The Pessimism Of The Elites

A while back, in one of Thomas Edsall’s weekly columns for the New York Times , he surveyed a variety of scholars on the question whether America is at a point of no return– whether crises he described as insoluble (cultural and racial conflict; a two-tier economy, one growing, the other stagnant; inequality and economic immobility; and a divided electorate based on educational attainment) taken together, foreshadow the country’s inevitable decline.

The scholars who responded  were uniformly pessimistic.

As one of them wrote, his concerns were based upon the fact that today’s Americans seem to have lost the ability–critically important to democracies– to reform ourselves and correct mistakes.  What worries him most, he wrote, is

the decline in a common American identity. Americans lead increasingly separate and different lives. From “out of many one” no longer applies. This is truly dangerous, as this is a country founded on an idea (rather than class or demographic homogeneity), and that idea is no longer agreed on, much less widely held. I am no longer confident there is the necessary desire and ability to make this country succeed. As a result, I cannot rule out continued paralysis and dysfunction at best and widespread political violence or even dissolution at worst.

Other respondents pointed to economic stresses, especially the enormous gap between the rich and the rest, and profound shifts in cultural values. Pippa Norris, one of America’s most perceptive scholars, focused on the weaknesses inherent in two-party systems, which are most vulnerable to democratic backsliding when voting publics become polarized.

Where there is a two-party system despite an increasingly diverse plural society and culture, where multidimensional ideological polarization has grown within parties and the electorate and where there are no realistic opportunities for multiparty competition, which would serve as a pressure-valve outlet for cultural diversity, as is common throughout Europe.

Norris noted that political systems struggle to provide outlets for “alternative contenders” who reflect the new issue agendas of the Left and Right.

The longer this continues, the more the process raises the stakes in plurality elections and reinforces us-them intolerance among winners and especially losers, who increasingly come to reject the legitimacy of the rules of the game where they feel that the deck is consistently stacked against them.

She ties the grievances of those “losers” to their willingness–eagerness–to accept false claims.

The most plausible misinformation is based on something which is actually true, hence the great-replacement theory among evangelicals is not simply made-up myths; given patterns of secularization, there is indeed a decline in the religious population in America. Similarly for Republicans, deeply held beliefs that, for example, they are silenced, since their values are no longer reflected in mainstream media or the culture of the Ivy Leagues are, indeed, at least in part, based on well-grounded truths. Hence the MAGA grass-roots takeover of the old country club G.O.P. and authoritarian challenges to liberal democratic norms.

Edsall’s column quotes other, equally pessimistic, responses, offering still other analyses of what is undermining America’s unity and sense of purpose. Adding to the “doom and gloom” predictions, a former member of a Republican administration wrote that,

if the G.O.P. wins in 2024 or even wins enough to paralyze government and sow further doubts about the legitimacy of our government and institutions, then we drift steadily toward Argentina-style populism, and neither American democracy nor American prosperity will ever be the same again.

All of the observations quoted in the column are grounded in contemporary realities. They are based upon thoughtful and considered scholarly reviews of vetted data.


There are definitely aspects of our contemporary situation that are new–challenges that previous Americans didn’t face. That said, however, acknowledging that fact is not the same as concluding that these times and challenges are more dangerous or perilous than those we’ve previously faced and overcome. Goodness knows I’m no Pollyanna (as anyone who reads these daily posts can confirm!), but a reasonable acquaintance with American history might help to put our current hostilities into context. One of the reasons to subscribe to the very popular Substack of historian Heather Cox Richardson is precisely because she offers that context, reminding readers that we have emerged from past conflicts that have also threatened to destroy what I insist upon calling “The American idea.”

If–and I grant it’s a big “if”–America comes through the November elections having rejected the MAGA haters and malcontents, the very best thing we can do to heal our fragmented body politic is strengthen education in accurate American history and especially civics.

It’s hard to encourage citizens to embrace “The American Idea” if they don’t know what that is.


  1. “,,,the fact that today’s Americans seem to have lost the ability–critically important to democracies– to reform ourselves and correct mistakes.”

