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Desperate Times
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Desperate Times

A grim poll and a paralyzed country.

(Photo of Joe Biden by Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images. Photo of Donald Trump by Robert Perry/Getty Images.)

I don’t remember the 1970s, and for that I’m forever grateful.

No one who does remember remembers that decade fondly, it seems. So I pose this question to Dispatch readers of a certain age: Was our national malaise really worse then than it is now?

It was in some respects. I’ve never had to wait on a gas line, for instance. And not since I was a teenager have I worried about an expansionist superpower in Asia dragging us into conflict.

But that last part is changing. And some hallmarks of the 1970s, like inflation and losing long wars and corrupt Republican presidents narrowly avoiding being toppled by Congress, have already returned.

This is on my mind because we were reminded repeatedly this past week that the country looks incapable of solving its biggest problems and, in some respects, even seems disinterested in doing so. America has faced harder times, lord knows, but in my memory it’s never been more paralyzed in the teeth of crisis than it is now.

Those reminders were capped this weekend, not coincidentally, by the release of one of the most discouraging polls you’ll ever see for an incumbent president.

One way that the 1970s do compare favorably to our era was the public’s willingness to hold their leaders accountable when they failed at governing. In 1974 Americans punished the GOP for Watergate by handing Democrats a supermajority in the House. In 1980 they punished Democrats for the Carter years by handing Republicans a presidential landslide. That’s democracy at its nimblest: When something isn’t working, the people try something different.

That is not the position in which we find ourselves in 2023.

Do you know how long it’s been since even a plurality of Americans have said that America is moving in the right direction?

RealClearPolitics has been tracking the polling average on that question since Barack Obama’s first month in office. In 14 years, never once has the share who believe the United States is headed in the wrong direction dipped below the share who say otherwise. (In June 2009, the two sides briefly reached parity at 45.8 percent apiece.) Since the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, with rare exceptions, “wrong direction” has routinely outpolled “right direction” by 20 points or more. For most of Biden’s presidency, the gap has been north of 30 points.

I skimmed Gallup’s polling on a similar question, whether people are satisfied or dissatisfied with how things are going in the U.S., as I was curious to find the last time before 2009 that “satisfied” had the edge. The answer: January 2004, when “mission accomplished” in Iraq still seemed somewhat credible. Barring an unlikely turnaround this summer and fall, we’ll mark 20 full years of dissatisfaction across four different presidencies as the next primaries are beginning.

In fact, starting from when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, “satisfied” has been below 40 percent every time the question has been asked, apart from a brief spell in 2020 before the pandemic. By the time Trump left office, in the wake of the insurrection, “satisfied or dissatisfied?” was polling at 11-88.

And public sentiment has yet to meaningfully recover. Under Joe Biden, since the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, the share who say they’re dissatisfied has stood at, or exceeded, 75 percent every time Gallup has asked.

Think of it. Seventy-five percent.

There’s much one could say here about how the internet age democratized political media and campaign fundraising, polarizing the parties’ respective bases and creating perverse incentives for their representatives. Half the country is primed by the media it consumes to believe that the end of America is near when the other party takes power; among the other half, a meaningful minority believe its leaders are sellouts and ideologically indistinguishable from the enemy. Good luck getting the “right track/wrong track” question on the right track amid that dynamic. The digital era has made populism easy and contentment hard.

But it’s too glib to treat deep, abiding public dissatisfaction as a pure artifact of media manipulation. We’re beset by enduring crises we’re unwilling or unable to confront. 

This weekend brought another mass shooting. Whenever one happens, Democrats demand that “something” be done while seldom specifying what that something should be or how it might reduce massacres. Banning sales of new assault weapons would do nothing about the millions of AR-15s already in existence, after all. And the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history was carried out with handguns.

Republicans have all but given up on responding to mass shootings, meanwhile, typically mumbling about prayers or reducing the numbers of doors on buildings or “something something mental health” in the aftermath. If they wanted, they could undertake a cultural program to discourage gun fetishism while defending the right to bear arms, arguing—to borrow a phrase—that gun ownership should be safe, legal, and rare. Instead they choose to wear AR-15 pins on their lapels.

We’re less than a year away from the 25th anniversary of the Columbine horror. The closest we’ve come to solving the problem of mass shootings since then is quietly resolving to live with them.

This weekend also brought news that leaders from both parties will sit down on Tuesday at the White House to try to make a deal on raising the debt ceiling before the Treasury Department defaults. The debt-ceiling standoff is the perfect political stunt of our unserious era insofar as it’s been manufactured for partisan theatrics, has created a considerable risk of disaster, and will have practically no upside if it’s resolved amicably. Brinkmanship of this sort might be worth risking in order to address the true threat to fiscal sustainability, ballooning entitlement spending and debt servicing, but entitlement reform is the one thing both parties agree is off limits.

More than a decade ago, when Paul Ryan warned of a looming crisis, the national debt stood at less than $15 trillion. It’s doubled since then. Yet the frontrunner for the Republican nomination is scaremongering about cuts to Medicare and Social Security as doggedly as any Bernie Sanders acolyte might.

The nationalist takeover of the GOP under Trump amounted to a bipartisan surrender on averting an entitlement-driven fiscal calamity before one arrives. Neither party is willing to risk an electoral backlash to do the right thing, so the right thing won’t be done. We’re leaning into the catastrophe to come by choosing to address social spending only after it’s too late to do so without major disruption.

