The Big List of US National Crises: The Failure of the National Narrative

Allen Faulton
15 min readDec 13, 2022

An Article of the Modern Survival Guide

You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog that I’ve been writing to cover things that we all need to know to survive and thrive in the modern world. In the US, where I live, survival is an increasingly important topic. We have a large number of national crises that, regardless of your politics, exist and affect us all. We desperately need to solve, or at the very least address, these issues and so far… nope. No real progress.

In Part 1 of this mini-series, I talked about the first of these big challenges, the current political instability that is endemic in the US. In Part 2 I’m going to tackle one of the big reasons why this political instability exists in the first place — the failure of the US national narrative.

Oh yeah. This is super non-controversial stuff. Strap in.

So, let’s start at the beginning. A national narrative is the core story that makes a nation go. It’s the central reason why your nation is a good place to live, it’s raison d’etre, its driving force. It’s why you have national pride, and other places… don’t. See, the catch with a national narrative is that it has to be seen to work. There has to be some steak with the sizzle, some juice for the squeeze. Otherwise people start to wonder why, exactly, their nation is actually worth living in.

In the US, our national narrative has been fairly straightforward for generations.¹ It was an exodus story, and therefore a story of opportunity and freedom in a “new world.” The story went roughly as follows: If you come to the US, you enter a land of freedom and opportunity where you can prosper and succeed through hard work, without being held back by the ties of the old world, where all men are created equal.

There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s go piece by piece.

First of all, the assumption was that most of us were coming here or had arrived from someplace else. There have been home-grown US nationals for more than 300 years, but a central part of the narrative was that people come here because the US was a new world where things were available that weren’t in the old world. Most of those things had to do with land ownership, or jobs.

Second, the assumption has been that the US is a land of opportunity, which is to say, a tabula rasa where a person could make themselves anew and rise to heights impossible in their old environment.

Third, the assumption has been that the US is a land where hard work is rewarded. If you come here, and work hard, you can thrive.

Fourth, the assumption has been that the US is the land of the free, where people can live as they please. This has proven to be a dangerous assumption, because so few people understand what “freedom” actually means, and the definition has changed over time.²

Fifth and finally, the assumption has been that the US is a land where the old ties no longer bind. We have no aristocracy. No designated state religion. No castes, no serfs, no requirement that the sons shall follow the trade of their father. Theoretically, at any rate, no state-sanctioned racism, sexism, or religious requirements. This is exceedingly important, because so many places in the world had those systems in the 18th century.

So let’s sum up. The US national narrative can be broken down to say:

  • This is a “new world”
  • This a land of opportunity
  • Hard work is valued and rewarded
  • This is a free country (affirmation of positive freedom)³
  • All are equal (affirmation of negative freedom)⁴

This is the narrative that brought literally millions of people to the US every year for two centuries. Unfortunately, it’s starting to crack… and those cracks are dangerous to us all.

The Cracks in the Story

Let’s get another thing out of the way before we go any further: stories are very, very important. Stories are how people see the world; it’s how we’re built.⁵ Without a story to tell us what a thing is, we have a very hard time relating to it.⁶ Consequently, people spend a lot of time judging the stories we are told against reality as we experience it; I’d say about half of my blog posts are about this exact subject, just for example.

Herein lies the problem: the American experience does not match the American national narrative, and that’s a major issue.

Why is that a problem, you might reasonably ask? Isn’t it enough to wake up in the morning, earn money, and be reasonably safe while holding private property?

No. No it’s not. Without a strong national narrative, or with a national narrative that doesn’t match reality, what we have is a situation where we are actively fostering social unrest. This is because most people have an idea of fairness that’s pretty well ingrained, and when the narrative doesn’t match the reality, things don’t seem fair. People who think things aren’t fair for them tend to react poorly after awhile (see: all of recorded history).

So where are we breaking faith with the narrative? Well, pretty much everywhere, and that’s why this is the #2 entry on the list of national crises. There isn’t a single aspect of the American narrative that is currently working properly, and that can and should point us to some major flaws that need fixing in our society. Let’s start from the top and work our way down.

The Cracks in the “New World”

The “new world” side of the American story is essentially a statement of homesteading (or, if you like, colonialism), which is to say there’s an implicit promise that if you are in America you should be able to build a new home.

Now, “home” is a very, very deep concept to unpack. Partially it’s about land. Land has meant employment and prosperity for most of human history, because you can grow things on it or take things from under it which have value. For the vast, vast majority of the human experience (even in modern times), this still holds true, and it’s built into our assumptions about how a society is supposed to work. Why do you think it’s such a big deal that you have a home address, or for that matter, a home? It’s assumed that those who have such things are contributing to society, and those who don’t, aren’t.

We are no longer a land of homesteaders, and haven’t been for some time. We’re actually the opposite: we’re working through a critical housing shortage and skyrocketing rent. We now very much resemble the situation that immigrants throughout our history have left their home countries to escape: crowded, overpriced cities, unaffordable land, and the dim prospects of a home of your own. We are no longer pioneers; we are increasingly urban, increasingly land-poor.

Think about what that means in the context of the American story. The idea of owning a small family farm is essentially a fiction these days. There are no more pioneers; no more true wilderness in any areas where most people actually would want to live (I’m not counting Alaska, because not too many people really want to live in the Arctic, obviously). Most of us live in cities, in housing that is too expensive and that eats our savings.

Keep this in mind, because what it basically means is that most people are locked in. After several generations of declining family prosperity, it’s simply not possible for people in a bad economic situation in America to move someplace better. This is not a situation that is well situated for social mobility, and it is a potential problem area for civil unrest. This feeds directly into the next point.