    “The past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.” William Faulkner

    Trump left his northern roots, firmly planted in family money and questionable business tactics to move south where he garnered support and money as the like-minded Confederacy gathered support of those with the most to lose to fight for his cause. A long ago quote, “Save your Confederate money, boys, the south’s gonna rise again.”, is the mind set we are fighting. This electronic age has spread his words faster and further and his enslaved minds of MAGAs will follow him in this 2nd Civil War wherever he leads them. Mitch McConnell spent years using the adage, “The best defense is a strong offense.” by ignoring all Rule of Law and setting up states, federal judgeships and the Supreme Court in place for this 2024 election. He may be stepping down from his Senate leadership position but in title only; he will remain the enemy within the federal government to protect the new Confederacy/MAGA to take the majority position.

    “If–and I grant it’s a big “if”–America comes through the November elections having rejected the MAGA haters and malcontents, the very best thing we can do to heal our fragmented body politic is strengthen education in accurate American history and especially civics.”

  2. The unintended consequences brought about by changes in education and the merging of religion and politics is at the core of what we see today as the splintering of society. The changes in education began with the push for home schooling, moved onto the creation of charter schools and now a voucher system to prop up the Catholic school system. These various school systems do not teach the same history, the same values, the same ideals or the same goals as public schools, and thus we face a new kind of diversity that will be with us for years to come.
    At the same time that these educational changes began, and often as part of the religious intrusion into politics, one of the country’s major political parties has been so radicalized as to be non-recognizable, and this radicalization has come about in a large measure by its takeover by Evangelicals and Catholics to force their religious beliefs onto all of the country.
    What faces Americans today is a battle to restore our once cherished common ideals, common dreams, and common principles. Either we believe in the Constitution or we do not. It is just that simple.

  3. Theresa; your last sentence says it all. The Constitution has been bastardized by the phony religious party takeover and is now used as a weapon against all things American.

  4. I’ll go with a five-party system, which forces coalitions to pass legislation that moves the country forward. I agree that the two-party system does not reflect American principles at all. We’ve basically got MAGA and everyone else following two political parties owned by the billionaire class and lobby groups.

    The second issue is eliminating money from our political system. Right now, we have a Democratic Party, which is anything but democratic. The disconnect between party leadership and average Americans is immense. The working class is leaning over to Trump with hopes of blowing up the system that works against them. They’ve given up hope that the Democrats will do anything to help their cause.

    Due to the hundreds of millions flowing in from Israeli PACs, we have Democrats fiercely supporting a genocide in Gaza. Politicians are getting outed on social media for their support of the massacres by users sharing their contributions received by AIPAC. Roughly 65% of Washington politicians receive AIPAC monies, and those who don’t are constantly getting hammered by Israeli-run social media accounts. We don’t have a peace element represented by either of the two parties. This does not represent America today.

    Look at Indiana! The clowns in Indy don’t come close to representing Hoosiers. The same occurs in 23-24 other states. This presents a massive disconnect between “leadership” and the people. So, of course, there will be division and discord. The people want a government representing them, but our Oligarchic-controlled politicians have been too busy catering to their donors. The oligarchs only want two parties because that is easier to control. It’s also why the Democratic Party is attacking the two candidates running to their Left.

    And lastly, the propaganda media supports the Oligarchs and the two-party system. They will destroy Cornel West and Jill Stein after the primaries. Their coverage of anti-Russia, anti-China propaganda is disgusting. Their coverage of the genocide is disgusting. They constantly lie about important matters, so even if citizens were aware of civics, the media would present contrary views because it’s propaganda.

  5. 99% of school vouchers goes to religious schools. Catholic schools get 45% of this. But I think it is a little unfair to say that this is propping up Catholic schools when they have been around a very long time without vouchers and seeing all the new schools coming into play now that there are vouchers. Theresa, do you have some kind of proof that Catholic schools played a role in the school voucher fiasco, other than Catholic school parents saying yes to it, why not? I am not being sarcastic, I really don’t know who was behind vouchers.

