At Newsweek in the old days, they called it “the violin.” At Time, where I worked, we spoke of the “mood of the nation.” It referred to an article, leading the magazine’s national news section in certain weeks, that in a sequence of anecdotes, quotes and generalizations would tell Americans what they were feeling and thinking at that particular moment.
A stupid idea, I told myself when I sat down to write one of these things: How could anyone presume to describe the “mood” of more than 200 million people? And yet by the time I finished writing the piece, I often found I had changed my mind and decided the conceit had some validity—that it might honestly touch on thoughts and emotions that Americans shared for a moment. You could see the country whole—or glimpse it. It did not seem wrong to generalize as long as you didn’t get carried away. I found this was true even in the thick of the Vietnam War, the period that was the seedbed of the divisions of our own time.
Can there be such a thing as national mood in a country as big and diverse as the U.S.? Consider that the country’s moral, emotional and political atmosphere was radically different on Sept. 12, 2001, from what it had been on Sept. 10. You could say the same thing about Nov. 23, 1963, the day after John Kennedy’s assassination, and Dec. 8, 1941, after Pearl Harbor.
National mood may crystallize under the pressure of crisis: a sudden clarity. You didn’t need polls to understand it. We feel distinctive national moods in quieter times, too, though in more elusive, contradictory patterns. Sometimes the river is fairly smooth. Sometimes the country goes over Niagara Falls.
At worst, one tremendous mood will collide with another. It was no use for Abraham Lincoln to appeal in his first inaugural to the “mystic chords of memory”—to a reverence for the history that Americans had in common. Too late. The country went ahead with the Civil War.
The attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 crossed a line from rhetoric to physical force and mayhem—even though the assault also had a dazed, sleepwalking, zombie quality. The open-ended riots in city after city last summer crossed the same line—though they came to be numbly acquiesced in, either as deserved punishment for the knee on George Floyd’s neck or as one more rotten misery in a terrible year. By now, Americans have almost gotten used to the idea of being at war with one another. It’s not Chickamauga, but it’s sort of dangerous.
In the past year, the national psyche has suffered a compound fracture. It’s fair to say that much. We forget that these things happen from time to time. It was during the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, in the time of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and Franklin Roosevelt’s war on the “economic royalists,” that the novelist John Dos Passos wrote, “All right we are two nations.” He was not speaking of his own time, however, but of the controversial Sacco-Vanzetti case a decade earlier, in which two anarchists were executed for murder. It divided the country into ideological classes that are direct ancestors of today’s. The issue of immigration was at the heart of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair; so were leftism (communism or socialism) and a conservative appeal to American values (an earlier version of MAGA). There were anarchist bombings, race riots, Klan marches, the works. The American right and left were at each other’s throats. The Spanish flu had just killed between 20 million and 50 million people world-wide, 675,000 of them in the U.S.
Right now, Americans are in a bad mood. They have good reason. They are divided. But for much of its career, the country has been two nations. Binaries are the real American way: North and South, slave holder and abolitionist, frontier and Ellis Island, East and West, urban and rural, labor and management, strikers and Pinkertons, gold and silver, wet and dry, hawk and dove, black and white, Indian and paleface. Trump and woke.
One big difference in 2021 is the screens. In the old America, there were far fewer versions of the country’s story available to choose from. But the 21st century’s never-sleeping screens churn forth myriad narratives. Information is democratized and weaponized. In the floating world of the internet, only the old hierarchies of myth are suspect. Special-interest “identities” come forward with urgent claims as to race and gender and social justice and equity. There are doubts as to whether America is a good country, as it once believed itself to be, or a wicked one that must be overturned and replaced—and, indeed, whether schools can be named after Abraham Lincoln any longer because he was, contrary to everything you previously believed, a “white supremacist.”
In this environment, the country’s old master narrative is on track to be first disreputable, then forgotten: canceled. Americans can’t stand to think themselves immoral. Irreconcilable, each side claims, in a sort of theological way, to be the right and righteous one. No wonder the nation’s mood is poisonous.
Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.