Why American Democracy Has Descended Into Collective Hysteria

We are a great power in decline—but neither party has a clue what to do about it

By William Greider

Originally published on The Nation, Sept 28, 2017

The pundit class loves to refight the last election and explain the why and wherefore of what should have happened in 2016 but didn’t because candidates didn’t follow the pundits’ script. The talking heads sound like sourpuss theater critics who wanted to rewrite the third act.

Gene Robinson, the amiable Washington Post columnist, is an honorable exception. He has lost patience with the conventional wisdom that failed so miserably last election season, and his recent column spoke the plain truth about the collapsing party system.

“I believe a political realignment is underway, and those who fail to discern its outlines could end up powerless and irrelevant,” Robinson wrote. The traditional left-right, progressive-conservative political axis has lost its validity. “I believe neither party has the foggiest idea what the new diagram looks like.” Amen to that. It has been my message too. During last year’s campaign, I described Bernie Sanders as the “high road” to fundamental change, while Donald Trump owned the “low road.” It may take several election cycles to determine which road the country embraces—if it doesn’t choose a path very different from either.

Both major parties are stuck in the past and afraid of the future.

For now, our governing system resembles a kind of collective hysteria, an emotional breakdown that reflects problems far broader than our having a crackpot president. Both major parties are stuck in the past and afraid of the future. Fear and confusion have overwhelmed the establishment. They have no plan for our future—not one that speaks candidly to the troubled conditions that have emerged over the last generation.

There’s a familiar pattern in American history: When the two-party system was stalemated and radical reforms were needed (abolishing slavery or voting rights for women, for example), people organized powerful third-party challenges to advance their cause. The country is now ripe for another rump insurgency.

The long-standing presumption, at least among political centrists, has been that independent activists have no choice but to align with a major party to gain a voice in government. But digital technologies, which lower the cost of communication for ordinary citizens, have disrupted the two-party monopoly. The fruitcake election of 2016 has not generated a new third party, but it’s early days yet.

People are torn between what they have always wanted to believe about their country and the contradictions they see in real events.

People have won the means to speak for themselves and compete directly with the official truth packaged by the two major parties. And dissenters have learned how to gain voice and power by attacking the established ranks. This is healthy for small-d democracy. Maybe party professionals will learn how to listen.

The American dilemma is deeper than mere politics. People are torn between what they have always wanted to believe about their country and the contradictions they see in real events, often in their own lives. I believe this tension is the source of our political hysteria.

Who are we really, as the American people? Where am I in the larger scheme of things? What happened to the country I loved? These imponderables are not confined to left or right, rich or poor, but obviously are felt most poignantly among people experiencing personal loss and disappointment.

This sense of loss is the psychological wound that Donald Trump picks at maliciously, exploiting the pain and despair with his self-inflated vow to miraculously restore America’s “greatness.” The slogan is brilliant. It is also Trump’s most cynical lie.

The crux of America’s conflicted feelings is this: We are a great power in decline, but one that pretends nothing has changed. The decline in our dominance of world affairs is not a tragedy, and may actually be liberating in many ways. But the so-called American Century is definitely over, mainly because so many other countries have caught up with us. Neither major party wants to talk about this, partly because they don’t know what to say, but also because whatever they say might sound vaguely unpatriotic.

If you like this article, please give today to help fund The Nation’s work.

This global realignment of relative economic power does not mean the United States must become weak or impoverished. On the contrary, once we recognize our changed position, it should free us from certain things. The burdens of neocolonialism—fighting half a dozen wars at once to discipline “lesser” nations—are very expensive. In fact, they have weakened us. The popular chanting of “USA! USA! USA!” sounds like false bravado to anyone who knows what’s happening. How will Americans react when they wake up one morning to discover that China is now the largest economy in the world? I doubt they will chant “We’re Number 2! We’re Number 2!”

The history of great nations in decline ought to be a cautionary tale for Americans. On their way down, declining powers have often squandered their assets on wasteful wars in vain attempts to deny the reality of new competition.

One classic example is the British Empire, which sent its army to put down a colonial upstart in North America. Washington policy-makers would doubtless deny the neocolonial comparison, but we do seem to be following the same old script—using military force in an attempt to shape the economic playing field.

What should Americans do? First, drop the nostalgic rhetoric of past glory and triumph. Instead, begin a serious analysis of our current situation, and future possibilities, and explore the options that are plausible and worth trying. Forget old political factions and labels. Ask the big questions and invite everyone to the table.

