That Americans cannot reach consensus on gun control, immigration policy, and climate change are symptoms of societal collapse, not from physical causes, such as the mindless destruction of a vital resource or a colder climate, but rather the splitting of a people’s storytelling into two opposed morality plays. The stable standoff between these two stories is most likely an illusion of the moment, for nothing remains static or fixed in America.

The Grand Narrative of War

The citizens of a Nation-State are held together by storytelling, which is especially evident during wartime.[1] On February 23, 1942, the 110th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday, my parents and millions of other Americans huddled around their radios to hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt deliver a fireside chat on the progress of the war. The President invoked how General Washington and his Continental Army overcame “formidable odds and recurring defeats,” so that “Washington’s conduct in those hard times has provided the model for all Americans ever since—a model of moral stamina.” He told his fellow Americans that “the common enemy seeks to destroy every home and every freedom in every part of our land,” and consequently each of us must “gladly sacrifice, not only his pleasures, not only his goods, not only his associations with those he loves, but his life itself.” We would show Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo that we are not “a nation of weaklings.” Ultimately, we Americans are fighting for the “whole world; disarmament of aggressors, self-determination of nations and peoples, and the four freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.”[2]

Without the grand narrative setting the goal of the United States to “save the homes and ideals of free men from axis domination,”[3] and then after the war to bring freedom to “all nations and peoples,”[4]Americans would not have so readily accepted the necessities of world war—economic hardship, prolonged separation from loved ones, and the deaths of spouses, siblings, and sons in far away, foreign lands.

My parents, born in Transylvania into a peasant life founded on ancient tradition, the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and face-to-face communal relations, not the Nation-State, nevertheless heeded the directives of President Roosevelt. Their grocery store in rural Michigan joined the war effort by becoming a center for scrap drives, supplying free seeds and plants for victory gardens, and contributing to the packages assembled by neighborhood women for local boys who had enlisted in the service.

I, too, a young boy, joined the crusade against axis domination. Every Sunday afternoon, I sorted the enormous number of ration coupons that customers of our grocery store used to buy bacon, butter, flour, meat, milk, cheese, and lard. In the second grade, I dutifully took my nickels and dimes to school toward the purchase of a war bond. After a year of monetary sacrifice, I accumulated enough victory stamps for a bond and received a certificate, ringed with Disney characters, announcing to all citizens that I was “an investor in this country’s fight for human liberty and a contributor in a world struggle to make life free and forever peaceful for all men.” Everyone from Georgie Stanciu and Donald Duck to President Roosevelt and General MacArthur was united in the struggle to preserve freedom for all.

Today, I cannot remember the Disney cartoons that supported the war effort, such as Der Fuehrer’s Face, in which Donald Duck has a nightmare that he is living in Nazi Germany; however, the war movies I saw are indelibly etched in my memory. Without difficulty, I can hear Big Mike Harrigan, a Catholic priest, telling a pilot of a B-26, “God is every flyer’s co-pilot,” recall how the five Sullivan brothers were lost in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and see buck-toothed, spectacled Japs in the Battle of Bataan.[6] The movies filled me with love for my country and hatred of the enemy, especially the Japs, the quintessential Other.

World War II ended, but freedom was not brought to all nations and peoples, for soon an iron curtain descended across Europe from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.[5] The grand narrative of World War II was easily shifted to the Cold War. To begin a rapid escalation of the United States military involvement in South Vietnam, President Lyndon Baines Johnson urged Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The President told Congress and the American people on August 5, 1964 that “this is not a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity” and that “our purpose is peace.”[7] The storytelling held: Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, with only two dissenting votes from Senators Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Gruening (D-AK). The House of Representatives unanimously passed the Resolution.

