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America on Xanax: The Disunited State of the Union

| March 24, 2016

age of anxiety richard haass

Boogeymen everywhere. (Bousure)

By Richard Haass

The US presidential election is still more than half a year away, and it is impossible to know with any certainty who will be nominated to represent the major parties, much less who will be the 45th occupant of the White House. But it is not too soon to assess the mood of the country’s more than 320 million inhabitants and what it will mean for the man or woman who ultimately prevails in what must seem to most people around the world to be an endless political soap opera.


The dominant mood in the United States today is one of considerable anxiety, if not outright anger. The Washington Post recently published a four-part series of articles revealing popular fury aimed at Wall Street, Muslims, trade deals, Washington, police shootings, President Barack Obama, Republicans, immigrants, and other targets.

One of the worst descriptions to be applied to a person nowadays is “professional politician.” The beneficiaries of this state of mind are anti-establishment candidates who espouse policies in opposition to free trade and immigration reform and who call for a radical overhaul of current tax and spending policies. The details of what they advocate may well differ, but their platforms share a promise of radical departure from the status quo.

The basis of this mood is hardly self-evident, as the country is better off economically than it was a half-dozen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2007-2008 economic crisis. Over nine million jobs have been created since then, interest rates are low (making loans for homes and cars more affordable), and the fall in the price of gasoline is the equivalent of a $700 tax cut for the average American family. Moreover, the stock market has risen some 200% since its low of seven years ago, and millions of people who were without health insurance are now covered.


An America that is distracted and divided is bad news for the world.


Yet this good economic news is offset in many cases by weak growth in household incomes, which have stagnated in real (inflation-adjusted) terms for some 15 years. The percentage of Americans working full time has still not reached the level it was at seven years ago. And many fear that their jobs will disappear because of foreign competition, new technologies, or outsourcing.

A large number of Americans are living longer, but are anxious, as they have failed to set aside the funds needed to ensure that their retirement will allow them to live comfortably into old age. Some are paying health-insurance premiums that they previously had avoided because of mandates in the reform enacted under Obama.

There is also the issue of inequality. This causes real anger, but the problem is not so much inequality (which, though worse, is nothing inherently new) as it is the decline in opportunity. The American Dream is giving way to class consciousness – a profound change for a country founded on the ideal that anyone can improve his or her lot through hard work.

But the reasons for anxiety and anger transcend economic realities and worries. There is also physical insecurity, whether because of crime or the fear of terrorism. In many communities, there is concern, too, about where the culture and the society are heading.

Modern media tend to make things worse. Ours is an age of “narrowcasting,” not broadcasting. People increasingly tune in to cable channels or websites that reinforce their views and ideologies.

Little of this is reassuring. The national mood transcends the election campaign and will pose a real challenge to the new president and Congress. The divisions within and between the Democratic and Republican parties will make compromise and the formation of coalitions that are essential for governing all but impossible.

Concerns over retirement and health-care affordability will make it that much more difficult to reform entitlements, even though their expansion will drive up the national debt to record levels. Free trade is blamed for job losses and is losing support, even though it has also been a source of new jobs and greater consumer choice – and has strengthened America’s strategic position around the world. Immigration, long part of the country’s heritage and a source of valuable talent, is now the object of so much controversy that prospects for reform are dim.

The mood of the US may also intensify officials’ domestic focus. Already turned off by foreign involvement in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, which cost much more than they achieved, many Americans are skeptical of what the US can accomplish abroad. They are frustrated with allies seen as not carrying their fair share of common burdens, and they are increasingly convinced that the government needs to focus less on the world and more on fixing what is wrong with the US.

Some in other countries will no doubt read all of this with satisfaction; but, overall, it is bad news for much of the world. An America that is distracted and divided is less likely to be willing and able to take the lead in promoting stability in the Middle East, Europe, or Asia, or in meeting global challenges. And, without US leadership, these challenges are likely to go unmet, turning into problems or, worse, crises.

richard haass flaglerliveRichard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. His forthcoming book is A World in Disarray. (© Project Syndicate)

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7 Responses for “America on Xanax: The Disunited State of the Union”

  1. Layla says:

    Good article, but unless you are in the 1%, I doubt many families would see themselves as better off economically, especially with soaring welfare rates. Throw your party affiliation away in this election and vote for American families and jobs. The working middle class are collapsing under the weight of all this. This is no longer about a “mood”, this is about American families still having to work 3 part time jobs in order to make ends meet and put food on the table….small business collapsing under the weight of too much regulation. And those jobs you mention? The majority are going to foreign born (H1-B, 2-B) visa holders. Wages are going down, not up. That’s not helping American families. Why don’t you do a survey and let these families tell you why they’re angry? Or would the politically correct not like that?

