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No Mercy No Malice

House of Cards

September 23, 2022

My new book, Adrift: America in 100 Charts, comes out Tuesday. It’s the story of America told through … charts. You can buy it here.

The previous excerpt I shared was (cautiously) optimistic. In a world where bad news sells, it’s easy to feel nihilistic — apocalyptic, even — about the fate of our nation. Taking a step back to recognize our myriad accomplishments over the long term helps restore perspective, and hope for America. I stand by the virtues of optimism, and try to practice it regularly. (Emphasis on try.)

However, optimism — like alcohol — should be consumed in moderation. We shouldn’t abuse it to distract ourselves from our responsibilities and the commitments of daily life. And we certainly shouldn’t use it to sedate ourselves in the face of clear and present dangers.

This excerpt highlights some of the dangers I believe are most pressing. The news cycle has convinced us that the greatest threat to America is other Americans — MAGA Trumpers, social justice warriors, deep state bureaucrats … pick your poison. These narratives are compelling (profitable). And wrong: The greatest threat to Americans is our fear of other Americans. For the past several decades that fear has grown, and the rifts between us, broadened. We are reaching a tipping point.

House of Cards

In 2018, residents of a 12-story condominium tower along a beautiful stretch of the Florida coast reported evidence of deterioration in the tower’s concrete support slabs. Engineers attempted to repair surface damage in 2020, but the project was abandoned because of concerns that it would destabilize the entire structure. In April 2021 there were more reports of concrete deterioration, which was noted to be “much worse.” Remedial work was discussed and planned, but never begun. Two months later, the Surfside, Florida, condo collapsed, killing 98 people.

In the aftermath of the Surfside tragedy, images and reports of pooling water, cracked concrete, and rusting rebar were made public. The problems had been plain for all to see. It’s a familiar pattern. Warning signs are always obvious in the rearview mirror. What are our warning signs? What are the weaknesses in our foundation?

We are divided against ourselves, seeing enemies rather than adversaries in our politics. The moniker United States of America is a paradox today. A poll by the University of Virginia found that 2 out of 5 Biden voters believe it’s time to split the country by party lines. Trump voters agree, with more than 1 in 2 favoring a breakup. Secession is the new Succession, and Texit the new Brexit.

This feeds a vicious cycle: As enemies, we cannot negotiate in good faith, and our government accomplishes nothing. Which further undermines our faith in government, and fuels our hatred for our opponents.

Political Divides Become Social Divides

We might say we support “bipartisan” politics, but we’re increasingly partisan in every aspect of our lives. In 1960, 1 in 25 parents had concerns about their child marrying someone from the opposite political party. By 2018, almost half of Democratic parents and a third of Republican parents had such concerns.

The Long-Term Erosion of Trust in the Federal Government

In a democracy that’s been pushed to its limits by competing narratives and unfounded online theories about politicians and political agendas, it’s no wonder that Americans seem to have lost faith in the people running the nation. The National Election Study began surveying the public about its trust in the government back in 1958 — a time when about 75% of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. That percentage hasn’t surpassed 30% since 2007.

In 2021, 42% of Americans believed our political system needed to be completely overhauled, and another 43% said it required major changes. In contrast, only 12% to 15% of people in most Western European countries said their political systems should get a complete revamp.

Declining Infrastructure

In 1966, the U.S. committed 2.5% of its potential GDP to infrastructure investment — roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, water treatment, sewers, and more. Over the next twenty years, mainly during the Nixon and Reagan administrations, infrastructure investment fell dramatically, hitting a record low of 1.3% of GDP in 1983, and it’s held at a relatively steady state ever since. And that understates the underinvestment, as construction material prices have outpaced inflation in recent years.

In practical terms, what does this mean? Simple: worse conditions for working Americans. About 1 in every 5 U.S. roads is in poor condition. Forty-five percent of Americans do not have access to public transit.

A water main break occurs every two minutes. Numerous faults in our core infrastructure have led to crises that once seemed unimaginable: In Flint, Michigan, 12,000 children drank lead-contaminated water, causing irreparable brain damage that affects academic performance and IQ and increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and Legionnaires’ disease. In Miami a twelve-story beachfront condominium collapsed, killing 98 people.

Meanwhile, as a share of GDP, China spends ten times more on infrastructure than the U.S. Which may explain why it takes 4.5 hours to take a train from Shanghai to Beijing (752 miles) but 7 hours to get from Boston to D.C. (438 miles).