Television Undermines the Grand Narrative

President Johnson, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and General Westmoreland could not foresee that the extensive television coverage of the Vietnam War would undermine their storytelling. Exactly one year to the day after President Johnson pressed Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Morley Safer on a CBS newscast showed American citizens sitting in their living rooms the good guys burning Vietnamese houses made of bamboo walls and roofs thatched with elephant grass in hamlets that had only old people and young children. Safer concluded his report from Cam Ne, Vietnam with a negative assessment of the first year of the Vietnam War: “There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of back-breaking labor it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”[8]

On February 1, 1968, NBC ran film footage of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the national police chief of South Vietnam, executing a Vietcong fighter, Nguyễn Văn Lém, in Saigon.[9] (See the photograph taken by Eddie Adams and used here by permission of the Associated Press.) Shortly after this event, Walter Cronkite traveled to Vietnam to cover the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. When he returned, the most trusted television reporter in America, told his viewers, “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out [of the Vietnam War] then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.”[10]

The iconic photograph that sickened and turned many Americans against the war was taken by AP photographer Nick Ut. The photograph shows Phan Thị Kim Phúc, a nine-year-old girl, running naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack.[11] (The photograph of Phan Thị Kim Phúc is used here by permission of the Associated Press.)

Television and photojournalism brought the cruelties and suffering of war into American homes and questioned President Johnson’s narrative that the jungle war was a struggle for freedom on every front and that its purpose was peace; as a result, Americans divided into two camps, those opposed to the war and those adhering to the carry-over story from World War II. Nevertheless, the Cold War against the Evil Empire united most Americans.

The Collapse of the Evil Empire Ended the Grand Narrative

In January 1964, I drove across East Germany to West Berlin. When I saw the ugly Berlin Wall and the crude memorials to those East Germans who died trying to escape the Worker’s Paradise, my adolescent flirting with Marxism was gone forever. In the summer of 1974, my mother traveled to Romania to visit relatives in Cluj and Timișoara. She later reported to me that our relatives immediately spent whatever money they made, for they saw no future for them. Instead of celebrating life in the Romanian tradition of consuming abundant alcohol, my uncles and cousins drank to dispel despair.

My colleagues at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory thought the Cold War could end only with a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States. From the classified documents I read, the CIA had no idea what was going on in the Evil Empire and was caught by surprise when the peoples of the Eastern Block rose up and cast off the yoke of communism. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down by ordinary Germans expressing their new-found freedom. (See illustration.)[12] Civil disobedience ended the Cold War and made irrelevant the story that the mission of the United States is to bring freedom to all peoples and nations. The Evil Empire was gone forever, as was the fifty-year-old grand narrative of war that had held Americans together.

Two other unexpected culturally-transforming events occurred: 1) The mouse and the Graphical User Interface made the Internet available for the technically ignorant; Netscape, the first browser, was released on December 14, 1994; and 2) Cable television challenged the dominance of ABC, CBS, and NBC. What would become the two extreme poles of cultural and political storytelling began in 1996, MSNBC (July 15) and Fox News (October 7). Shortly thereafter, the storytelling shifted from the major networks to the two cable channels, from a market that included everyone to niche markets. Fox News went after cultural and political conservatives, and MSNBC captured the other pole of the national market, the liberals. For devoted followers of either channel, the Other of the hot and cold wars became an opposing group of Americans; the former unity of the United States split into two conflicting groups at loggerheads.

With 20 basic cable channels and 70 in the extend service, and with the information overload on the Internet, advertisers, marketers, and other storytellers faced an enormous problem—how to get above the clutter. For most, conservative talk radio supplied the model.

The Rise of New Storytelling

Rush Limbaugh, the pioneer and patron saint of conservative talk radio, began his national radio show on August 1, 1988. Mr. Limbaugh was spontaneous, unscripted, and funny, in contrast to Walter Cronkite’s staid delivery in an authoritative, baritone voice, where every word was enunciated with precision. Rush sounded like the listener’s friend; he told his audience that “the only difference between you and me is I am up here, and you are out there.”[13] Later, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC would express essentially the same sentiment when discussing the BP oil spill: “Forgive the speed at which I absorb these things: I’m not a scientist.”[14] Mr. Limbaugh kept reminding his listeners that until his program they got their news from the left-leaning traditional media.

