Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic. — Tom McGuane
Can a people recover from an excursion into unreality? The USA’s sojourn into an alternative universe of the mind accelerated sharply after Wall Street nearly detonated the global financial system in 2008. That debacle was only one manifestation of an array of accumulating threats to the postmodern order, which include the burdens of empire, onerous debt, population overshoot, fracturing globalism, worries about energy, disruptive technologies, ecological havoc, and the specter of climate change.
A sense of gathering crisis, which I call the long emergency, persists. It is systemic and existential. It calls into question our ability to carry on “normal” life much farther into this century, and all the anxiety that attends it is hard for the public to process. It manifested itself first in finance because that was the most abstract and fragile of all the major activities we depend on for daily life, and therefore the one most easily tampered with and shoved into criticality by a cadre of irresponsible opportunists on Wall Street. Indeed, a lot of households were permanently wrecked after the so-called Great Financial Crisis of 2008, despite official trumpet blasts heralding “recovery” and the dishonestly engineered pump-up of capital markets since then.
With the election of 2016, symptoms of the long emergency seeped into the political system. Disinformation rules. There is no coherent consensus about what is happening and no coherent proposals to do anything about it. The two parties are mired in paralysis and dysfunction and the public’s trust in them is at epic lows. Donald Trump is viewed as a sort of pirate president, a freebooting freak elected by accident, “a disrupter” of the status quo at best and at worst a dangerous incompetent playing with nuclear fire. A state of war exists between the White House, the permanent D.C. bureaucracy, and the traditional news media. Authentic leadership is otherwise AWOL. Institutions falter. The FBI and the CIA behave like enemies of the people.
Bad ideas flourish in this nutrient medium of unresolved crisis. Lately, they actually dominate the scene on every side. A species of wishful thinking that resembles a primitive cargo cult grips the technocratic class, awaiting magical rescue remedies that promise to extend the regime of Happy Motoring, consumerism, and suburbia that makes up the armature of “normal” life in the USA. They chatter about electric driverless car fleets, home delivery drone services, and as-yet-undeveloped modes of energy production to replace problematic fossil fuels, while ignoring the self-evident resource and capital constraints now upon us and even the laws of physics -- especially entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Their main mental block is their belief in infinite industrial growth on a finite planet, an idea so powerfully foolish that it obviates their standing as technocrats.