In the Face of Despair

Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner / Steady
In the Face of Despair News anchor Dan Rather. (photo: News and Guts)

America is calling us

I can feel the dread, the despair, the fear, the anguish, and the yearning. I hear it in questions I get from family and friends. I read it in the comments posted here and elsewhere online. And I have been around long enough to sense it in the tenor and trembles of our fraught moment. If doomscrolling were an Olympic sport, many of us would be festooned with gold.

This is an age of deep and warranted anxiety. Threats to the stability upon which many of us have constructed our lives — and perhaps even more troubling, our expectations — are crescendoing with a cacophony of distress.

There will always be the challenges that upend our hopes and dreams at the individual level: the illnesses, accidents, and myriad other personal and professional disappointments. But this is something different. This is a chaotic world that feels like it is flooding in from multiple fissures in the foundation of our society. It can be measured in pandemic deaths, rising global temperatures, persistent injustice, and here in the United States, a country unmoored from what many of us saw as a fitful but ultimately reliable path toward progress. There was once widespread belief that an entrenched commitment to American democracy, as imperfect as that may have been, was nonetheless a system capable of rejuvenation. That now feels like a bet on the future that is no longer assured.

Any cataloging of our present challenges must not be built on a misreading of the past. Our country's story contains countless chapters of pain, particularly for the most marginalized and afflicted among us. To yearn for a simpler time or some mythical history is to minimize the struggle and sacrifice that have always undergirded our national journey. For much of this struggle, the structural impediments to progress lay in the majority, and certainly in the majority of who was allowed to vote.

What I feel is so different this time is that we seem to be at a point when there is majority consensus in America on broad issues from abortion rights, to recognition of racial injustice, to LGBTQ+ rights, to a more equitable tax system, to even many contentious subjects like gun control and our climate crisis. In a more narrow political framing, this majority viewpoint is illustrated in the remarkable fact that Democratic candidates for president have won the popular vote in every election but one since 1988! And yet the courts — especially the Supreme Court — are stacked with far-right activist judges hellbent on blowing up a social order upon which most Americans have come to rely. Imbalances in our federal system give undue influence to red states in the Senate. And partisan gerrymandering has turned states and congressional districts that should be competitive into a pale shadow of a healthy democracy. Add to all this the immutable truth that it is always easier to destruct or obstruct than to construct, and you can see that reactionary forces have hijacked many of the functions of government — using lies and the privileges of power — to embolden their crusade against progress.

None of this is a surprise to most of you who could fill out the broad outline of dysfunction I have sketched above with the distressing details that litter our news cycles. Identifying our problems is not the problem. They probably play in some form of a loop in your thoughts, are echoed in what you read and see, and dominate your discussions with others. What you are thinking, feeling, and seeing is real. And it is felt by millions of Americans and millions more around the world.

In the face of all of this, one cannot help but wonder whether there is any reason for hope. I wish I could tell you that everything will certainly turn out fine. But to do so would be an insult to your intelligence. We should not be Pollyannaish about the depths or severity of the challenges. We should not take anything for granted. Solving problems has never been a passive activity.

And yet...

We should not forget that throughout the course of human history, including in recent times, seemingly insurmountable challenges have been conquered. Long odds have been overcome. The human experience is full of not only tragedy but inspiration. There have been many instances in which the prospects of success were far more daunting than they are now.

In our current times, one cannot help but find hope in the fierce fight for democracy being waged by Ukraine and their heroic stand against the Russian military. Almost no one outside of the country itself expected that their nation would survive the onslaught from one of the world’s most vaunted militaries. But there have been incredible resolve and bravery and no capitulation. Their fight has inspired support from the countries of Europe and beyond. Yet the battle for freedom has also come at a horrific cost to the Ukrainian people — soldier and civilian alike.

While we use the language of warfare to describe our political battles in the United States, thankfully we are not facing anywhere near this level of bloodshed — although the evidence of the insurrection and the heated rhetoric of our political discourse do portend the possibility of further violence. What also makes our situation different is that we are at odds with ourselves. We are fighting not for the survival of the United States in the face of foreign aggression but the survival of a concept of what this country means to those of us who inhabit it. The unity of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to the severed bonds of our national community.

As I noted above, what makes America’s struggles so frustrating is that there is a fundamental structural imbalance between majority viewpoints (what should hold sway in a democracy) and minority power. If Congress and the courts truly represented the will of the American people, we would be a different country. In the end, however, I just don’t believe that this dynamic is sustainable over the long term. Just think about it: No major corporation would publicly take the culture war stances of the modern Republican Party. Look at the example of Disney in Florida. At some point, all this performative outrage is so out of step with the necessities of running a nation that it cannot endure. The fundamental imbalance of our country will cause ever greater strain.

As the lesson in Ukraine makes all too clear, the battle against the forces of autocracy will be difficult. We know that if Roe is overturned, people will die, and lives will be upended. We can see a rise in state laws driven by bigotry. The damage will fall more fully on marginalized members of our society, and that will also cause great pain. These are outcomes the immediate future holds in store.

But ultimately, I think that the chances of victory for progress outweigh the chances of defeat. Those who are trying to push this nation backward are not only on the wrong side — they’re on the wrong side of the future. Look at the beliefs of the younger generations of Americans on all these issues. Look at how young people think around the world. Look at where the dominant cultural forces are. We should not underestimate the strength we have to push back against this march of destruction. The forces who want to upend the world order and our own democracy weaponize despair. Hopelessness fuels their ends.

When we created this Steady publication, we had no way of knowing the specifics of the challenges we would face. I chose the name Steady because it has been a mantra of mine since childhood. I hold onto the word and notion so dearly because I know that steadiness can be elusive. I feel that keenly as well, especially now. But I also know that it can yield the strength that is needed to not quit, to keep going, to understand that the future will unfold in ways that are completely unpredictable. And yet in that uncertainty lies an opportunity — I would call it a duty — to step into the fight and do our part to shape our destiny along a framework of hope.

America is calling us. Do we have the courage, will we take the time and make the effort to answer?

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