On the banks of the Potomac River, guys carrying guns gathered in a Virginia park to proudly advertise the state's "open carry" law. Their compatriots gathered on the National Mall to honor the Second Amendment. They carried signs warning "Don't Tread on Me". On cable TV, Republicans speak about a "gangster government" and the need to "reload"—all innocent discourse, they claim—while on another channel, Democrats warn that such talk could lead to violence. And in Oklahoma City this week, families of those who died in the 1995 bombing are remembering their loved ones. People across the country wonder if, or when, it could all happen again.
The country is once again on edge: We worry about violence. We worry about extremism. We worry about a government run amok. We worry that the frictional energy that makes us grow—the power of never-ending argument—will in these times tear us apart, perhaps with violent results. We have these periodic nervous breakdowns. And a lot of people think we are on the verge of another. It's as if the center might not hold.
Why are we on this precipice—again? Here are eight reasons.
Legitimacy. Never in modern times have Americans been more bitterly skeptical of their political and business leaders—in other words, the people in charge. Nearly four in five don't trust the federal government, according to Pew. A recent Bloomberg poll shows that most Americans have a negative view of Wall Street, big banks, and insurance companies. Approval ratings for Congress are the lowest on record. President Obama—once stratospherically popular—is now under 50 percent. Skepticism of leaders is an American tradition, even an obligation. But this level of anger is corrosive. It can leave us feeling rudderless.
Economy. We have just been through, and have not really escaped, the worst economic decline since the Great Depression. It would be extraordinary if people weren't volatile and angry. Tens of millions of Americans feel that they have lost control of their own destiny. And worse, they are confused as to the cause. Explanations are complex, impenetrable, and unsettling: if there is a new global capital economy, what is it really? And if we can do nothing as a country to control it, of what use is orderly government?
Presidency. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, many Democratic liberals viewed him as an out-of-the-mainstream figure, and some reacted with rhetoric that bordered on the hysterical. Obama is seen as the mirror image by his opponents. Even though his proposals are hardly radical—they amount to little more than an updated version of the regulatory state—his enemies view him and them as beyond the normal, as some kind of a conspiracy against the essential character of the country. This view is more widespread than people inside the Beltway know or understand.
Politics. Democrats who are startled by the deepening reaction to Obama forget how different he is from the post-'60s run of Democratic presidents, even aside from his race, ethnicity, and name. He is a big-city, Northern liberal lawyer with two Ivy League degrees, a background in community organizing and academia, and no private sector (or even real courtroom) experience. How did they think the nonblue regions of the country were eventually going to react to Obama, once the generalized frustration with George W. Bush faded? I wish I could say that the sublime inaugural ceremony on the Mall in January 2009 was a harbinger of a new country, with new attitudes, but it wasn't. There were more than a million people there, but the Other America stayed away.
9/11 Posttraumatic Stress. In some ways we've never really dealt with the full implications and impact of the 9/11 attacks. But like a long buried personal catastrophe they will keep popping up at odd times and in odd ways. We are quicker to fear, quicker to anger, quicker to accuse. We are under much more government surveillance than before: more cameras, more wiretaps, more e-mail sweeps. We don't even know how much scrutiny there really is, which is of course what the authorities want. But it can put us on edge. We can kill terrorists abroad, and do, but now we are told that a new generation of terrorists will be homegrown.
GOP rhetoric. In the 1960s, it was the left that engaged in the incendiary rhetoric; the nonviolent protests at time veered off into ends-justifies-means nightmares. Now, with a president in power they regard as a stranger and a usurper, the right is running the same risk. Rep. Michelle Bachmann calls Obama "gangster government." Rush Limbaugh talks about "the Regime." Sarah Palin tells her supporters to "reload." Republicans think this is shrewd, that it will amp up turnout. Others, including Bill Clinton, fear a repeat of what happened during his time.
Obama's obliviousness. The president has no real sense of how much fear he evokes in some places and among some groups, because he doesn't really know them. Knowledge won't necessarily help. It didn't help Bill Clinton enough to avoid impeachment. But Clinton knew to tread carefully on matters of political symbolism. He knew he had to make the effort to reach, say, rural or Southern or conservative evangelical culture. Obama doesn't really know the language, and he hasn't really tried to bust through the wall the GOP has built around those constituencies since the election.
Media. We love conflict. We love trauma. We love pictures of militia guys carrying guns. We love outrageous tea-party rhetoric. We love to scare ourselves—and the rest of the country—silly. We are doing a pretty effective job of it right now.