If President Trump’s State of the Union address tonight is anything like those of prior presidents, he will describe what he sees as threats to American democracy. The usual bogeyman—terrorism—will be mentioned, as will (wrongly) illegal immigration. Unfortunately, the president will almost assuredly fail to mention the greatest threat we currently face. Because that threat is invisible.
Stay with me; you feel this threat as readily as I do. It pervades American life. It is a cynicism, and it has gripped the soul of America like a viper.
In Jimmy Carter’s words—spoken when he felt a similar malais settle over the nation during his presidency—and which have identical resonance almost forty years later:
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.
In the wake of the 2016 election, the threat of cynicism is so palpable it can no longer properly be described as “invisible.”
Instead, it’s too visible. It’s visible in the talking heads who pass off their irate huffing and puffing as discourse. It’s visible in the fruitless arguments on our newsfeeds. It’s visible in my own aversion (bordering on disgust) to reading the news this year.
On both the political right and left, we’ve lost faith that politics even matters. As I wrote after the 2012 election, the mindset that helped us fight Hitler or land a man on the moon is fading. We used to feel inspired, but we now feel disenchanted. We used to hope, but now we doubt.
Rather than listening to uniters, too often we heed dividers, forgetting that these dividers profit from discord, that they are manipulating us for a cheap buck.
Rather than striving to bridge the gap between our ideals and our reality, we have split into two camps—one group that praises our ideals and ignores our reality, and another that emphasizes our reality and derides our ideals.
This cynicism is a cancer. It is more dangerous than any visible threat because it is killing us from within. Unless and until this gap in the American spirit is filled, we will not solve our greatest problems. We will remain lost, hopeless, and cynical. We will continue to doubt our position as the world’s moral leader. Meanwhile, the world will doubt this position as well.
The American dream and all it offers will remain just that—a dream—for countless Americans. For the first time in our history, the next generation will be worse off than the previous one. We must adopt a different mindset. If we don’t, the invisible threat will continue to destroy us from within.
Our cynicism is liable to become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the worse, just as the Founders’ idealism became a self-fulfilling prophecy for the better.
America became great because we once believed it could become great. The self-defeating mindset that has gripped so many young people and that reflexively derides everything—from our politicians to our most cherished ideals—could have precisely the opposite effect.
In 2018, let’s resolve to do better. Let’s recognize that it’s not all bad, that American democracy still possesses immense value. As Barack Obama optimistically wrote in 2017:
Across America, people chose to get involved, get engaged and stand up. Each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try. So go keep changing the world in 2018.
It’s easy to fall into cynicism. It’s hard to cultivate and maintain a sense of hope. Yet a positive mindset is the only mindset that has ever made a difference.
Let’s get to work.
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