The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.
“Four years ago, we uncovered a deep and boiling anger across the country engulfing our political system,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, which conducted this survey in partnership with the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. “Four years later, with a very different political leader in place, that anger remains at the same level.”
The poll finds strong pessimism about the future of the country, even though the economy is strong. Just wait till the next recession! And look at this:
As reader Sean P., who sent me the link to the news story about the poll, said:
So to sum up: we have an angry, young, rootless generation with little love for their country, no adherence to any higher moral authority, and little interest in investing in future generations.
Yep, bright days ahead for the American republic!
Cheer, up, Sean P.! We have The New York Times and the elites running the cultural and educational institutions of this country teaching the next generation that the real founding of America was on slavery.
Those under 40 don’t believe in God, their country, or having children (which is to say, the future), but they do believe in fulfilling themselves. They have nothing to live for except themselves and their jobs. Here we see the fulfillment of sociologist Christian Smith’s diagnosis of the beliefs of young Americans from his own data (quoted in The Benedict Option):
“All that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
A nation cannot survive on that. America is not going to make it without radical change. Those who don’t believe in anything beyond themselves aren’t going to have what it takes to endure. Those who don’t believe in God, in the nation, or the family aren’t going to have a future.
Those who do believe in God, the nation, and the family just might — but they’ve got to prepare to fight for these things. And not — please pay attention here — simply by resisting enemies Out There. The greatest enemies are within ourselves and our own communities, especially our unwillingness to see what’s happening around us, and take action.
If you think politics alone are capable of addressing this crisis, ask yourself why after three years of Trump, people are just as angry on balance today as they were three years ago. If you think four more years of Trump, or a Democratic president, is going to make a big difference, you’re dreaming.
If you think the go-along-to-get-along middle-class churches are giving Christian people what they need to endure this current crisis, which is only going to worsen, you’re beyond naive. We can’t just blame failed church leadership; there’s a problem of followership too. I hear from pastors who tell me that their congregations are afraid of the decline-and-fall happening all around them, but are even more afraid of the idea that they have to change their way of living to meet the grave challenges. They don’t want responsibility. I also hear from Christians who are taking risks to stand up to the spread of anti-Christian bigotry, and institutional wokeness, in the name of old-fashioned liberal democratic standards. You know what discourages them? The fact that so many others see the wrongdoing and injustice, but will not risk their comfortable lives to take any kind of stand.
In some cases, these Christians are living on the junk food of #MAGA fantasy. And look, if you think cheap, tinsel-and-pasteboard #MAGA patriotism is going to be enough to counter the assault on the meaning of America by liberal elites, you’re bringing firecrackers and Roman candles to the battlefield. This past week, thinking about the Times‘s radical slavery project, I’ve been reconsidering my own criticism (from the Right) of our liberal democratic constitutional order. The foundational flaws in that order haven’t disappeared, but I’ve been thinking that I’m probably guilty of ingratitude for it. Given what human beings are, it’s kind of a miracle that the Founders were able to create this system, and make it so durable. John Adams famously warned: “Human passions unbridled by morality and religion…would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.” He meant that ordered liberty and self-government depends on a people bound by shared beliefs that transcend self-interest, and anchor the individual in a framework of meaning.
What do you think John Adams would say if he saw the results of that NBC/WSJ poll, and what it says about the future of the Republic?
Fewer than one in three Americans under 40 say belief in God is important. What a colossal failure by the church (the institutions, as well as families)! And fewer than one in three Americans believe it’s important to have children. What has happened to us? If we lose the church and the family, the nation is lost too. An America that is devoted to nothing but preserving the ability for autonomous individuals to enjoy their lives will not be able to survive.
The future is not determined in advance. But the crisis is upon us. We have clearly become a decadent people — those numbers don’t lie — and it may be too late to turn things around. We may be at the point where the people who believe in the old virtues need to follow what Alasdair MacIntyre said that the early Benedictines did in the ruins of the Roman Empire. In the philosopher’s take, they
turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
That is to say, they figured the Roman Empire for lost, and instead focused on building up the kinds of communities that could survive the waves of violence and chaos to come. We shouldn’t imagine that the early Benedictines lived comfortable lives behind their monastery walls. They suffered the violence that was general in early medieval Europe — including bloodshed. But they had built into their communal lives the faith and the practices that enabled them to endure the worst that the world have to inflict. And because they created these things for themselves, they were able to share the fruits of their prayer and their labor with those who lived around them.
You know this story from me. I’m not going to bore you with it again. I’m going to say this, though: the American order has not fallen. If it is going to be saved, it will have been saved by those whose hearts and minds were formed by strong religious faith, strong families, and strong communities of families.
One more quote from the NBC/WSJ poll story:
“There is an emerging America where issues like children, religion, and patriotism are far less important,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies. “And in America, it’s the emerging generation that calls the shots about where the country’s headed.”
America’s future is going to be childless, godless, and unpatriotic. Which is to say, there won’t be a future for that kind of America. Changing political leadership will not cause people to believe in God again, or desire children, or love their country more. These things go much deeper than politics. However, you can be quite sure that some political leader will come along — a man of the Left, perhaps, or of the Right — who will speak powerfully into the vacuum in the hearts of the emerging generation. He will promise them relief from their despair, and faith in the future, without having to do anything other than trust him and his vision. We know where this leads, because we saw it emerge in the previous century, in Europe.
The American liberal elites are destroying the country’s ability to sustain itself, and the conservative elites — including Donald Trump — are either utterly clueless about the nature of the crisis, or are flailing ineffectively in the face of it.
It is time for churches, families, and communities of faith to have some very serious conversations among themselves. The signs of the times are written in flashing neon.
UPDATE: In his comment on this thread, reader Jonah R. said that this poll confirms his biases, but he suspects that had his parents been asked these same questions when they were in the 18 to 38 age range, they would have scored about as low as the Millennials and Gen Z respondents. I was able to go to the granular data on the NBC/WSJ poll (so you can you, here), and to see a comparison with those polled in 1998. These numbers aren’t broken down by generational demographic, but there has clearly been a substantial overall decline in Religion and Having Children, and a meaningful decline in Patriotism. Notice, though, that Community Involvement is way up in terms of importance today over 1998, and Hard Work has also climbed significantly:
UPDATE.2: From a 2004 address Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered in Italy. First Things published it in 2006, after Ratzinger became Benedict XVI:
At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity. At the same time as its sustaining spiritual forces have collapsed, a growing decline in its ethnicity is also taking place.
Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as though they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen—at least by some people—as a liability rather than as a source of hope. Here it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice its vital energy had been depleted.
America is not Europe, in this sense, but we’re getting there.