We can dispel stalemate and confusion by reopening the oldest questions Americans have always asked themselves. What kind of country do we wish America could become? And how might we get there?

Make a comment

Vision for America is a citizen platform for voices and solutions, a community-created vision for our nation. Get involved and share your vision and ideas for our nation's future. Learn more at visionforamerica.org.

Latest site updates:

Green New Deal

GREEN NEW DEAL: A vision for America to address both economic inequality and climate change.

Reduce plastic waste

Pledge to reduce plastic waste

Protect Wolves!

Restoring wolves nationwide: a campaign by Center for Biological Diversity

Sunrise Movement

For the first time in our lives, we have a fighting chance to stop climate change.

Justice Democrats

Let's rebuild a Democratic Party that fights for a clear progressive vision.

Save bees!

One in every three bites of food we eat depends on bees and other pollinators.

Our Revolution

Campaigns end. Revolutions endure.


350 is the most important number in the world. It's the safe line for our global climate and a start line for a global movement.

Jim Carrey's vision for America

Art and visionary messages by Jim Carrey.

Bernie Sander's Vision for America

Bernie Sander's Vision for a Socialist America


An action plan to kick out lawmakers beholden to the gun lobby.

21st Century Vision for America

A 21st Century Vision for America: Guiding Principles for a Great Nation

Brand New Congress

It's time for a Brand New Congress

Indivisible Guide

We’re not the leaders of this movement: you are.

Fight for 15

1,000s of workers. 100s of cities. 1 movement. $15 and a union.


Join the Movement for a People's Party! The country is beyond ready for a new nationally viable progressive party.


Fighting for a fair future: We are proud to step up the fight for immigrant rights, affordable health care, and core American values — as NextGen America.


Healthy lands, healthy bodies equals a strong nation. It's time to move beyond meat and towards a sustainable (and tasty!) future.

Saving Capitalism

Robert Reich examines America’s fragile democracy and its fight for survival; as income and wealth go to the top, more Americans are left behind. Now it’s up to those ordinary Americans to change the rules.

The Green Plate

The road to a better you -- and better nation -- starts on your plate.


The benefits of public wildlands, explained

Time for Action

Gov. Jay Inslee: It's time for action on climate change

Jeremy Rifkin

Economist Jeremy Rifkin presents an inspiring vision the future and hopeful narrative for the human race.

Vision for America

See more visionary ideas posted on Vision for America!

A 21st Century Vision for America is a document that describes our country as most Americans would want it to be. It envisions an America that cares about people, protects our rights, provides opportunity for all, nurtures its lands and waterways, and serves as a good global citizen. This America serves as a beacon and model to the rest of the world, reminding everyone of what is possible when people of good will come together to do what is right.


Status Coup
Common Cause
NoRA Now
Our Revolution
Democracy Now!
Citizens Take Action
Socialist Alternative
Real Progressives
Bill Moyers & Company
Swing Left
The Free Thought Project
Redacted Tonight
Green Party US
Defenders of Wildlife
The Resistance
Center for Biological Diversity
Mother Jones
Common Dreams
libertarian Party
The American Prospect
Daily Kos
The Progressive
In These Times
The Nation
Brand New Congress
Ron Paul Institute
Counter Punch
The Jimmy Dore Show
PR Watch
Huff Post Voices
Nation of Change
liberty tree foundation
mercy for animals
farm sanctuary
Code Pink
Earth Justice
League of Conservation Voters
People's Defense
Democracy for America
Standup America!
Every voice
People for the American Way
Ultra Violet
Working Families
Lambda Legal
Town Hall Project
NextGen Climate
The Laura Flanders Show
Emerge America
Backbone Campaign
Run For Something
The Nation Institute
the investigative fund
Tom Dispatch
Run For Office
Let America Vote
Justice Democrats
Environment America
Food and Water Action Fund
The Action Network
Vox The Big Idea
Wilderness Society
Yes! Magazine
Progress Media
Education Votes
People's Party
Roots Action
Fight for 15
Global Citizen
The Revelator
Open Democracy
Crowd Justice
Climate Desk
Defend Our Future
Southern Poverity Law Center
Netroots Nation
We Are Survivors Foundation
Popular Resistance.org
Sunrise Movement
Late Night with Seth Meyers
Real Justice
The Climate Lemon
The Lincoln Project
Vision for America is providing the above links not as explicit endorsement but for the sake of democracy and hearing all voices.#VisionForAmerica