  6. Todd, don’t we have far more than 2 parties. I think in 2020 we had 4 parties put up President/VP candidates and get half a million or so votes: Rs, Ds, Libertarian, and Green (plus about 10 other minor parties in various states). It seems that we have had the chance to have more than 2 major parties, but we just don’t. How do you think we get to 5?

  7. As one who has always been active in a local church (although not an evangelical Christian), I can understand the view of some religious people that they are increasingly excluded from mainstream society. For example, where in mainstream entertainment are people of faith portrayed as a normal and integral part of society? Do we see any of the characters heading out to church or praying before meals just as an ordinary way of life? There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, religion and faith are just absent.

  8. With an actual multi-party system of viable candidates, how is the presidential election decided. 51% or the highest number of all candidates; what would this do to the useless/outdated Electoral College regarding deciding numbers?

  9. “the very best thing we can do to heal our fragmented body politic is strengthen education in accurate American history and especially civics.” NOPE.

    Respectfully disagree – the very best thing we can do to heal our fragmented body politic is strengthen education in critical thinking, visual literacy, media literacy, data literacy.

  10. The problem I see is the people who are eligible to vote, who don’t vote. We need to do much more to motivate them. If poll after poll shows between 70 to 80 percent of Americans agree on most policy issues we’ve lost twenty to thirty percent of the electorate to either ignorance or ennui. Maybe the left needs to find a way to scare voters, at least a little bit.

  11. Todd. If the working class has given up hope that the Democrats will do anything to help their cause, it’s because the working class has been bamboozled into believing a false world view. That world view includes what you keep hammering at us, that there is no difference between the two parties, everyone in politics is hopelessly corrupt, and that we should go through some cataclysmic period of destruction and then rebuild from the ashes. After all, you were the one who wrote that “a full scale nuclear war” might be good for us. I caution anyone who tends to take you seriously to remember that this false world view lies at the foundation of your posts.

  12. Todd Smekens there cant even be s three party system neverless a five party system. Did anyone see the CNN factchecks on RFk Jrs interview? The media is deeply rooted in a two party system.
    No debating the “factcheckers”!!

  13. The “Trump effect” has led to an erosion of civic obligation, clearly a key aspect of the American idea. The deepening of America’s embrace of individualism has occurred as a result of “the effect” as well. The values that have been admired, as deTocqueville described them, continue to be tested, both embraced and rejected (as self-interested capitalism erodes a sense of commitment to the whole); we need to renew our commitment to our nation, to our core values, in a number of ways. Starting with an investment in educating our citizens, prompting civic engagement, will help to right the ship. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted.

  14. Lester – I think you are not disagreeing with Sheila but are rather offering subsets of her views of a means of recovery of the “American Idea.” The teaching of accurate history and civics provides a broad tent for inclusion. I also think Sheila’s reference to Heather Cox Richardson’s notion of our successful emergence from “past conflicts” is understated by contributors today. I cannot think of any end to the “American Idea” more divisive than the Civil War, and we survived that, though Magas and others intent on destruction of the institutions undergirding our democracy are using that old “issue” as well as newly manufactured issues to create the chaos essential to a Sir Galahad’s version (Sir Trump’s) ride in on his white horse to rescue the maidens and royalty from the castle – but at the cost of fascist rule.

    My guess is that voters will reject fascism and that Democrats (and democracy) will win this fall, but I don’t expect the Magas to go away the day after the election though I do expect such radical anti-democratic pro-fascist views to subside over time as the virtues of democracy and correspondIng reduction in chaos spread over the land. How long will it take? I don’t and can’t know, but our first task is clear in the process of saving our democracy, to wit: winning this fall’s election. VOTE!

