Since World War II, America has achieved such remarkable accomplishments that it might be the stuff of legends when world history is written a thousand years from now.
Yet at the moment, we are trapped in both antics and seemingly serious business that suggest a national collective mental illness. If this was one individual, we’d notice that personality, the ability to relate socially, reasoning and rational decision making were negatively affected. An individual could be treated, but can a nation experience such a disruption and recover?
As a society, we have retained our aggressive abilities and our appetites for the “seven deadly sins.” What’s more alarming is the apparent ability of a good many of those who claim control over their higher mental functions (our leaders) to pander to and reinforce the baser attitudes and behaviors of those who seem to be most seriously affected by this mental disease.
Consider a few illustrations. The first example has to be the current condition of the Republican Party. Once the party of Lincoln, it focused on ending slavery, overcoming racial injustice, both subsidizing and regulating industry, and supporting universal public elementary, secondary and broadly available higher education with ample public resources. While it never was left wing or populist in its big tent approach to building an electoral majority, the GOP found ways to address popular needs while defending the public purse and working to hold down the cost of government.
The GOP always had its elements that were libertarian, nativist, anti-Keynesian, worried about subversive conspiracies or something else that would send us and the republic to socialist perdition. The moderate core, however, constituted the base of Republican power and fiscal responsibility. The first signs of center decay and fringe dominance came with Barry Goldwater’s nomination. Then came the election of Ronald Reagan, Mr. “Morning in America.” The post-Reagan Republican history is well-known. Now we watch as the Republican Party further devolves into Donald the Bombastic and the Trumpkins. What is scarier still is to watch the parade of seemingly rational, respectable national Republican figures migrate from regarding Trump as “a cancer on conservatism” to “I suspect I’m going to be helping him in a myriad ways.”
On the Democratic side, multitudes of adult Americans endorse ideas of fantastic redistributions of other peoples’ money occurring with ease. This miraculous condition is to become real with the passage of new laws in Congress (or perhaps just the signing of presidential orders), with no effective objection in the federal court system. Instantly upon the inauguration of Bernie Sanders, free high-quality college educations; universal, no-cost-to-the-consumer healthcare for all; and a boundless supply of well-paying middle-class jobs for people who presently do not fit in our “post-industrial” economy will materialize and quickly revolutionize America. Nowhere in this fever-dream of egalitarianism is there a shred of connection with the realities of pluralist politics. These fantasies easily rival a Great Wall of the southern border paid for by Mexico.
Here in Kansas, we’ve abandoned rational discussion about improving our state’s economy and reinstituting an effective, fair system of taxation for bluster over critical policy issues such as the relocation of Guantanamo detainees to Fort Leavenworth, the accommodation of some Syrian refugees, and most recently, whether the members of the juvenile LGBTQ community can use public locker and restrooms appropriate to their identities. Our state’s leaders appear to be capitalizing on the current public mental disorder. It could be kindness. Realistically, can a society in such perilous mental disorder be expected to make wise choices about policies and who represents them? Let us all hope the disease has not advanced as far as events indicate it has.
Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.