For thirty years, Mr. Limbaugh with an audience of more than fifteen million listeners advanced conservative principles, attacking the pro-government, pro-Washington liberals and promoting American exceptionalism. For many, he was the antidote to the New York Times, CBS, NPR, and the Hollywood Left.

The success of Mr. Limbaugh’s radio program demonstrated that vying for the largest possible audience, as the major networks still did in 1996 by offering unobjectionable programming intended for the broadest market, belonged to the past, an era when the flat delivery of the anchorman was only broken by creative commercials that had the greatest volume of the broadcast. Later, the hosts of the cable news programs would have the loudest voices in the room.

Taking their cue from Mr. Limbaugh, the producers of Fox News and MSNBC soon learned what would hook a person to their channel was outrageous speech that evokes anger, fear, and moral indignation through overgeneralizations, ad hominin attacks, and belittling ridicule of opponents. A 2009 survey of political opinion media by sociologists Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj revealed that “100% of television episodes and 98.8% of talk radio programs contained outrage.”[15]

Stories about welfare moms, fake homeless, wasted federal money on disaster relief, the huge salaries of CEOs, corporate malfeasance, and the narrow mindedness of politicians kept viewers coming back, advertising money flowing in, and profits soaring. Like Facebook and Google, MSNBC and Fox News supplied demographics to advertisers, so the pitch for auto insurance, Internet dating services, cruise lines, even tuna fish could be matched to the age, gender, and income of a specific audience. For corporate sponsors, indifferent to politics, the news and commentaries were merely the lure to entice viewers to buy their products. Google, the parent company of YouTube, also profited from outrageous speech that drew advertising dollars. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, revealed the YouTube strategy for increasing revenue: “If I’m YouTube and I want you to watch more, I’m always going [to use algorithms] to steer you toward Crazytown.”[16]

During the 2016 presidential election, Leslie Moonves, the CEO of CBS, enjoyed the ad money Trump and his competitors brought to the network: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”[17] A villain sells more ads than a hero. President Trump makes more money for MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post than for National Review and the Weekly Standard, with Fox News being the outlier, profiting from selling Trump as a hero. The Pew Research Center found that ad sales on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News increased by 62% from 2012 to 2017.[18]

Fox News and MSNBC market opinion, speculation, moral indignation, and outrage. In 2012, the Pew Research Center found that opinion filled a full 85% of MSNBC’s airtime with just 15% devoted to factual reporting. At Fox News the numbers were 55% commentary and 45% news.[19] What kept the avid viewers of MSNBC and Fox News glued to their TVs were the commentaries, the performances of Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and other hosts who skillfully fabricated drama and conflict that evoked fear and anger, the two most intense negative emotions. Four months after Maddow began her show on MSNBC, she said her goal was “to increase the amount of useful information [in the world] and entertainment.”[20] The news became theater, engaging entertainment not directed toward political action, although members of the audience felt that if they kept tuning in, they were part of the ongoing prosecution of the bad guys.

At times, the anger instilled by Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN does erupt into political violence. The 21-year-old gunman who killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, August 3, 2019, posted online an anti-immigrant screed immediately before the shooting. In his manifesto, the shooter referred to the “great replacement” of whites by Hispanics “invading” America, a theme of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Fox News and other conservative outlets.[21]

Two Opposed Morality Plays

MSNBC, Fox News, and corresponding Websites skillfully cater to and reinforce the opinions and prejudices of political junkies, seeking a fix of anger and righteousness. Such political junkies live in a safe bubble, where not one of their deeply held ideas and beliefs will ever be challenged by argument or facts. These faithful attend a political church of their own choosing and hear sermons that dramatize their opinions and prejudices that leave them feeling smarter than the yahoos in the other political church.

