America is falling apart at the seams


In June, a statistic hovered over my desk that shocked me. In 2020, the number of miles Americans drove fell by 13 percent due to the pandemic, but the number of road deaths rose by 7 percent.

I couldn’t think of it. Why would Americans drive so much more recklessly during the pandemic? But by the first half of 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle deaths had actually increased by 18.4 percent from 2020. Contributing factors, the agency said, included drink-driving, speeding and the not wearing a seat belt. .

Why do so many Americans drive irresponsibly?

As dismal numbers like this raced through my mind, a Substack article by Matthew Yglesias dropped into my inbox this week. It was titled, “All kinds of bad behavior is on the rise.” Not only is reckless driving on the rise, Yglesias noted, but plane altercations have exploded, homicide rates in cities are on the rise, drug overdoses are on the rise, Americans are drinking more, nurses say patients are getting more and more violent, and so on and so forth. .

Yglesias is right.

Teachers are faced with an emerging wave of disruptive behavior. The Wall Street Journal reported in December: “Schools have seen an increase in both minor incidents, such as students talking in class, and more serious problems, such as fights and gun possession. In Dallas, the number of disruptive classroom incidents has tripled this year compared to prepandemic levels, school officials said.

This month, the Institute for Family Studies published an essay titled “The Drug Epidemic Just Keeps Worse.” The essay noted that drug deaths had risen almost continuously for more than 20 years, but that “overdoses have skyrocketed, especially during the pandemic.” For much of this time, the drug overdose crisis was highly concentrated among whites, but in 2020, the essay noted, “the number of black people exceeded the number of whites for the first time.”

In October, CNN ran a story titled, “Hate Crime Reports in US Surge to the Highest Level in 12 Years, Says FBI.” The FBI found that between 2019 and 2020, the number of attacks on black people, for example, increased from 1,972 to 2,871.

The number of weapons purchases has increased enormously. More than two million firearms were purchased in January 2021, The Washington Post reported, “an 80 percent year-on-year peak and the third-highest single-month total on record.”

While Americans’ animosity towards each other seems to be growing, their concern for each other seems to be waning. A study by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University shows that the proportion of Americans giving to charity is steadily declining. In 2000, 66.2 percent of households made a donation to charity. But in 2018, only 49.6 percent did. The proportion who gave to religious causes declined as did attendance at worship. But the proportion of households that gave to secular goals also hit a new low in 2018, at 42 percent.

Not to mention the parts of the deteriorating climate that are hard to quantify: the increase in polarization, hatred, anger and fear. When I went to college, see all those years ago, I never worried about saying something in class that would get me banned. But now the students I know are afraid that one wrong sentence could lead to social death. That is a monumental sea change.

It must be said that not every trend is bad. For example, substance use among teenagers appears to be declining. And many of these problems are caused by the suspected temporary stress of the pandemic. I doubt so many people would be hitting flight attendants or throwing tantrums over cheese if there weren’t mask rules and a deadly virus to worry about.

But something darker and deeper also seems to be happening: a prolonged loss of solidarity, a prolonged increase in alienation and hostility. This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from below as well as from above.

What the hell is going on? The short answer: I don’t know. I also don’t know what causes the high rates of depression, suicide and loneliness that haunted Americans even before the pandemic and which are the sad side of all the hostility and recklessness I have just described.

We can bust the usual suspects: social media, rotten politics. When President Donald Trump said it was okay to hate marginalized groups, many people had to see that as consent.

Some of our poisons have to be sociological – the fraying of the social fabric. Last year, Gallup had a report titled, “American Church Membership Is Under the Majority for the First Time.” In 2019, the Pew Research Center had a report, “U.S. has the world’s highest percentage of children in single-parent families.”

And some poisons have to be cultural. In 2018, The Washington Post ran an article headlined, “America is a Nation of Narcissists, According to Two New Studies.”

But there must also be a spiritual or moral problem at the root. In recent years, and across a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have behaved in less prosocial and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways. But why?

As a columnist, I should have some answers. But I just don’t now. All I know is that the situation is dire.

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