Op-Ed: America is sick, and both liberals and conservatives are wrong about the remedy

Residents in Dayton, Ohio, comfort each other as they await word on the identities of victims of a mass shooting.
(Associated Press)

America is sick. Just about everybody recognizes it, and we didn’t need two more mass shootings to convince anybody of anything. Most Americans think the country is on the wrong track, despite a roaring economy. You can blame President Trump, but Americans have been unsatisfied with the country’s direction for most of the last two decades.

Amazingly, given the level of partisan animosity in this country, both sides see the problem much the same way: The country is plagued by selfishness, alienation, variously defined bigotries, inequality and a lack of social solidarity. Even more bizarre, both the right and the left have very similar solutions in mind.

About the problem, both are largely right. About the remedy, both are very wrong.

On the right, a growing number of intellectuals see nationalism as the cure for what ails us. Definitions vary, but all nationalists emphasize a renewed passion for America as a distinct culture or people and not just an “idea.” The Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth argues that nationalism is an idea whose time has come (again) because it reminds us “of our dependence on one another.” He likens it to the religious “Great Awakenings” of the past. Catholic writer Sohrab Ahmari wants an awakening that delivers “order,” “social cohesion” and policies aimed at the “Highest Good” – in the classical philosophic sense (summum bonum).

On the left, listen closely to the proselytizers of the new socialist awakening. You’ll notice that it has less to do with economics than a yearning for a more cooperative and egalitarian alternative to selfish capitalism driven not by nationalism but government — which is “the only thing we all belong to,” as a video at the 2012 Democratic Convention asserted.


The vocabulary they use is different, but the underlying indictment of the status quo is remarkably similar. Nationalism is an obscenity to the left and socialism is anathema for the right, but a nationalizing or centralizing spirit suffuses both sides.

Team Trump’s “economic nationalism” has echoes of the “economic patriotism” of Elizabeth Warren, who speaks with an almost Trumpian passion when she talks about how the “system is rigged.” A slew of wannabe GOP successors to Trump, with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in the lead, seem desperate to craft a new “daddy state” industrial policy for right-wingers.

As a conservative of a classically liberal bent, I find this new convergence of left and right dismaying and disheartening. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point that something is very wrong. You only have to look at the rising suicide rates, opioid deaths, declining life expectancy and, of course, the onslaught of mass shootings to see the country’s despair. A recent survey found that more than a fifth of millennials say they have no friends, a poignant illustration of the loneliness crisis that probably has at least as much to do with mass shootings as white supremacy or video games.

Where everyone loses me is the idea that the solution to these maladies can be found in Washington or in nationalizing movements of the right or the left.

One of the reasons social media is so toxic is that it is a nationalizing force; it makes us feel like strangers thousands of miles away are neighbors — and we get mad when neighbors are living the “wrong” way. Cable news does the same thing, just with better production values, plucking anecdotal stories and making them part of a “national conversation.” The problem is that there’s no such thing as an actual national conversation.

What we need is communities, and the idea of national community is a myth. Conversation is done face-to-face and person-to-person, and so is community.


The nationalization of culture drives centralized government, and centralized government saps communities of mutual dependence. It renders the rich ecosystem between the individual and the state obsolete, yet it is that habitat where humans actually live and find meaning.

The nationalizing movements aim to fill the void left by the decline or disappearance of not just industrial jobs, but of the healthy communities that grew up around the factories.

Government has a role in dealing with the challenges of globalization and automation, but these movements cannot fill the holes in our souls. And the prospect that either side is eager to try only raises the stakes for the other. This is how nationalization fuels winner-take-all polarization. When each tribe seeks to impose a one-size-fits-all “Highest Good” on all Americans, the paranoid belief that “all we hold dear” is at stake at the ballot box metastasizes for many.

And, for a few, ballots give way to bullets.