Both MSNBC and Fox News present a simplified morality play, but with different heroes, villains, and lessons. In both plays, only two sides exist, Left and Right, Democratic and Republican; beyond the pale are pacifists and anarchists. The two major East coast newspapers have narrowed their political perspective to Left versus Right. The New York Times ensures diversity by lining up hardcore conservatives Bret Stevens and Ross Douthat against staunch liberals Paul Krugman and Nick Kristof. At the Washington Post only the names change, George Will versus Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin opposite Dana Milbank. The wisdom of Mark Twain will never appear in newsprint or be heard on air: “Nothing could be worse for a country than this. To lodge all power in one party and keep it there, is to insure bad government, and the sure and gradual deterioration of the public morals.[22]

A person who is pro-union and anti-abortion does exist in the world of MSNBC or Fox News. One of my neighbors immigrated illegally from Mexico seven years ago, and through hard work now owns a successful restaurant; as a result, he opposes welfare and the bureaucratic rules of local and federal government. Despite his immigrant background, he could never appear on MSNBC, since he opposes the nanny state, nor could he be on Fox News, because he once was an undocumented worker.

In the two morality plays, conflict must be permanent, for if the Left and Right reached an accord on fundamental political and cultural issues the game would be over, viewers would disappear, advertising money would dry up, and MSNBC and Fox News would be history.

Both morality plays focus on personalities, such as the character strengths and flaws of Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rather than on such big issues that the Democratic and Republican parties agree on: deregulation of the financial industry, the burgeoning budget deficit, the militarization of police, deindustrialization, and the endless wars in the Middle East.

Unlike Medieval morality plays that good Christians never tired of seeing, the modern morality plays of MSNBC and Fox News must increase the level of anger to keep their viewers returning; thus, incompetent bureaucrats and corrupt politicians morphed into authoritarians, demagogues, and dictators. The most scornful terms for opponents became “Nazi” and “fascist.” Roger Ailes, when Chairman and CEO of Fox News, declared that NPR executives “are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view.”[23] Keith Olbermann, as the host of his popular MSNBC program, denounced President George W. Bush as a fascist: “If you believe in the seamless mutuality of government and big business, come out and say it. There is a dictionary definition, one word that describes that toxic blend. You‘re a fascist—get them to print you a T-shirt with ‘fascist’ on it.”[24] MSNBC and Fox News appear to follow Godwin’s law, the Internet adage asserting that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”[25]

The morality play of MSNBC and the Left focuses on an imagined future where every individual is free to choose any lifestyle he or she desires unhindered by social pressure and law. Progressives know that history is on their side: Kings, princes, and nobles no longer exist; oligarchs and patriarchs are being eliminated; the few remaining social fetters of Protestantism will disappear. “At the heart of freedom is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.”[26] To ensue freedom for all, the LGBTQ community must be protected by law, because the Right hopes to marginalize them again. Chronic illness, ignorance, and poverty preclude freedom; thus, every American has a right to health care, education, and employment. A woman owns her body and has an inherent right to abortion services. The founding principle of American is equality, now subverted by wealthy individuals and Corporate America. To restore the promise of America, the unjust influence of the economic elite must be countered by a more progressive tax system; otherwise, America is lost.

The morality play of Fox News and the Right harks back to a golden era, a past sometimes imaged, where America embodied the traditional values of Protestantism, essentially middle-class life of the 1950s. Decent people, the majority then, adhered to family values. The men worked hard, prospered, and looked after their families; the women willingly sacrificed career ambitions for their children and their husbands’ careers. With the ascendency of liberal values, indecency, perversion, and moral corruption became normal; psychological and social disorders took over the Left. Scornful of normal, decent people, the Left is intent upon destroying tradition. All that the decent, normal people want is to reclaim America. The elites on the West and East coasts have isolated themselves in gated compounds and do not know what is really going on in the hinterland or with the declining middle class. To save the world, the elites would force a vegan diet on everyone and ignore that the good paying jobs were shipped overseas, followed by a marked increase in midlife mortality of white non-Hispanic Americans, the result of deaths of despair caused by drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide in a declining middle class. Abortion, a crime greater than slavery or the Holocaust, must once again be prohibited by law; over 61 million medically induced abortions have been performed since Roe v. Wade. America is exceedingly close to losing its founding principles. Freedom is to choose the good, not the license to do whatever one wants.