    What has Washington done about ANY of this?

  2. William Moya says:

    I think Xanax is a tranquilizer and if that is the case, one wishes America will take a double dose. America has always been a divided country, and in recent times this dichotomy is reflected in what I will call EDAM every day America and ETHAM ethereal America.
    EDAM is the America we all love, including most of the world, and why we yearn to become Americans. To give you a visual this is the movie Home, if you have not seen it, is uplifting. EDAM is very efficient, everything works, is a courteous place where things get done for the most part timely, for a reasonable price, and well. I know many of you are now inundated with anecdotes with examples of projects gone wrong, but if you indulge me juxtapose those negative experiences in any other country and your faith in America will quickly return.
    The most underestimated component in America is its pop culture, it rules, there is nothing else in the world that comes close. It is like the blob (movie, another visual), it devours everything and spits out its own version. Be the constant contribution that it makes on the English language coming up with new words that only become part of the vernacular, but quickly metastasizes into the professional languages
    and elite writer’s lexicon. Actually it came up with a new language based on acronyms, I only know two words OMG and LOL, foreign languages are not my forte. Sports, movies, video games, music, reality shows, comedy, television shows, imagine what America would look like without its pop culture, take it one step further think about the impact that it has in our politicians, our policies, our justice system, our educational institutions and so on and so forth.
    ETHAM on the other hand is the home of the super patriot, it is base on a historical mysticism that so many Americans cling on to, and to borrow a word from Ellison’s book and postulate Invisible. Historical events are treated as fiction, and alas have never been accepted, and so we go on with open wounds about which have conversations every now and then but never get on the couch and examine within ourselves.
    ETHAM is upheld by historical emblems that are quickly turn into shields against any possible examination of the issues. The bible is one of those often used in concert with some of the others, I don’t know of any other western country, including Latin America, where politicians raised the bible and argue scriptures. Many countries in the world do this and their governments are labeled theocracies. The constitution is another instrument in defending ETHAM, one reads the preamble of the constitution and tears of joy roll down your cheeks, then you go on to article one and you scream what?!?!. I think it was Jefferson that during the constitutional convention propose to have one every 20 years so it that it could updated and revised. However, we ended up with document that is archaic and static, where we have to treated as a living document or we would still be in the 19th century.
    So there you have it folks, a divided country, that’s why we need xanax, or a good Merlot.

  3. Sherry says:

    And again. . . instead of blaming everything on the poor. . . let’s look at the real welfare burden. . . Corporate Welfare:

    This from CTJ.org:

    Food Stamps Are Affordable; Corporate Welfare Is Not

    In 2012, the average American taxpayer making $50,000 per year paid just $36 towards the food stamps program. That’s just ten cents a day! That’s less than the cost of a gumball.

    When it comes to funding the rest of America’s social safety net programs, the average American taxpayer making $50,000 a year pays just over six dollars a year.

    But the American taxpayer is paying a lot for the billions of dollars the U.S. government gives to corporate America each year. The average American family pays a staggering $6,000 a year in subsidies to big business.

    Where does some of that $6,000 every year actually go? For starters, $870 of it goes to direct subsidies and grants for corporations. This includes money for subsidies to Big Oil companies that are polluting our skies and fueling climate change.

    An additional $870 goes to corporate tax [loopholes that other taxpayers end up paying for] — or twice as much; Citizens for Tax Justice found that the U.S. Treasury lost $181 billion in corporate tax subsidies, which means the average American family could be out as much as $1,600 per year.

    Of that $6,000 for corporations each year, $1,231 of it goes to making up for revenue losses from corporate tax havens. This money goes to recouping losses from giant transnational corporations like Apple and GE that hide their money overseas to boost profits and avoid paying income taxes.

  4. Knightwatch says:

    I understand what the author is saying, It’s all about economics. But I’m not buying that. We’re missing half, or more, of the picture. Conservative America, led by the southern states, is in the midst of Civil War II. A coalition of under-educated whites, older whites, white supremacists and neo-cons is fearful of, and openly rebelling against, multiculturalism, globalism and advancing LGBTQ rights. Since the election (twice) of the black guy we have had a profound culture war in America. Demagogues like Trump and Cruze prey upon the fear and in many cases, hatred of anything or anyone not deemed to be sufficiently “American”. For hardline conservatives this includes “takers” and anyone else of color, non-western European ethnicity or non-Christian. The anger and fear personified by Trump/Cruz followers is less about economics and a much more about maintaining America as a white Christian fortress in a rapidly changing world. Used to be they exposed their racism, bigotry and xenophobia only among like-minded people. But, now that “politically correct” is no longer necessary, we’re seeing their true colors.

    I fear for America and the values we once thought we had.

