Every year since 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) has been polling ordinary people about stress and releasing reports as grim as they are unsurprising. Last year, the APA came out with a paper saying that nearly seven in ten Americans reported being discriminated against, that most people were stressed about money, work, and family responsibilities, and that "sleeping well appears to be on the decline," among other dark findings. In February, the APA declared that between August 2016 and January, Americans' overall stress had increased for the first time in a decade, with the election cited as a major source of woe. On Wednesday, another report dropped and this time, the top stressors seemed more acutely existential. Sixty-three percent of Americans were stressed about the "future of the nation," making it the country's top concern, and 59 percent of Americans agreed that this, right now, today, was "the lowest point in our nation's history."
The history-minded among us might reject that result as hyperbole. The nation has been through such low points as the Civil War, World War II, the horribly long slave era, the Watergate scandal, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Great Depression, and the McCarthy era, just to name a few. There were moments when the US looked ready to split apart, succumb to revolution, or be blown off the face of the planet by Soviet warheads. Things may be bad, but they're not that bad.
On the other hand, have you been outside lately? Or inside, or alone with your thoughts for a few minutes? Judging by what we say to each other on social media and hear on television, the country is in a bad way right now. People are angry at one another, and the angriest, most strident voices are often the ones amplified and shared. A tiny minority of people who want extreme changes—the end of capitalism, a white ethno-state—are so gripped by apocalyptic fervor that they occasionally battle each other on the streets. Those vibrating at an especially high frequency are convinced that the US is on the brink of (or already knee-deep in) fascism, or that the deep state is preparing to seize their guns.
Even cool heads are heating up these days. In March, Foreign Policy asked a bunch of experts about the chances of another civil war—meaning "widespread political violence"—manifesting in the next ten to 15 years, and "the range of answers ran from 'five percent' to '95 percent.' I would say the consensus was about 35 percent," reported columnist Thomas Ricks.
Presumably the APA survey respondents are mostly not Three Percenters nor Antifa nor national security wonks foreseeing a guerrilla conflict on US soil. But you can't evade the suspicion that something rotten is bubbling up. Donald Trump, in his first speech as president, talked about closed factories and cities plagued by gangs and "American carnage." On Sunday he took to Twitter to demand that someone "DO SOMETHING" about the FBI, the Democrats, and Russia (it was a bit hard to understand what the hell he was talking about).
The opposition to Trump is no less aggressive. Last week Jeff Flake, a Republican senator from Arizona, denounced the president's "flagrant disregard for truth or decency." Anti-Trump psychiatrists have warned about the state of his mental health, breaking a 50-year-old norm of eschewing diagnoses of public figures from afar. And Bernie Sanders, the country's most prominent and popular left-wing politician, throws around rhetoric like this:
There are billionaires out there who compete with each other to see how big their yachts are… While these billionaires boast of their wealth and their greed, hundreds of millions of people… suffer from malnutrition and die of easily treated diseases, while tens of millions more live in incredible squalor.
No wonder the APA found stress about the future of the country to be a bipartisan condition, affecting 73 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans. There is no political movement telling its constituents that America is OK right now. The nation is either a swamp of corruption and crime or an oligarchy, its leader either an authoritarian and a liar or else besieged by treasonous forces.
And thanks to social media and smartphones, we are more inundated with news than at any time in history—these messages of rage are seemingly floating through the air, resting on our shoulders like ash from a still-erupting volcano. According to the APA, nearly one in ten Americans check the news at least every hour; 20 percent are on social media constantly. It's not that there's no escape, exactly. An awful lot of people don't want to escape, or don't act like they do, anyway.
The stress Americans feel isn't simply the result of outrage-stoking rhetoric and news reports, however. The top stresses about the nation's future were healthcare, the economy, trust in government, and hate crimes. As they should be: The US healthcare system is still an expensive disaster, income inequality remains an obvious problem that may be getting worse as we speak, government corruption has reached a point where the secretary of Health and Human Services had to resign for taking too many trips on private jets, and hate crimes in big cities are on the rise.
It makes you wonder about those 37 percent of Americans who aren't worried about the nation's future. What gives?
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