These two morality plays are irreconcilable; the devoted members of each play are bound together by unshakeable core beliefs and a collective hatred of the Other. The storytelling after the collapse of the Evil Empire produced internecine warfare that portends a downward arc for America.

What Is Next?

Seventy-five years ago, with the end of the World War II, Americans were filled with optimism. Unknown were comic figures carrying signs announcing the end of the world. Today, scholars and scientists seriously entertain the collapse of Western Civilization threatened by mass immigrations, growing economic inequality, climate change, and thermonuclear war. Even if the terrible wars and political crimes against humanity of the twentieth century belong to a darker age, the West still faces the brick wall of personal discontent and social disintegration; youth suicide, drug addiction, and violent crime plague every industrial society. The educated and well-off surrounded by affluence are prone to loneliness, depression, and malaise.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, examined the rapid decline of four radically different societies, the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi in the Southwest, the Mayans, and the Vikings in Greenland.[27] He identified five causes of societal collapse: 1) The inadvertent destruction of a resource the society depends upon; 2) Climate that becomes warmer or colder, hotter or dryer, reducing crop yields; 3) Friendly dealings with neighboring societies, especially trade relations, weaken or disappear; 4) Hostile relations with other societies intensify; 5) The political, economic, and cultural values of a society prohibit its members to either perceive or solve the dire problems facing them.

The two opposed morality plays of America obscure the pressing problems facing the country, and even if these problems were clearly seen by everyone, the entrenched ideologies of the Left and Right would prohibit concerted action. Consider gun control.

Shortly after the Thousand Oaks, California mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill, where thirteen people were killed, Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show declared he was not opposed to background checks for the purchase of fire arms, although they did not stop the deranged shooter at Thousand Oaks from acquiring guns. What he opposed was “limiting the kind of firearms you can buy, limiting the size of the magazines, limiting the kinds of ammunition you can purchase. These are restrictions, laws, that effect normal people, who should be able to defend themselves.” He asked, “Is this the time . . . as America is getting crazier . . . to disarm normal people?” Mr. Carlson closed his opposition to gun control on an apocalyptic note: “The Left is making the country chaotic and scary, and simultaneously trying to keep me from defending myself.”[28]

On one of her MSNBC shows, Rachel Maddow played a powerful anti-gun ad by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. The ad put the viewer in the position of the shooter, not the victim. Dr. Maddow articulated the crux of the ad: “If you are thinking of buying a gun, so you will be safer, then this ad wants you to imagine your hands on the same trigger the Newtown killer pulled, it wants you to imagine your hands on the same trigger a little kid killed his sister by accident, or a toddler killed her mom in Walmart.” The ad aimed “to change individual minds about the wisdom of buying guns” for self-protection.[29]

Another unbridgeable chasm between the Left and Right is immigration policy.

The immigration theme on Fox News is that the Left is not telling Americans the truth about the crisis on the Southern border. Sean Hannity reported on his prime-time television show that in “the past two years alone criminal aliens have been responsible . . . for 235,000 violations of the law, including 4,000 homicides, 30,000 sex crimes, and get this, over 100,000 violent assaults.” But the crisis goes much deeper. “Three hundred Americans are killed every week from heroin—90 percent of which flows across the Southern border.” To put this number in perspective, Mr. Hannity compared the number of deaths caused by drug addiction to the combat deaths in Vietnam: “Over a ten-year period, the total number of Americans killed by illegal drugs coming across the Southern border will be nearly three times higher than the total number killed in Vietnam . . . There is your crisis.”[30] By ignoring the immigration crisis, the Left is putting decent, law-abiding Americans’ health and well-being at risk. Laura Ingraham on her Fox News show declared, “California has gone from being a sanctuary state to a sucker state . . . with its high taxes, homelessness problem, and where illegal aliens are treated better than poor veterans.”[31] Mr. Hannity summed up the ultimate problem: “Don’t expect to see this on any other network. . . . Instead of reporting the facts and the truth, they [MSNBC and CNN] seem to be content with trashing Trump voters, blaming us for seeing the truth.”[32]