  15. Yesterday, Todd Hartmann posted an extremally frightening scenario by which the Republicans intend to win all future elections by disenfranchising women. They have passed law in several states requiring two pieces of identification that are identical in order to vote. This means that if if your birth certificate has your maiden name and your drivers license has your married (husbands) name, you aren’t eligible. There are legal work arounds, but since essentially nobody has mentioned the problem, essentially nobody has taken the necessary actions. However, the Republicans ARE preparing to challenge large numbers of female voters in the general election and keep them from voting, thereby protecting their phony decision on Roe v. Wade and possibly derailing several State Constitutional amendments protecting abortion.

    That is an important “tip of the iceberg,” but only the tip. If the Republicans use these challenges to maintain their grip on the government, they will be empowered to gut social programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. as they have already proposed in the Republican Congressional Budget that was released last month.

    Wake up people. These jerks are out to make slaves of all of us!


  16. Paula said, “As one who has always been active in a local church (although not an evangelical Christian), I can understand the view of some religious people that they are increasingly excluded from mainstream society. For example, where in mainstream entertainment are people of faith portrayed as a normal and integral part of society? Do we see any of the characters heading out to church or praying before meals just as an ordinary way of life? There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, religion and faith are just absent.”

    No, Paula, church goers are not excluded from mainstream society. As a non-church goer, from my point of view it feels like a day does not pass that I do not see many representations of religion that intrude on my America. The difference is that I ignore it and do not take it as something immediately threatening but simply as the way some people are. The problem with religion, Christianity in America in particular, is that too many religious people DO take it as a threat that many do not share their particular (and quite honestly, peculiar to others) culture. There is a sort of impulse toward forced conformity in the greater church, so much so that we constantly hear protests over any sort of diversity of thought or belief, and those protests are coming from Christians. Imagine, from my point of view, listening to you talk about your invisible entity in the sky and his virgin birth/sacrificed/undead/ascended son and how that should just be assumed to be normal. Just because it is normal to you because you have been desensitized to it your whole life does not make it normal or necessary for anyone else. You have no inherent right to an environment that makes you most comfortable by reflecting all of your beliefs back at you, and The United States of America, in particular, above all other nations on Earth, was founded precisely to create an environment free of the forced conformity of religion.

  17. The foundation of liberal democracy is optimism about the human spirit, the belief that humans can self-govern and, therefore, exist collaboratively and freely. The US Constitution first captured this concept in a practical way by giving us the responsibility to determine who governs us, the people.

    Strong leaders and their followers do not accept that. They believe that we need to be managed, directed, and organized within sharp limits to function productively and they are personally entitled to those functions.

    What do you think? I see no reason to change from the idea that brought us this far.

  18. When one party is willing to lie, cheat and do whatever it takes to get their way, that means all bets are off. In any game, if one side plays by the rules and one side finds ways to get around all the rules, then there is no fair game. And especially if one side sees their wining as a mandate from “God”, it’s gonna be a FUBAR situation. That’s where we are in our 2 party system thanks to Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, etc., etc. . . .

  19. Gerald,

    “The teaching of accurate history and civics provides a broad tent for inclusion”, but “whose ACCURACY”??? The 1619 Project? We are well immersed in a culture of “I decide what to believe, how to act, how to be”…not much room for objectivity. A useful guide to what I was talking about is the book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” which is nothing about “facts” and all about the process of understanding/measuring/judging competing “facts”.

  20. You know, it’s currently like a tug of war with people pulling in every direction. You can’t say that everyone comes together to grab that rope against some irrational, unethical, self-aggrandized power grabbing carpet bagger malcontent! You’ll have some that pull in the opposite direction, you’ll have some to pull against the threat, you’ll have others that pull to the side, one or the other! Nothing ever gets accomplished because there is no unity. Everyone feels their way is the best, compromise be damned.

    It’s fine to wish something to be the case, to hope that men can finally come together for the common good of humanity. Unfortunately, that has never ever ever ever ever ever happened in history! So, what makes this current generation or generational period More intellectually acute than previous ones. If anything, the population and the power brokers become dumber and dumber the more social media and now AI is used.

    How can you find a solution when you’re putting garbage into the system trying to get some sort of guideline to follow, one which would actually work. Garbage in? Garbage out!

