February 08, 2023

NOWLAN: Do you, like me, suffer from malaise?

In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter supposedly worried that Americans were suffering from collective malaise, the French word for an underlying feeling of discomfort, uneasiness. Carter was roundly ridiculed. A few years later, President Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1984 on the theme, in sharp contrast: “It’s morning again in America.” Whether that were true, the Reagan positivity fueled his successful re-election.

But today, I do feel a sense of personal malaise about how things are going in our country. Do you feel like I do? And if so, why, and what can we do about it?

The present brutal winter doesn’t help, of course, and the prolonged pandemic has made me appreciate how much I miss my former, lively social life with friends. Yet, I think my malaise goes deeper.

For example, I am sorely distressed by the continuing, deep polarization, even enmity, in Washington and across the country between otherwise generally decent people on both sides of the Trump/anti-Trump divide.

Second, the pandemic has resulted in a lost year of effective schooling for many, maybe most kids. I fear this will worsen the gaps that exist in American education. We can’t seem to reduce much the yawning gap between the achievement of minorities and whites. Nor, for that matter, the big gap in achievement between whites and Asian-Americans, as well as overseas Asian students.

Further, there appears to be American — probably worldwide — obsession with the pursuit of “things,” as if owning stuff will comfort, amuse, satisfy us. Yet, we seem no happier overall.

To me, the above adds up to a worry over general American decline. Worse, I have the sense that many of my friends are resigned to this.

Alas, malaise. But what to do about it?

First, short-term and practical, I think we need a massive program of summer school for kids of all ages, to help them catch up. Chinese students have not lost a school year, and as I have hectored readers before, we face intense economic competition from that former, extremely proud “Middle Kingdom.” With apologies for this inapt comparison, I feel like Winston Churchill in the 1930s, crying out for his countrymen to take Hitler’s military preparations very seriously, which plaints were ignored.

As for summer school, or some such show of determination not to fall behind, we should tax ourselves to pay the significant costs of operating a major summer program. We cannot continue to overheat the printing presses with the production of endless streams of what I call funny money. First it was the $2 trillion Trump tax cut in 2017, paid for wholly with debt, and now the multi-trillions in pandemic relief, all unsupported by tax revenue.

On a larger scale, we could use “a nice little war,” to rally Americans. As to a war, “That’s a joke, son,” as Sen. Beauregard Claghorn of old-time radio used to say. Yet rulers around the globe have done just so through history, to unify citizens and distract them from problems at home.

The only alternative issue I can think of that could conceivably rally most of us is that of, “Will it be good for our grandkids?” After all, I see bumper strips: “Ask me how much I love my grandkids!” I wonder if the people in the auto really know what we are bequeathing the little ones. The unprecedented amount of debt I speak of above (approaching that of World War II) will sure not be good for our youngsters.

My very smart young friend, Jake Secrist of Farmington, suggests that our nation needs to think about updating our mission statement. Maybe, after “the pursuit of happiness,” we should, I say, add, “the pursuit of harmony, at home and around the world.” I don’t know. You fill in the blank.

Can President Joe Biden, our governors and community leaders provide the leadership to rally us somehow? And would their leadership arouse energized followers? After all, if you and I don’t rise to the occasion, it won’t happen. Life is a struggle; always will be.

I know the above paragraphs sound hokey, yet it is bedrock. Civilizations rise and fall. Yet our present, relative national slide, if it be such, is not foreordained.

For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.