Chris Hayes in his weekly news and opinion show on MSNBC gave the Leftist version behind the immigration position of the Right: They “want to reduce immigration, unauthorized, authorized, legal, in every possible way, because [they have] concerns about the demographic integrity of the current majority of the country, and that’s fundamentally what’s driving this.”[33] Recent data from the Census Bureau indicates that by 2044 the non-Hispanic white-alone population will be a minority.[34] Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist, apparently imported to MSNBC and CNN for his outrageous denunciation of the Right, scathingly dismissed the immigration policies of the Trump administration: “The idea of a physical wall—Donald Trump loves selling this to his base, and again, these are people who are not sophisticated; they are not bright; they do not understand the complexities we have.”[35] Mr. Wilson echoed Hillary Clinton’s characterization of half of the Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables, racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic—what have you.”[36]

The Right and the Left are also separated by the abyss of climate change.

Charles Krauthammer, a commentator esteemed by the intelligentsia of the Right as balanced and fair-minded, in his opinion piece “The Myth of ‘Settled’ Science,” belittled as “white-coated propagandists . . . those scientists who pretend to know exactly what spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will cause in 20, 30 or 50 years.” For Krauthammer climate change is not a fact, for science is never “settled, static, impervious to challenge.” Indeed, for scientists to assert that the climate-change debate is over is “nothing but a crude attempt to silence critics and delegitimize debate.”[37] Krauthammer’s fellow columnist at the Washington Post, George Will, provided the reason why the “propagandist in chief Barack Obama”[38] declared the climate change debate is over: The Left is “trying to stampede the world into a spasm of prophylactic statism.”[39]

Paul Krugman in his New York Times op-ed piece “The Depravity of Climate-Change Denial” apparently indicted Charles Krauthammer, for “there are almost no good-faith climate-change deniers, and denying science for profit, political advantage, or ego satisfaction is not O.K. . . . denial is, as I said, depraved.” Dr. Krugman extended his indictment to all Republicans: Their party “went over to the dark side years ago. Republicans don’t just have bad ideas; at this point, they are, necessarily, bad people.”[40]

Both the Left and the Right describe themselves as good people, morally correct, and politically astute, and the Other as bad people, morally bankrupt and hopelessly ignorant. Forty-two percent of Democrats view Republicans as “downright evil,” and the same exact percentage of Republicans think the same of Democrats.[41] The warfare between the Left and the Right produced a paralyzed Congress, a blindness to reality, and kabuki political theater.

That Americans cannot reach consensus on gun control, immigration policy, and climate change are symptoms of societal collapse, not from physical causes, such as the mindless destruction of a vital resource (the Easter Islanders) or a colder climate (the Greenland Vikings), but rather the splitting of a people’s storytelling into two opposed morality plays. The stable standoff between these two stories is most likely an illusion of the moment, for nothing remains static or fixed in America.

One way to anticipate the future in vague outline is to take recent history as a guide. America teetered on the edge of social disintegration in 1929 with the Great Depression and in the Sixties with the confluence of the civil, women’s, and gay rights movements and the anti-war protests. No mass protests seem imminent in today’s America, drugged into political stupor by Fox News and MSNBC. A repeat of the Sixties seems highly unlikely: The WASP dominance of culture is gone; individual rights have been enacted into law; the abandonment of conscription allows the government to engage in military operations in Africa, Afghanistan, and the Middle East with citizens at home taking little notice. However, economic corrections, downturns, recessions, and depressions are inherent in capitalism, and often transform society.

