coming to town.) Bernie Sanders, another Democratic Socialist, said during one CNN interview, “If your question is, am I going to demand that the wealthy and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes, damn right I will.”
These popular Democrats and others have brought liberals around to an anti-capitalist stance more generally. Last August, a poll by Gallup found that only 47 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents had a positive view of capitalism, while 58 percent had a positive view of socialism.
Far from being a problem, the success of capitalism is another of our blessings. Free markets have fueled innovation and led to widespread prosperity, which has in turn improved the lives of countless citizens. According to the U.S. census, today’s average “poor” American lives in an air-conditioned home with multiple color TVs (with cable), a VCR, and a DVD player. That home is likely to be several hundred square feet larger than those of Europe’s lowest-income bracket. And the typical poor American probably has a car. According to a 2015 study in Obesity Research and Clinical Practices, the American poor are far from facing starvation. “Places with higher concentrations of low-income, minority populations had increased rates of obesity,” the study concludes. The point isn’t that obesity is good. It’s that access to affordable food isn’t an issue among America’s lowest earners.
Has capitalism led to greater inequality? Probably. But if it has simultaneously enabled the poorest among us to live more safely and comfortably than they could under any other economic system, then on balance, it’s a blessing.
War and peace. Since the end of World War II, the human race has seen the most peaceful stretch of time in recorded history. This is a direct result of the United States having become the most powerful country on the planet and using its power and diplomacy to maintain a relatively cooperative world order. And yet, politicians and intellectuals routinely lament the United States’ ongoing penchant for “endless wars,” speaking as if America’s apparently unquenchable thirst for blood is unsettling an otherwise peaceful world.
This is one of those neurotic crises fueled by Americans on both the left and right. For dissenters on the left, our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which have thankfully produced far fewer American deaths than many shorter wars did) are racist, imperialist bloodbaths. On the right, they’re seen as the opposite: quixotic efforts by hopeless do-gooders who are wasting American blood and treasure on enemies. On both sides, however, these wars are emblematic of a larger American addiction to battle—an addiction that must be beaten.
Obama, of course, spoke about our supposedly never-ending wars every chance he got. “As you are well aware, I do not support the idea of endless war,” he said, in one characteristic speech about the country’s ongoing military obligations. “I have repeatedly argued against marching into open-ended military conflicts that do not secure our core security interests.” Current Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others make similar comments today. And President Donald Trump receives hearty applause from Republican crowds whenever he boasts that he, too, will “stop the endless wars.”
In a concession to reality, Trump has backed off his plan to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps someone convinced him that maintaining troops in a low-casualty fight against al-Qaeda’s closest sponsors is not exactly the ill-considered folly of a bloodthirsty republic.
Prejudice. Bigotry is a human problem and it hasn’t disappeared. But the progress that’s been made in combating bigotry in the modern United States has been remarkable. And yet, at our high point of inclusivity, the left has launched a campaign against prejudice that’s wholly disconnected from the state of things.
It was just over 50 years ago that Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and it’s not quite 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The shame of those landmark laws coming so late in our young country’s history should not be forgotten. At the same time, the fact that these laws passed only half a century ago makes what has happened since all the more remarkable.
In the course of that time, increases in high-school and college graduation among black Americans has consistently far outpaced growth in graduation among white Americans. In terms of income, an aggregate gap persists between African Americans and white Americans, but a regional breakdown reveals that much of this gap has to do with geography. And, according to data published in a 2016 Pew study, in cities such as Atlanta, Washington, Austin, Denver, Nashville, Houston, and Dallas, the rates of African-American income growth are outpacing overall growth.
It’s often noted, as it should be, that in 2008, the United States elected its first black president. But it’s less seldom understood how much progress has been made by black Americans in other positions of political leadership. A recent Pew study notes: “In 1965, there were no blacks in the U.S. Senate, nor were there any black governors. And only six members of the House of Representatives were black. As of 2019, there is greater representation in some areas—52 House members are black, putting the share of black House members (12 percent) on par with the share of blacks in the U.S. population overall for the first time in history.” The study mentions that there has been little change in the number of black governors and senators, but also notes that the number of “blacks serving in a presidential Cabinet was at or above parity with the population during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.”
