New Book Published by The Atlantic: “The American Crisis”

a discussion with some of the contributors…


Cullen Murphy: The title The American Crisis leans heavily on a word that often gets thrown around. The “crisis” explored in the book is existential—it transcends politics or ideology. How would you describe the condition the country is in?

Anne Applebaum: It’s a very specific kind of crisis: an identity crisis. Many of our current political, economic, cultural, and historical arguments are really about a very fundamental question: Who are we? Are we a multiethnic, multicultural nation that lives in really remarkable harmony? Are we a nation of racists and white supremacists? Are some Americans more “American” than others? And if so, which ones, and why?

It’s not an accident that we’re arguing right now over statues, over dates like 1619 and 1789, over heroes and villains. All of those debates are, at base, about national self-definition. Americans have conducted these kinds of debates before; in the 1860s, they led to the failure of democracy, and ultimately civil war. I’m not saying we’ll end up there again—the conflicts of the 21st century will not resemble the conflicts of the 19th century—but it’s important to remember that failure is possible.

Murphy: The Atlantic articles collected in this book cover a wide range of topics—politics, national security, race, inequality, education, the economy, health, social trends. Together, they reflect the systemic nature of the crisis. Is there one subject that illuminates them all?

Applebaum: The pandemic did present a unique kind of test. Not only has it offered a special challenge for a health-care system that does not cover all citizens; not only has it caused profound problems for America’s precarious labor force; not only has it taken an unusual toll on underfunded school systems—beyond all that, it has also tested our sense of social solidarity. Stopping the spread of the virus requires an enormous degree of cooperation as well as trust in public-health advice. But cooperation, in turn, requires precisely that elusive sense of unity, that feeling of common purpose, we no longer share.

Murphy: When you think back on American history, which moments seem to you to resonate most with our own times? And as someone who has written widely about other democracies and other cultures, do you see parallels beyond our shores?

Applebaum: Without meaning to sound overly dramatic, I do think that the years leading up to the Civil War bear some important lessons. At that time, the most important goal of the southern states was to maintain parity with the northern states, so that they would not get outvoted and lose the argument over slavery. That was why they fought so hard to spread the institution of slavery to new states joining the Union. They created crisis after crisis before concluding, after Lincoln’s election, that they could no longer win democratically. That was when they seceded.

There is a parallel with the Trump-era Republican Party, whose base—aging, mostly white, mostly suburban or rural—has little hope of winning national majorities for much longer. Some party leaders have concluded that they can no longer win democratically. And so they will try to win undemocratically: pumping out disinformation, gerrymandering congressional districts, hindering the vote, even now undermining the post office. Slowly, the Republican Party, like the Confederate South, is transforming itself into an authoritarian institution that seeks not to preserve American democracy but to destroy it.

In the rest of the world, there are dozens if not hundreds of parallels, past and present. Most recently, the rise of authoritarian political parties in Hungary and Poland have precipitated crises in those countries. Nor is this a European problem: The authoritarian ruling parties in Turkey and the Philippines have done the same.

Murphy: When you look beyond specific issues—the polarization, the pandemic, the racism, the failures of government, the devaluation of truth, the corrosion of justice, the public corruption—the crisis that underlies everything seems to be a crisis of legitimacy. How is legitimacy lost?

Applebaum: Through the concrete actions of people who seek to destroy it. Ever since he began promoting birtherism, Trump has sought to convince followers that the institutions of American democracy and of the American state are illegitimate. First President Obama was illegitimate; then the media were illegitimate; now the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the federal bureaucracy, the leaders of the military—they are all illegitimate. I fear that a part of the left has also begun to see American institutions as illegitimate, or at least unreformable. If, as the most extreme proponents of critical race theory say, all white people are by definition racist, then the American political system, created by white people, is by definition irredeemable. And if it is irredeemable, then there is no reason to preserve it. Right now this is a very extreme, very minority view, but it is being expressed loud enough to have traction and influence.

Murphy: Some societies prove capable of reinventing themselves. America has done so in the past, more than once. Do societies that can regenerate have certain core attributes? And if so, what are they? Does America have them still?

Applebaum: The way forward is to rediscover or redefine “who we are” in a way that most of us can embrace. This is an incredibly difficult task, because you can’t just legislate it, and you can’t make it happen overnight. The Trump presidency has shattered many Americans’ faith in the unity of our nation, causing them to lose any feeling of empathy for their fellow citizens. Reconstructing this feeling will not be easy, and it will require efforts from above and below.

We will need leaders who can tell a story that does not reject history, does not make excuses for history, but instead finds the best elements of our history and uses them to construct a plan to move forward. We will also need volunteer organizations and civic groups who can pull people together, who can tackle the problems in their communities. America has had both in the past; I hope we can produce them again in the future.

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