Four years before the near worldwide economic depression of 2008, Ben Bernanke, later the Chair of the Federal Reserve, proudly announced the Great Moderation: “One of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility.” Dr. Bernanke attributed the Great Moderation to “improved monetary policy,” that is, to a deeper understanding of the economy, not dumb luck.[42] 2008 taught some of us that the Great Recession was caused by ignorance, that economists did not truly grasp the complexities of advanced economies, that despite their mathematically sophisticated analyses and well-meaning policies they did not know how to avoid the collapses intrinsic to capitalism. The Great Recession briefly shook the hubris of economists: Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Memorial prize in Economic Science, confessed his “profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failure in the market economy;”[43] less than ten years later, the overarching pride of his profession returned, as expected. We humans, not just economists, believe we can control all aspects of our lives; when an unexpected event hammers us to the ground, we get up, innovate, and stagger on, soon forgetting that the future is not predictable.

Given history and that economics is not a predictive science like Newtonian physics, a major recession or catastrophic depression is bound to happen again. Suppose that in ten or fifteen years, the credit markets seize up as in 2008, or some newly invented, “make-an-easy buck” financial instrument, like the credit default swap that sank Lehmann Brothers, destabilizes the banking system, then the barrier between the Left and the Right would suddenly disappear. Everyone, Left and Right, Wall Street and Main Street, Rich and Poor, would clamor for the Federal government to intervene in a massive way, much like what happened after 1929 and 2008, when reality suddenly became visible.

In good times, each American feels pride in his independence and self-reliance, even boasts he is self-made, achieved success on his own without the help of others, and curses the federal, state, and local government for interfering with his life. When a nationwide economic disaster befalls him, he sees his isolation from his neighbors and grasps that he is helpless to change the social and political events that overwhelm him; furthermore, because of individualism, he cannot expect help from any of his fellow citizens, for like him, “they are both impotent and cold.”[44] In such circumstances, the opposing morality plays of MSNBC and Fox News would flicker out, reality would force Americans to demand a stronger central government, one that is “absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle.”[45]

Tocqueville predicted in 1840 that social and economic life would become covered more and more by a “network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform.”[46] He did not envision that the “administrative despotism”[47] of the federal government would extend to the regulations of the local department of motor vehicles, to the rules of insurance companies for health care, and to the policies of the agencies that grant accreditation to colleges and hospitals. Tocqueville did argue that for Americans, under the sway of democratic equality, “the idea of a single central power directing all citizens slips naturally into their consciousness without their, so to say, giving the matter a thought.”[48]

In times of economic and social crisis, we Americans have two conflicting passions: The hope that the federal government will solve the crisis, and the desire for freedom from outside interference in our lives. We finesse this conflict by assuming that the powerful, centralized government stems from the sovereignty of the people. We truly believe that if we so choose, we can throw the bums out of office in the next election. We the people are the masters; we have freely chosen more government interference in our lives and can always rid ourselves of the bureaucracy.

After the next economic crisis is over and the government strengthened, we will readily accept the abrogation of democratic rule and will easily assume the increased administrative despotism is normal, provided the loss of political liberty is masked over by an increased personal freedom. Perhaps, a new Left and Right storytelling will emerge with remnants of the old narratives, but the angry rhetoric will submerge the truth that the two lynchpins of American life—equality and individualism—caused democracy to wane in favor of the bureaucratic Nation-State.

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Notes:

[1] See George Stanciu, “Storytelling and Modernity,” The Imaginative Conservative, January 2, 2019.

[2] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “February 23, 1942: Fireside Chat 20: On the Progress of the War.”

[3] Voiceover, Newsreel, “Yanks Fighting Around the Globe!”, Castle Films (1942?).

[4] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Fireside Chat 20.”

[5] Winston Churchill coined the term “iron curtain” in his speech “The Sinews of Peace,” delivered at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946.

