The historical roots of America’s discontent

This is the first of two columns grappling with this unsettling fact. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction. And a Gallup Poll reported that between 75 percent and 81 percent of Americans last year were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the state of their lives and conditions in the U.S. Why?

This column explains how we got here. Next week, I’ll recommend how to change course.

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Just 60 years ago, about the same percentage of Americans who believed the nation was headed in the wrong direction and were dissatisfied (77 percent in the 1964 Gallup Poll) trusted the U.S. government and most institutions. Today the latter number is 20 percent. What happened to America along the way to turn citizens against the government and generate huge dissatisfaction with life?

Not only government is held in disregard. Name one institution or group – from law and police to clergy, media, teachers, politicians and the military – that is viewed favorably today. 

This tragic story began on Aug. 4, 1964, in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of North Vietnam. Incredibly, an unfortunate military incident would set the U.S. on a ruinous path. Several days before, the U.S. destroyer Maddox had been attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats. Maddox was not hit.

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In company with the destroyer USS Turner Joy, Maddox was ordered to resume the DeSoto Patrol 100 miles off the coast. At night, both ships reported radar contacts evaluated as an attacking PT boat raid and opened fire. Aircraft from the carrier USS Ticonderoga were called in and did not find any North Vietnamese units. There was no second attack.

On Aug. 7, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing the war. Only two of 535 members of Congress voted against the bill. We would lose and leave a decade later.

Both the Johnson and subsequent Nixon administrations dissembled and lied about the war. The end of the tunnel was always in sight. The next 30,000 or 40,000 troop increases would bring the war closer to success. Fifty-eight thousand American and countless Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian deaths later, the North won. America was never the same.

A litany of events would continue to erode and ultimately obliterate trust in government. Watergate shocked the nation. The Carter administration was seen as incapable. The failed raid to free American hostages seized from the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan made America look weak. The misery index of inflation and interest rates soared above 20 percent, underscoring a flagging economy. For a brief time, the Reagan administration attempted to reverse this malaise, a term that President Carter never used but that was used against him. But embarrassments in the Cabinet, his mental capacity and the Iran-Contra fiasco nearly derailed Reagan, whose popularity probably saved him from impeachment. All this hurt public regard for government.

George H. W. Bush was perhaps the most successful of post-war presidents since Ike. Not only did he redeem America’s military standing with the extraordinary “hundred hour” campaign to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Bush presided over the peaceful implosion of the Soviet Union. And Bush’s economic policies were about to deliver a boom. He was not reelected.

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President Clinton was impeached over an affair he denied. The younger Bush invaded Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Under Barack Obama, cleavages with Republicans worsened. And Donald Trump’s personality could only provoke hostility, even with Republicans.

Concurrently, Congress lost its way. Bipartisanship disappeared. The other side was the enemy, not a partner in government.

President Biden’s term is half over. About half the public opposes him. And the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, along with mishandling of classified material, has hurt.

What to do? Short of bringing Professor Pangloss, the mentor to Candide in Voltaire’s inspired book of the same name first published in 1759, to life, the list is not long. The derivative “Panglossian” means excessive optimism facing extreme hardship. But can optimism work in today’s divisive and pernicious politics?

One can reject or accept Pangloss’s optimism. Today, however, opportunity provides the basis for optimism. That means exploiting technology. The hard part is making that work. Stay tuned on how to do that.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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