Ally

As in an eighties horror flick, America’s political divide started benign, campy even, and has become gruesome quickly. However, it’s not a demon in a hockey mask that terrorizes us. The threat is not an outside malevolent force. In fact, the call is coming from inside the house. We need programs and investments that reinforce a basic truth: Americans’ strongest allies will always be other Americans.

Life is so rich,

P.S. On October 25, I’m giving a free virtual talk on the state of business (and humanity) in America, based on observations from Adrift. Sign up and I’ll see you there.

47 comments

  1. Dynamite SLim says:

    Let there be charts! We all like charts. Prof. G likes charts so much he made a book of charts to help broaden our understanding of where we are in particular aspects of our society. Let’s have some charts showing the accuracy of this ‘bad/fine people on both sides’ bothsidism idea.
    As others are noting, the politically motivated, directed, supported sociopathic actions in America are not symmetrically distributed between American political party leadership, political ideologies and their supporters. Openly undermining American democracy, targeting minorities, undermining efforts to improve societal infrastructure, etc. while using lies and other sociopathic practices does not seem politically symmetrical at all. Again, let there be charts!
    I think it is negligent for Prof. G, who excels and appreciates using charts to show data relationships to reality, to repeat this without data to back it up.
    What will Prof. G say to his boys when they ask him why he supported this particular lie that he could have easily researched and sorted with data?

  2. Bill Rausch says:

    The Long-Term Erosion of Trust in the Federal Government: when the White House continues to tell us that the border is secure (see the myriad of videos of Kamala Harris and Karine JP saying exactly these words), and yet we see and hear of hundreds of thousands of videos showing the exact opposite, it is inevitable that we will not trust the government.

  3. Denis riel says:

    Capitalist to his extreme that is what killing slowly the country we forgot about human we only think about money ,just look on Netflix the série The Cave and that will show you what human from around the world can accomplish ,nd probably a lesson about human sharing love and respect from the Thai people

  4. kbr42644 says:

    GOOD

  5. Jose Manuel Ortiz says:

    Thank you Scott; we are experiencing the same situation in Argentina. The solution is in the hands of politicians; dialogue and agreement on coincidences on the most important factors to make America/Argentina a good place to work and live: education, infrastructure affecting the poorest, and fair labour laws. Abrazo Jose M.

  6. Sam Parker says:

    While I find it scary that some Americans would like us to split the country along party lines, the 2 in 5 and 1 in 2 stats shared are of people who ‘somewhat agree’ with splitting the country rather than definitively splitting the country.

    “Statement: The situation in America is such that I would favor [Blue/Red] states seceding from the union to form their own special country. Percentage who at least somewhat agree/percentage sho agree strongly: Biden voters (41%/18%), Trump voters (52%/25%).”

    Upside: “Roughly 80% of Trump and Biden voters view democracy as preferable to any non-democratic kind of government.”

    https://centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/new-initiative-explores-deep-persistent-divides-between-biden-and-trump-voters/

  7. Robert Thompson says:

    Symptoms versus Sources… The charts show division and disruption, those are symptoms. Have to examine sources of distorted thought and behavior. Prefrontal cortex, amygdala, right brain dominance. Among factors, continuous stress disrupts functioning of prefrontal cortex and related functions. Find the stressors and you find the source.

  8. Jack Pannell says:

    Scott. You almost went to my greatest concern. Our hyper segregated society by race, ethnic identity, class, religious background is the main driver for the deep fissures in civil society. We have to be rigorously earnest in cultivating a new generation of young people commuted to the common good.

  9. JT says:

    We’ll said, Scott. However, I think the current paradigm around infrastructure spending needs to be rethought. I’m a big proponent of the Strong Towns approach pioneered by former Professional Engineer, Chuck Marohn. He advocates for incremental investment in the core of our cities and towns – similar to something you’ve mentioned before, the 15 minute city concept. The Strong Towns position on infrastructure spending is that in its current form in the US it typically feeds into the sprawling automobile-centric pattern of development which he describes as a “Growth Ponzi Scheme”. I’m hoping the US prioritizes walkability and transit-oriented development rather than transit projects as a bandaid to traffic congestion due to automobile-focused infrastructure.

  10. Jeff says:

    We can’t keep having the same battle between mostly urban progressives vs mostly rural reactionaries every 150 years. We fought the good fight in the 1860’s, won, but by centuries’ end Jim Crow was in full flower. We’re barely holding off tyranny by the same mostly southern (and now midwestern) minority. I’ve seen some interesting graphics of potential three or four national splits of the current USA. Count me in the secession as an option camp. Might be more peaceful than another civil war.

