Signs that something is terribly wrong are ominous. Here are seven symptoms of our malady:
1) According to the Center for Disease Control, the average lifespan of Americans has declined for the second year in a row. Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now points to the increases in lifespan around the globe in the past one hundred years as proof things are getting better so it is particularly disheartening to see the United States moving backward.
2) One of the reasons for our declining lifespan is a rise in suicides particularly in rural areas. Trump was, in part, elected as a result of resentment towards the government by those who live in the many distressed rural areas in the United States. They were angry at neoliberals and elite Republicans, whom they blamed for the loss of their good jobs. They blamed minorities and women who benefitted from Affirmative Action. They blamed immigrants who performed union jobs like roofing, construction, painting, etc. Not to mention their fears of terrorism and crime stoked by the media and politicians.
3) Another cause of our declining lifespan is opioids responsible for 72,000 deaths last year according to The New York Times. The immediate reaction of our politicians and leaders is to blame the availability of opioids, but these drugs are available in many countries and they do not have an opioid crisis. Millions of us have gotten prescriptions from doctors after injuries and but we don't become addicted to opioids.
4) The endless wars and conflicts abroad have gotten lost in the news. The empire always needs an enemy in Orwell's 1984.There must be a focus for our fears of terrorism despite the fact that only 95 Americans have been killed by terrorists since 9/11. Both parties have bought into the need to be involved in foreign conflicts and the funding of our military. We keep trying to refight and win the war we lost in Vietnam. The military comprises only one percent of our population, remains largely unseen and enjoys widespread support, but most Americans know little about the extent of our involvement overseas.
5) School shootings now take place every few days. They have become normalized to everyone except those involved directly in them. It appears that gun owners consider the ability to purchase weapons of choice, including AR15s, to be a right worth the loss of a few hundred young lives a year. And despite the fact that most Americans want some form of gun control, our minority government appears to be under the thumb of the NRA. In fact, in the past fifty years, 1.5 million Americans have died from gun-related incidents, more than all the Americans who have died in wars!
6) Then there's our mass incarceration problem. Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow that incarceration is a means of controlling and subjugating black males. We have more people in jail than any other country including China. Though African-Americans are approximately 12% of our population, they make up 33% of the prison population. We also regularly see videos of black males being shot, strangled and beaten by police. This creates a tautology. Black males commit crimes so of course they are imprisoned. Black males resist arrest so the police kill them. This also ties into the fears of crime and the calls for law and order proposed by Trump. What lies beneath these facts is the unfairness of our system of justice with laws like "three strikes and you're out," "truth in sentencing" and the imprisoning of minorities for drug crimes. These problems are beginning to be addressed in recent legislation but we have a long way to go.
7) All of this causes a lot of anxiety, stress and depression affecting over 10% of adults, and these factors form a loop with the above problems. For my generation many of these problems go back to the sixties, the divide over Vietnam, the civil unrest and the traumatic assassinations of MLK, JFK and Robert Kennedy. It wasn't until the 9/11 attack that the country experienced another such traumatic event with the televised toppling of the Trade Towers. As Naomi Klein points out in The Shock Doctrine, events like these enable leaders to exploit our fears and seize power. Following 9/11, the Bush regime invaded Afghanistan first and then Iraq while implementing the Patriot Act encroaching on freedom of expression and the right of habeas corpus. At the same time our government engaged in the torture of prisoners. The third traumatic event was the collapse of the stock market and the ensuing great recession in 2008. As a country we have not recovered from these events. In 2016, they led to the election of a cult leader, a savior.
The growing disparity between the rich and the poor is the main culprit underlying these problems. Not the top one percent that Bernie likes to attack, but the top 10% of income earners, who average nine times as much income as the bottom 90%. This group represents the elites that the right wing resents. At the same time that this group has gotten richer, the rest of the country has not kept up. In addition, this group has become a class that is perpetuating itself through education and marriage. Those who are part of this group have the interesting and rewarding jobs.
It is no surprise that what most of us are after in life is meaningful work that pays well. We need to figure out a way to create more "good" jobs. Returning to a graduated income tax, what Republicans refer to as socialism and what progressives talk about as part of democratic socialism would be a good step but creating good opportunities for everyone must also be part of the solution. It has become obvious that capitalism is not capable of responding to the changes we are already undergoing and that we'll need to be on the socialist side of democratic socialism.