House of CardsSeptember 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.
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).
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.