  11. Shott3r says:

    Some things are not debatable. Reaganomics hollowed out the tax base and killed regulations and we’ve never recovered. Fox News was allowed to create an unreality in service of the far right. There is no Democratic equivalent to those. It does us no good to lament polarization without identifying specifically what caused it. It didn’t just naturally emerge nor is it symmetric.

    • Bill Rausch says:

      “Fox News was allowed to create an unreality in service of the far right. There is no Democratic equivalent to those.”

      I find it hard to imagine that you do not consider MSNBC to be the other side of Fox. I am a conservative and I can see how Fox tries to manipulate me. Can you not see how MSNBC does the same thing to their viewers?

      Think critically and stop just buying the lines you get from your favorite news sources.

  12. Jim Raines says:

    Thank you for a great commentary. Particularly on infrastructure.

  13. Elliot says:

    I must have missed the relation between lack of political discourse and declining infrastructure…. Scott is so sharp and has so much potential that he limits himself from achieving. No one is looking for the Bald Elizabeth Warren, we need more

  14. JIMCNB says:

    Pre-ordered a copy, even though we differ (in degrees) not exponentially on a number of things. But your audience, stemming from what I’ve seen of the hyperbolic and ad hominem attacks on conservative values are not true liberals. Look it up. Quite a few seem to be of Lenin’s “useful idiot” category – anit-climate- what does that mean; anti-immigrant – maybe he meant anti-illegal immigrant, anti unvaxxed, anti-terrorist, anti-unvetted – Since Trump did more for black and hispanic unemployment and wage growth than either Joe Xiden or Barry O – i’m not sure we can be labeled anti-poor or racist. Anyway, look forward to your book

    • Greg offenbach says:

      This is painful to read since you clearly are misinformed by Conservative news media outlets. Job wage growth more than doubled under president biden. Jobless claims rates are at a 50 y low under biden. And child malnutrition has been halved thanks to president biden.

      Let’s face it. Mr trump was a horrible president who barely put in the hours thanks to his schedule being packed with “executive time” slots.

      The absolute only reason Mr trump appeals to Americans was his unabashed enabling of hatred for minorities. He made it ok to be intolerant and cruel and misogynistic

      Now that biden is president, that all went away.

      • Bill Rausch says:

        Job growth is up because we laid off so much of the country because of the lockdowns. What’s the growth since BEFORE the pandemic?

        Also, Biden has spent an enormous amount of time on vacation.

        Finally, do you have any proof Trump hate minorities?

        It is people like you that don’t think or use facts that are causing the divisiveness in this country.

    • DJHH says:

      Thank you JIMCNB

  15. harvey charles zeller says:

    Criticism of bothsidesing is a good start at understanding the current environment. Who can argue that having Republicans applauding people who agree that Trump and others like him cannot lose elections are insidious as well as stupid. The rulers from both parties are run by Wall Street. The Republican masses are controlled by Christian cultural issues that emanate from an unfortunate belief in an afterlife and a fear of death. Deluded as well are the Democrats who believe in a federal government serving as a dupe of the Pentagon who is self-perpetuating as a hammer of destruction. We’re lucky to have gotten this far not following an evil constitution called “wonderful” by the fools who haven’t read it. The Supreme Court as it is presently assembled, has read it, and will follow it, come Hell or high water, in fact, both.

  16. Eric Hughes says:

    Have to pile on with other commenters, and agree that the both-siderism here is both lazy and dangerous. Just because both sides view the other as an existential threat does NOT automatically mean that both sides are equally mistaken in that belief. Disappointing coming from Prof G…guess he didn’t want to offend any Republicans while trying to sell his book.

  17. Fred says:

    And when the “Forward Party” is even discussed at all, it is judged too radical, won’ t work in America. Scott, your excerpt assessment suggests a whole lot more is needed, that Forward will not even scratch the surface. Keep up your excellent work, thank you Fred

  18. John Hyman says:

    Are you throwing some shade on the 2012 opening Newsroom speech? Our politicos still proudly claim that America is the greatest… but it’s all so much hype, and they are largely to blame. I’ll be ordering the book right now.

  19. Joe says:

    Citizens United!

  20. Sid Kaye says:

    First, you say that optimism should be consumed in moderation. Then you say that the only thing we have to fear is fear of other Americans… as though they haven’t been actively trying to destroy our democracy in the last 6 years and sow massive hate.

    Maybe the thing to fear is this compelling need to both-sides everything.