  5. Sherry says:

    Well said and precisely on point Knightwatch! We should all be in mourning for our values that “we once thought we had”.

    Many of our “armed to the teeth” citizens are embracing Fear, Hate, Bigotry, Xenophobia, Religious Zealotry et al as now socially acceptable! The drumbeat for such horrific, inhumane fanaticism has been perpetuated for years and years by FOX. . . and now even by some Presidential candidates. The world is watching us closely and they are aghast . . . as we ALL should be.

  6. Veteran says:

    To blame FOX for Americas problems is ridiculous. I fear for America if Hillary is elected.

  7. Sherry says:

    Really worth a careful read and some focused thought. . . this from the NY Times:

    REPUBLICAN SELF DESTRUCTION

    Whatever one may think about the current president and the two Democrats duking it out to replace him, you have to admit that they have, by and large, conducted themselves with an admirable level of civility and couth becoming of the office.

    Not so for their Republican counterparts.

    Indeed, the entirety of the Republican Party seems dead set on convincing voters that it has lost its way and is spinning out of control, consumed with anger and devoid of answers.

    The two leading Republican presidential candidates engaged last week in a crude, sophomoric tiff involving insults of each other’s spouses. A nude picture of the front-runner’s wife was used in a Facebook ad. (I guess folks will have to get over their weird obsession with Michelle Obama’s bare arms if a fully bare naked cover model becomes first lady). One man threatened to “spill the beans” about the other’s wife; the other responded with a “sniveling coward” quip.

    It was all so depressingly lowbrow.

    And this all played out as some Republicans went apoplectic in the wake of the Brussels terror attack when President Obama attended a baseball game in Cuba and danced the tango in Argentina.

    Obama responded to those criticisms like a thoughtful adult, saying at a press conference: “It is very important for us to not respond with fear.” He continued, “A lot of it is also going to be to say: ‘You do not have power over us. We are strong. Our values are right.’ ”

    Obama’s response to personal attacks against him stood in stark contrast to the response of the Republican presidential candidates to personal attacks.

    The truth is that there really is no contest when it comes to being presidential.

    The poor choices and poor behavior of Republicans are not confined to the presidential candidates. Senate Republican leaders still haven’t agreed to grant a hearing for the president’s Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, even when a new CNN/ORC poll found that approximately two-thirds of Americans want Garland to get a hearing and 57 percent agree that President Obama was right to make the appointment to fill the seat.

    As CNN reported after the poll was released: “Congressional approval stands near its all-time low in CNN polling, with just 15 percent approving. That’s down 6 points since last February, and just a few points above the 10 percent low point hit in September 2013 just ahead of a partial government shutdown. Another finding from the poll, released earlier last week, found the Republican Party’s favor-ability also at its lowest point since that shutdown.”

    And then there is what’s happening on the state level. On Wednesday, in a special session of the Republican-led North Carolina legislature, lawmakers pushed through a bill that a New York Times editorial called “appalling” and “unconstitutional.” The bill “bars transgender people from using public restrooms that match their gender identity and prohibits cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that protect gay and transgender people.” The Republican governor, Pat McCrory, signed the bill into law on Wednesday and tweeted: “Ordinance defied common sense, allowing men to use women’s bathroom/locker room for instance. That’s why I signed bipartisan bill to stop it.”

    Now please tell me who is going to do the policing of gender and how exactly will examinations be conducted? Will you now have to show a birth certification to claim a stall?

    Business interests have already signaled their displeasure with the bill.

    Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers in Georgia pushed through a so-called Religious Liberty Bill. As Reuters put it:

    “The Georgia bill, reworked several times by lawmakers amid criticism that earlier versions went too far, declares that no pastor can be forced to perform a same-sex wedding. The bill also grants faith-based organizations — churches, religious schools or associations — the right to reject holding events for people or groups of whom they object. Faith-based groups also could not be forced to hire or retain an employee whose beliefs run counter to the organization’s.”

    Georgia’s governor has yet to sign the legislation, but as Reuters pointed out: “More than 300 large corporations and small businesses, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, have signed a pledge decrying the Georgia legislation and urging the state lawmakers to drop it.”

    When Republican officials aren’t being infantile, they’re being archaic.The future of this country bends toward more inclusion and acceptance, regardless of our occasional regression. This country needs a president who doesn’t pout or get lost in puerile protestations.

    I understand that Republican voters are filled with an insatiable anger stemming from unbridled electoral enthusiasm that still failed to halt unremitting social change, or elect their hopelessly unimpressive recent presidential candidates. But they are allowing themselves to be led out of the mainstream, over a cliff and into oblivion.

    America is watching the Republican Party demonstrate its headstrong desire to self-destruct. I’m guessing most of America is not amused.

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