One of President Clinton’s main challenges in his second term is going to be trying to move the United States away from a self-conception as a nation in crisis. It’s a problem partly of his own making. In his 1995 State of the Union address, for example, delivered right on the heels of the big Republican sweep in the 1994 elections, Clinton said, “[Fad more than our material riches are threatened; things far more precious to us—our children, our families, our values. . . The values that used to hold us together seem to be coming apart?’ That was the speech in which he called for a New Covenant that would address America’s problems “above all, how can we repair the damaged bonds in our society. . .”

In saying this, Clinton was not imposing his own eccentric views on the rest of us. He probably had been reading polls that told him such sentiments would strike a responsive chord, and even if he hadn’t, many other people were painting the same picture more luridly. Newt Gingrich has a standard speech line that reads, “No civilization can survive with 12-year-olds having babies, with 15-year-olds killing each other, with 17-year-olds dying of AIDS, with 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t read.” A stream of books about the fraying of the American social fabric has been published over the last few years; the current occupant of the best-seller list in this category, whose title says it all, is Robert Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

It will be very difficult for us to explain to our grandchildren why the United States in the mid-1990s thought of itself in such a bleak way. Our country is as triumphant as any has ever been. We have no external enemies who pose a real threat. We are at peace. We are not in a depression or a recession. The unemployment rate is relatively low. The political system is stable. Compared to the run of American history, let alone world history, this is an unusually calm moment.

Even if you take it as a given that Americans are going to pick something to handwring about, pervasive social decay is not the obvious choice. All through the 1980s and up through the 1992 presidential election, the main national concern was with the economy, not the society. You would think that if social concerns came to the fore during the past five years, it would be in response to alarming social developments over that time. In fact, it has been a phenomenon floating free of reality, driven by no actual contemporary developments.

The standard litany of our social problems is, roughly: crime, drugs, illegitimacy, deteriorating schools, divorce, welfare dependency, and poverty. None of the indicators in these areas is currently rising dramatically, and several are falling—most notably, crime rates. The divorce rate peaked between 1979 and 1981 and has been declining modestly since. School completion rates are steady among whites and rising among blacks. The proportion of children born out of wedlock has been holding steady since 1990. Household median income has begun to rise, and the poverty rate has begun to fall. What the policy-wonk community has fixed on as the one current trend most worth being alarmed about, rising income inequality—between 1977 and 1992, average family income for the poorest fifth of Americans decreased by 17 percent while it increased for the richest fifth by 28 percent, and for the richest hundredth by 91 percent—is often written about, but almost never discussed by politicians in election campaigns in the way that social breakdown is.

What can explain the popularity of the perception of a social crisis, then? A few possibilities come to mind:

• Delayed reaction. Social trends like crime, divorce, illegitimacy, dropout rates, and drug-taking, which we identify with the culture of the 1960s, all rose most steeply during the 1970s. The reason is that cultural developments spread gradually from a few to the many: What dozens of young people in Haight-Ashbury were doing in 1967, millions of young people were doing (in watered-down form) in Omaha and Peoria 10 years later. Official social commentators didn’t catch this, because in the ’60s they had been focused on places like Haight-Ashbury and in the ’70s they were focused on the ’60s being over. Only now is the enormity of the social changes of 20 years ago sinking in among the American leadership—and these changes, after all, haven’t been completely reversed, but rather have drifted a little down from the high plateau.

• Metropolitanization, especially in the Sunbelt. All the attention given to the shrinkage of American cities obscures the steady, constant growth of metropolitan areas, which now account for more than three-quarters of the American population. In the South and Southwest, metropolitan areas are growing rapidly. They tend to be populated by people from surrounding small towns and rural areas who find themselves arrived in a much more permissive culture than they have been used to. This helps explain the popularity, in Sunbelt suburbia, of Pentecostal churches, and also of the Christian Coalition, which, because it is so good at turning out social-issue voters, has done more than any other single political force to put the perception of social breakdown on the national agenda.

• Everything seems different, and therefore disturbing. The surface feeling of American middle-class life has changed quite a lot over the last generation. The biggest change, by far, is the replacement of the upwardly mobile male breadwinner and housewife as the dominant family type by the staying-afloat family of two working parents and a child-care provider.

Another important change is the exponential widening—beyond a fairly constructed, safe, wholesome band of programming material—of what’s available on television, in popular recordings, and in other cultural media. Big changes by definition leave people feeling dislocated; doomsday views of the situation are an easy sell.

• The world is a ghetto. For most of the twentieth century, crime, marital instability, out-of-wedlock childbearing, drug use, and poor education have been very high in the self-contained world of the black poor, and much, much lower among whites. Over the last 25 years, the prevalence of all these phenomena has risen, from a low base, in white America—much more than it has in black America. So whites are now much more aware of them, both as problems in the ghettos and as potential problems outside the ghettos. The perception of crisis is, in a sense, simply an acknowledgment of personal risk by the white middle class.

But to understand why the feeling that our society is falling apart has taken hold is one thing. To pander to that feeling is another.

Wild rhetorical overkill is bad in and of itself. It cheapens the currency of political talk. How many 12-year-olds, really, are having babies? When there actually is a crisis, what will there be left to say that will rouse the nation, and not be discounted by a public that has been hearing inflated talk for years?

When politicians use the easy, dramatic language of social crisis, it has a strange disabling effect on the government. The biggest language guns are being hauled out, the deepest and most intimate connection to the public forged, with regard to a problem that government can’t do much about. If you define the country’s big problem as being insufficient health care coverage, then the connection to government action is obvious. If you define the country’s big problem as “values,” it’s a way of signaling that the government is good and important (because it is alarmed) without making a commitment to government’s doing anything, except for small, symbolic gestures like promoting the V-chip. The more central that government officials make social disarray appear to be, the less central government becomes as a problem-solving institution in the society.

Finally, universalizing any problem makes it more difficult to fix. Public schools are a good example. It isn’t that “public school” doesn’t work, it’s that some public school systems have been allowed to deteriorate dangerously. If a finite number of schools are the problem, then it’s possible to think of a solution. If schools, generally, are the problem, then we have to throw up our hands, or think in terms of squishy, impossible missions like changing the entire ethos of the society.

America’s social and economic problems are heavily concentrated at the lower end of the society. The whole society isn’t in crisis. Saying that it is only permit’s the crisis that is going on not to be solve

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.