If you listened only to liberal politicians and pundits, you might never know about such progress. On the academic left, reparations for the descendants of American slaves is almost unanimously endorsed. And this year, Democratic candidates such as Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke have expressed their openness to the idea. Setting aside any debate about the merits of such a plan, what’s telling is that such a dramatic notion is being weighed at the very high point of black progress. That’s what makes it, for our purposes, neurotic.
At the same time, there’s been an ongoing rash of fake hate crimes staged against blacks and other minorities. And all of this comes amid the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, whose main contention—that police kill unarmed black Americans at alarming rates—is at odds with data on the subject. A 2016 study at Harvard, for example, found that police are slightly more likely to shoot unarmed whites than unarmed blacks.
Gay Americans have also seen astounding gains in recent years—namely, the Supreme Court’s legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015. Yet the LGBTQ activist community has—seemingly in response—become more insistent than it ever was. The question is, what’s the remaining crisis? It’s hard to say. Trans activism is ubiquitous, but so, too, is the celebration of the American trans community. Redoubled activism in the very face of social acceptance and elevation is, politically speaking, neurotic.
Immigration. Illegal immigration is a problem for the United States. But in recent years, it’s become a much smaller problem. Yet Republicans, rallied by Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall at the southern border, have become far more hawkish on illegal immigration precisely at the point that some key indicators show significant improvement. The timing fits the pattern of political neurosis.
For one thing, according to Pew Research, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has hit its lowest point in more than a decade. This was already the case in 2016, when Trump made illegal immigration the focal point of his presidential campaign. There are still millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. And again, to be clear, illegal immigration remains a challenge that must be dealt with seriously. But the timing of the perceived crisis is not serious. More to the point, it’s inverted.
There are more figures still that make this case: In 2017, the number of arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border fell to 310,000. It hasn’t been that low since 1971. And according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, apprehensions at the border in 2017 dropped by 75 percent since 2000. Not only has overall illegal immigration fallen significantly in total number, but the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Trump’s chief target, has fallen steadily since 2007.
Trump’s tough stance has prompted dead-end fights with Congress and various legal and political challenges. And it has made for endless political theater, highlighting the bad faith and histrionics of leaders across the political spectrum. But while this played out, a genuine acute crisis was developing. As of this writing, there are perhaps as many as 100,000 migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and elsewhere at the border, and the U.S. does not have sufficient personnel or policies in place to deal with them. This is what happens when policy is made to address a false problem: Attention and resources are misallocated, and policymakers are caught flat-footed.
The U.S. has, for the time being, addressed the essential political problems that face any country. Americans are fed, mostly employed, and relatively safe. But that’s not to say that there are no real challenges to conquer. As the example of immigration hysteria makes clear, while the left and right go to war over neurotic concerns, America’s real political problems are left to fester.
In particular, the country’s greatest challenge is being scrupulously ignored. This is the looming debt crisis. Urgent as this issue is, it’s also drab. And because of its drabness, it doesn’t animate Americans the way our neurotic crises do. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that, by 2028, our national debt will be nearly 100 percent of our GDP, and that’s probably too optimistic; debt could exceed GDP much sooner. But whatever the future consequences, for now, it’s just a boring statement about something that hasn’t caused anyone pain.
There are other legitimate concerns, such as climate change and access to affordable health care. But on both of these issues, whatever truth there was to the case for action has long since been replaced by neurotic politics of the highest order. Doomsday scenarios and weaponized anecdotes have supplanted thoughtful analysis.
There is, finally, a very real crisis in our country, and it has little to do with politics. It’s a crisis of the soul or spirit. It manifests, for example, in the fact that American life expectancy has just declined two years in a row, something that’s not happened since World War II. The crisis is seen in a national suicide rate that’s risen almost 30 percent since the end of the 20th century. It’s seen in a recent survey of hospitals that found that the number of children between 5 and 17 being admitted for self-harm and attempted suicide has doubled between 2008 and 2015. The crisis is clear in our opioid epidemic. And it’s evident in polls that show prayer and belief in God is at an all-time low in the United States.
One cannot but wonder: Perhaps Americans’ unwillingness to recognize and be thankful for our country’s vast achievements is also part of this crisis. If so, the array of false catastrophes with which we find ourselves consumed is hiding a much deeper problem—one that no policy can address.