  21. Lee Gross says:

    Will your writing have impact if you fail to call out the party that fights relentlessly to defund the “programs and investments” you tout?

    Otherwise your essay reads just like every other pundit who’s playing the both sides game. And is equally easy to ignore.

  22. Matt says:

    I have an easy answer: spread out the federal government. For every open chair (retirement, quit), insist it be filled outside the DC area. This will help rebuild trust, and the Zoom revolution proves it’s totally possible.

  23. Scott (not Prof) G says:

    As much as I typically agree with your takes, you world view, and your values, etc, I think this essay is fatally flawed and just a bit dangerous. You are bothsides-ing what is demonstrably an asymmetric issue. Only one party is – and has been – anti-democracy, anti-climate, anti-immigrant, anti-poor, anti-women, anti-LGTBQIA, etc. It started decades ago. Malicious, mean-spirited, selfish, etc are not reactionary or spiteful insults hurled by Dems, they’re codified characteristics of one party’s platform. R’s anger with Dem’s is largely ginned up and infantile; whereas D’s anger with R’s is warranted and an appropriate reaction to a party and its supporters that are actively destroying democracy and rolling back human/US rights. That’s NOT hyperbole. Trying to have a meaningful conversation, for instance, with the arsonist lighting your house on fire may seem noble, but if you don’t want your house to burn down – it’s pretty fucking stupid.

    • David says:

      Your either joking or you’re mentally ill. The democrats have literally been the ones lighting things on fire.

    • Greg offenbach says:

      Thank you

    • Bill Rausch says:

      “Only one party is – and has been – anti-democracy, anti-climate, anti-immigrant, anti-poor, anti-women, anti-LGTBQIA, etc.”

      The whole party is this way? Anti-poor? Anti-woman? Have you ever had a meaningful discussion with a conservative? Do you understand why they may feel that way? As I mentioned in an earlier comment, it is people like you that are dividing this country. Reach out to conservative and listen when they tell you why they have opposing views. Other than a small minority, it isn’t hate; it’s just a different view after years of experiences that are different than yours.

  24. Jim McKnight says:

    Dear Prof. G. … it seems to me that a v. simple way to mute division & dissent, and to encourage commonality and civility, would be to pass a federal law banning anonymity … force platforms to make your name, cell, email & address public if you wish to comment … I bet that would calm things down … j.

    • jimcnb says:

      and give the newly weaponized FBI and IRS a roadmap to your house, guns drawn , in the dead of morning – yes, I know i sound paranoid but does Lois Lerner or Garland, strozk or Page mean anything

  25. Joellyn Coor says:

    Will your talk be in New York? I’m in Chicago don’t know if I could make the 25th of October. Do we have time for you to run for president?

  26. Chip Hughes says:

    Sorry that you feel the need to “both sides” this horrendous situation in order to sell a book. As someone with Holocaust survivors in my immediate family, let me assure you that this divide is ENTIRELY of one faction’s making…and it’s a divide they’ve been working on literally since the end of the Civil War. We loathe the MAGA/Trumpov cult for a very good reason: they are evil personified and threaten every convention of our democracy in favor of autocratic, supremacist and (very likely) genocidal self-immolation.

  27. Pat Connolly says:

    I agree with your assessment. What is your solution?

  28. Ron Rader says:

    The messages are great. The technical setup, sucks. The images are usually distorted, clicking on the Preorder, does zilch. Strangely, when click on the ‘comment on this post’ the entire, email comes back up & can now click on the ‘Preorder’ portal.
    Oh, the distorted images are found on my laptop & iPhone. This is not the quality we all expect from you. From me, yes, but not you.

  29. John says:

    Just pre-ordered on Kindle, and congrats! You are #1 in History of LGBTQ+ and Gender Studies!

  30. David Wolkin says:

    Life is rich for rich people.

    • Jay says:

      Might want to adjust your values. Don’t have much but grateful for what I have. It’s just an attitude.

  31. Dave says:

    I would like to live in a world where Scott was the president. Just love his values, intellect and human decency.

  32. Brian Dervan says:

    Will Adrift be available in eBook format?

  33. Susan Lynch-Smith says:

    According to most historical accounts, the greatest empires have always fallen from within. Sad to see the current state, but I do also believe that government likes to keep Americans divided as it is easier to rule over them.

  34. Jason Hooper says:

    Agree polarisation is causing rifts in society and amplified by news and social media. Will you be commenting more on UK 🇬🇧 now you are one of us Scott?