[6] “Donald Duck – Der Fuehrer’s face | eng sub,” YouTube video, 9:16, “Solarer111,” January 4, 2011.

[7] President’s Message to Congress, August 5, 1964.

[8] Morley Safer, “Report from Cam Ne, Vietnam,” (August 5, 1965).

[9] For a video of the execution of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, click here.

[10] Walter Cronkite, “Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?” (February 27, 1968).

[11] For a video, see “Vietnam Napalm: Phan Thi Kim Phuc.”

[12] All illustrations are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted.

[13] See “Hannity celebrates 30 years of ‘The Rush Limbaugh Show’.”

[14] Rachel Maddow Show, June 7, 2010.

[15] Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 37.

[16] Tristan Harris, quoted by Kevin Roose, “The Making of a YouTube Radical,” New York Times, June 8, 2019.

[17] “Leslie Moonves on Donald Trump: ‘It May Not Be Good for America, but It’s Damn Good for CBS’.”

[18] Pew Research Center, “Cable News Fact Sheet.”

[19] Pew Research Center, “The Changing TV News Landscape.”

[20] Rachel Maddow, Interview by Clara Jeffery, “Rachel Maddow’s Star Power,” Mother Jones (January/February).

[21] See Jeremy W. Peters, Michael M. Grynbaum, Keith Collins, Rich Harris, and Rumsey Taylor, “How the El Paso Killer Echoed the Incendiary Words of Conservative Media Stars.

[22] Mark Twain, Autobiography, Vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), p. 315. Italics in the original.

[23] Howard Kurtz “Fox News Chief Roger Ailes Blasts National Public Radio Brass as ‘Nazis’.”

[24] Keith Olbermann, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, February 14, 2008.

[25] Godwin’s law, Wikipedia.

[26] Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, and David Hackett Souter, “Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania versus Casey” in Constitutional Law: 1995 Supplement, ed. Geoffrey R. Stone, et al. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), p. 955.

[27] Also see Jared Diamond, “Why Do Societies Collapse,” Ted Talk (2003).

[28] Tucker Carlson, “Liberal Democrats Set Their Sights on Gun Control,” (Nov., 14, 2018).

[29] Rachel Maddow, “Powerful Anti-Gun Ad Panics Gun Rights Groups,” (March 20, 2015).

[30] Sean Hannity, “The Border Crisis Is a Matter of Life and Death—And Dems Are Burying Their Heads in the Sand,” (Jan. 8, 2019).

[31] Laura Ingraham, Ingraham: “Why Are We Helping Illegal Immigrants When We Can’t Help Ourselves?” (June 11, 2019).

[32] Hannity, “The Border Crisis.”

[33] Chris Hayes, quoted by Tommy Christopher, “Rick Wilson Wrecks Stephen Miller: ‘Maybe Someday He’ll Have a Relationship with a Live Human Woman’.”

[34] “New Census Bureau Report Analyzes U.S. Population Projections” (3 March 2015).

[35] See the CNN at Hannity, “The Border Crisis.”

[36] Hillary Clinton, video at “Hillary Clinton Says Half of Donald Trump’s Supporters Are in ‘Basket of Deplorables’.”

[37] Charles Krauthammer, “The Myth of ‘Settled’ Science,” Washington Post (Feb. 20, 2014).

[38] Ibid.

[39] George F. Will, “Global Warming Advocates Ignore the Boulders,” Washington Post (Dec. 2, 2010).

[40] Paul Krugman, “The Depravity of Climate-Change Denial,” New York Times (Nov. 26, 2018).

[41] Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, “Lethal Mass Partisanship: Prevalence, Correlates, & Electoral Contingencies.”

[42] Ben Bernanke, “The Great Moderation,” (Feb. 20, 2004).

[43] Paul Krugman, “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?New York Times (Sept. 2, 2009).

[44] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840]), p. 672.

[45] Ibid., p. 692.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., p. 693.

[48] Ibid., p. 668.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Fight With Cudgels” by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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