    It’s unfortunate that everyone deludes themselves to believe humanity can actually change its course when it’s had many millennia to do that, and it hasn’t happened. Let’s face it, humanity would rather kill itself off then to capitulate with someone they feel is not worthy. He can’t get much dumber than that. The Age of Ignorance is alive and well, but I think you might want to call it the Epoch of Ignorance! Because it’s been going on for the entire history of mankind.

  21. Thank you, “Over it!” The belief system you, and JoAnn, refer to, in certainly different ways, is, in my perspective, a culturally supported delusion. When the ancient Greeks and Romans “knew” that Poseidon, Zeus, Rhea, Achilles, et al, were gods, they suffered from the same thing. In religious households the belief systems are taught to children from a very early age, taught as THE view of reality, and not to be questioned. Again, I refer to the framed poster in my step-son’s home, thanks to his wife: “JUST BELIEVE!” As in, “Do not do anything with the stories your religion dictates, other than suck them in!”
    So, Adam and Eve had 2 sons…who later went out in search of, and found 2 women to marry. In this story, there had been 4 people on the planet, so, where did the 5th and 6th come from, you know, the wives?
    Just take it on faith, a friend tells me. Why? Bishop Alex Jones tells me stuff, and i to believe him?
    Archbishop James Ussher figured out that the universe was created on Oct. 22, 2004 B.C. How special!
    Sheila, I come down on the side of the pessimists, for what it is worth. If Biden wins in ’24, especially in a big way, he will have the opportunity to try to appeal to what reason the poorly educated and “dispossessed” have, to recreate a cultural unity. That assumes that the Steve Bannons, Michael Flynns, and tfg have not burned down everything.

  22. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic but I kinda believe what George Carlin says about “Don’t go looking for it. Be happy with what you’ve got.” I wasn’t given power in society to make any big decisions so I’m not gonna sweat it. It’s going to be whatever its going to be. Let’s face it. We never vote for someone like Mother Theresa to lead us out of trouble even if we make her a Saint. Apparently, its more like a Trump character which I don’t understand because to me he represents more closely the anti-christ. All I got to say, is be careful what you wish for folks. It might not be what you expect.

  23. I don’t want to lose the freedoms I do have to the Maga supremacists. The civil war kept the states unified with great loss of life and sacrifice, so no undoing that. The modern version of the confederate state is to undermine the unity and gain authority/ power any way they can. Lies, propaganda, gerrymandering, false electors, voter restrictions, intimidation, threats and violence are Maga’s modus operando. Maga representatives in Congress are pugnacious saboteurs that want to fight and clog up the works to stop progress and weaken our government. It seems they are mercenaries of dark money from who knows where.
    In WWll even though the US didn’t have to fight in the homeland, there was tragic death and injury to our troops. Great loss to the families of troops, and great expense that affected our lives for years. America had a great part in defeating the insane authoritarian fascism of that time. Our history as a country can’t be swept away to a movement supporting a depraved indicted felon running from the law who supports his own sovereign supremacy. That the republican party allows Drumpf to run is a travesty and should be a crime!

  24. We.are a fragmented society and will be to the end. I think the readership is instinctly aware of this but continues to believe in a party that is accelerating the nation’s decline.

    This decline is the evolution of the end of the US as a hegemon. Your readership doesn’t want this natural phenom because it will affect the lifestyle of their progeny.

    Civics classes are a nice thing,but those classes have no effect upon the quality of candidates offered by the governing private organizations known as Reprobates (Repub) and Dims ( Democrats). It’s analogous to requiring aviation classes in order to be a passenger on aircraft. Those classes by passengers have no impact upon the quality of pilots,maintenence and snacks offered by airline corps.

    If one wants to know the future of the US,one should avail themselves of the works of Giovanni Arrighi.

  25. To Over it: You misread my post. Please read it again. I’m not suggesting that the media or entertainment should prosthelytize anyone to any belief or censor themselves to make people of any particular faith feel comfortable.

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