While the debt ceiling crisis plays out in Washington, the crisis at the southern border is entering uncharted waters. Some 3 million crossings were recorded by federal authorities in the first 18 months of Biden’s administration, an astounding number that would have been worse if not for the Trump-era policy authorizing border agents to make asylum applicants wait in Mexico. Biden is ending that policy, a byproduct of the pandemic, at midnight on Thursday evening.

Officials are expecting an historic crush.

When the pandemic-inspired restrictions end, border officials will resume an immigration system that has largely failed for decades, but with the added pressure of three years of pent-up demand. About 35,000 migrants are amassed in Ciudad Juárez, another 15,000 in Tijuana and thousands more elsewhere on the Mexican side of the 2,000-mile-long border.

No one is certain what will happen after Thursday. The federal government is expecting as many as 13,000 migrants each day immediately after the measure expires, up from about 6,000 on a typical day. But asked what is likely to happen, one official posted along the border told reporters, “I have no idea” and said of a possible surge: “I think it’s already here.”

It used to be that, once a decade or so, members of Congress on both sides would try to get together on a comprehensive immigration deal that would trade legal status for illegal immigrants who are already here for beefed-up border security. But the last serious effort was 2013; a Trump-led Republican Party won’t acquiesce to legalization for any concession and a Democratic Party captive to open-borders progressives won’t embrace border security.

And so another problem that’s persisted for decades continues to go unaddressed even as it metastasizes in plain sight.

The sense one has from each of these crises is that America is off the rails, careening from disaster to disaster at an accelerating rate and paralyzed utterly as to what to do about it. That sense deepens when you consider social ills that aren’t as visible in news coverage but are quite visible to the average person in daily life, like the raging fentanyl epidemic and the explosive rise in children attempting suicide. Or crime so vexingly prevalent that businesses need to change how they function in order to cope with it.

This country has even begun to see its average life expectancy drop, beyond what one would expect from the spike in deaths due to COVID during the pandemic. 

These are all symptoms of a sick society, one that would benefit greatly from dynamic leadership. But it’s unlikely that we’ll choose to grant that to ourselves next year even though our theoretical ability to do so is one of the blessings of democracy.

Which is itself evidence of sickness.

That brings us to the discouraging poll I mentioned earlier.

Our own Jonah Goldberg set the stage for it in an appearance on CNN on Sunday, flabbergasted by the absurdity of a rematch between two mental defectives.

As we saw earlier, public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has spanned the last four presidencies. Yet here we are, somehow prepared to renominate two of those four presidents in 2024.

In context, the fact that their combined age will be 160 on Inauguration Day 2025 feels like a sly joke. What better symbol of our total demoralization as a nation than doubling down on the same two unpopular elderly retreads we chose in 2020, each a bit feebler physically and mentally than he used to be?

The poll, conducted by ABC and the Washington Post, finds Biden’s job approval at 36 percent. Among Democratic-leaning adults, just 36 percent want to see him nominated again versus 58 percent who want someone new. The share of Americans who believe he’s not mentally sharp enough to serve effectively as president continues to rise, from 43 percent in 2020 to 54 percent last year to 63 percent now. That share includes 69 percent of independents and 21 percent of his own party.

As for Trump, clear majorities of Americans believe he should face criminal charges for how he mishandled classified documents, how he instigated events leading up to January 6, and how he tried to overturn the 2020 election. Forty-three percent believe he too isn’t mentally sharp enough to serve effectively as president. The same share believe that he and Biden are both too old for another term, a plurality position.

We’ve grown accustomed to “lesser of two evils” elections, but there’s never been one like this. Among Americans who say Biden isn’t mentally fit to serve, 12 percent would definitely or probably vote for him over Trump anyway. Among those who say Trump should be charged for trying to overturn the election, 18 percent prefer him to Biden nonetheless.

There are reasons to question how seriously to take this poll but the fact remains that limiting ourselves to a choice between a likely criminal and a potential invalid is not what a serious people determined to confront serious problems would do. It feels like capitulation, albeit in two forms so different as to be poles apart. Democratic capitulation amid endless intractable crises is to simulate normalcy by sticking with the known-est known commodity in politics, Joe Biden. He won’t solve any national problems, but in the future some younger and more able Democratic president might. Just hang on until then and keep the increasingly sinister Republican Party out of power.

Republican capitulation takes the form of sticking with the loosest loose cannon in politics, Donald Trump. When the country seems off the rails, a strongman who’s off the rails himself is the only candidate capable of action bold enough to force it back onto the track. If our crises have proved intractable, that goes to show that conventional American political leadership has been unequal to the task of addressing them. We need fresh thinking on change—from a man who already had the job for four years and didn’t change much except for the number of near-coups the country has experienced.

There’s always Ron DeSantis, I suppose, who slots more easily into the Ronald Reagan role than does Trump if we’re imagining 2024 as a “change election” a la 1980. But DeSantis isn’t the leader of an ideological revolution, as Reagan was; he’s a disciple of one, trying to somehow unseat the actual leader in the coming primary. And the political brand he’s cultivating for himself—a noun, a verb, and “woke”—also seems unequal to the moment.

There’s little reason, in short, to believe Americans will be much more satisfied with the direction of the country two years from now than they are today, dissatisfied as they are. One wonders how much longer that can go on without a rupture.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.