The Cracks in “Opportunity”

The whole point of a “new world” is that someone who was, for example, a tenant farmer in Europe could come to America, go West, and end up on several acres of their own. That’s what was originally meant by “land of opportunity” — a place where you could go to be prosperous. This was a big deal, and it was matched by other opportunities for employment in America in terms of starting a business or finding industrial work.

Now, there’s a big thing that we need to address right now: both the “new world” story and the “opportunity” story have a major point in common: they are most attractive to immigrants. America is and was a land of immigrants. Never, ever, let anyone tell you otherwise; it’s built into the national ideal, and we are still heavily reliant on immigrants to fill critical labor sectors.

So what happened to this story? Well, four big things happened. The first is, as previously noted, we ran out of land, and we have completed a transition to a post-industrial society. The second is that the US locked down the borders. The third is that the US does not accept most foreign credentials for high-paying occupations. The fourth is that pay no longer matches the value of work as closely as it once did.

We’ve covered the point about land, so let’s look at the other three. The history of US immigration policy really starts in the late 18th century, with restrictions on Chinese and other East Asian immigrants (who were deemed largely undesirable compared to Europeans). So, basically pure racism. We have not outgrown this tendency towards bad immigration policies; current immigration policy is a hopeless mess, and this is a major problem because we need immigrants.

Seriously. We do. Like, lots of them. There are whole sectors of our economy that are incredibly dependent on immigration — not just the agricultural sector, but also the IT, service, and medical sectors are critically understaffed and desperate for people. You ever wonder why most hospitals are staffed by lots of Filipino nurses? This is why — we need nurses, and we can’t graduate enough of them to fill the void.

But we aren’t brining in enough people, and it isn’t really getting better, which is calling into question a core point: how can we call the US a land of opportunity when a major drain on federal resources is turning vast numbers of people away at the borders for no good reason?

This brings us to the third point, which is a story that most of us have heard. A highly educated, intelligent immigrant comes to the US and becomes a taxi driver, or a janitor, because their degree isn’t recognized here and they don’t have the time or resources to go back to school.

This is just. plain. dumb. It’s an exclusionary rule set up exclusively to protect US high education. There are plenty of places around the world that offer education of similar quality to any given US college, and to really call ourselves a land of opportunity we should be offering recognition to their graduates. Otherwise we’re not a land of opportunity, we’re a land where highly educated, motivated people can come to become less well-off than they were before. Even if they work hard (more on that in a moment). And that’s not a good national story.

And last but not least, it’s really hard to find well-paying work in America if you don’t have a college degree (and if you do have a college degree, you’d better hope like hell it’s one that’s currently desirable). As I’m sure we all know by now, the real value of an hour of work has been declining since the 80s, and only showed an upturn this year. That’s a huge point, because we aren’t going to make up forty years of loss in one or two years of good markets for workers, and that forty years represents a massive wealth transfer away from the average person.

Which brings us to our next point…

The Cracks in “Hard Work”

A major piece of the US national narrative is that, if you work hard, you will succeed. This is indisputably false in the modern age. The majority of the US workforce can and will work hard for their entire lives and never actually “succeed.”

Let’s talk about success for a moment. I have a whole article on this subject, and there are a lot of different ways to “succeed,” but a key, core component of “success” is the following: success means that you make enough money to not worry.

To not worry about healthcare. To not worry about buying groceries. To not worry about rent, or the mortgage. To not worry about the cost of children. To not worry about being able to support our parents. Most people don’t really care about being gazillionaires, they just want to have enough money to not worry about the common problems that money can solve.

Back to “hard work” — you can work as hard as you want, in many professions in the US, and you will never meet this standard of success. If you’re working minimum wage, you will never meet this standard of success. Hell, if you’re earning less than $100,000 in many US cities, you will never meet this standard of success. And if you’re in the wrong profession in general, you will never meet this standard of success.

Every teacher in America is struggling (unless they have a high-wage-earning spouse or a rich family). Every janitor in America is struggling. Almost every restaurant employee in America is struggling. For most people, we hustle and hustle and never quite get to “success.”

Now, there are plenty of smug economists who will talk all day about how this is a good thing, how a capitalist system is supposed to keep people hungry (although I think they mean that metaphorically, in general). But the simple fact of the matter is, it hurts our national narrative to see stories of people who work hard their whole lives and can’t, for example, afford cancer treatment. Same thing when we hear about people who put in years of work for a corporation, only to be shafted when they try to retire. Or people who work hard for a school system, only to see their salary cut.

These things hurt the country, because the more they happen, the less incentive we actually have as a nation to, you know, work. Or, you know, not eat the rich. A happy, productive nation is one in which every single person can earn enough to at least support themselves. That’s the only nation in which you can justifiably say that hard work is valued. And that’s not where we are.

The Cracks in “Freedom”

The previous point bleeds into this one, but there are other things to say here too. “Freedom” means that we are free under the law. But plenty of people have made the point that freedom isn’t worth much if you can’t do anything because you don’t have any money.

The freedom to starve is actively harmful to a nation, as is the freedom to watch other people have experiences that you, yourself, will never, ever do because you’re too poor to take a vacation. These things offend the basic sense of justice and fairness which we all have, and we should be very careful about that, because offenses to justice and fairness have a tendency to lead to social unrest.

Freedom isn’t free. In this world, it takes money to make freedom worth anything.

At the same time, about 30% of Americans seem to have a lot of trouble understanding what “freedom” in the US actually means. Freedom under the law means that you are not now, and never have been, free to do whatever you want. That is not a right that anyone has ever had. Yes, I am aware that you are granted “inalienable rights” in the Constitution, but that was only ever a philosophical statement, and 250 years of jurisprudence have narrowed the field somewhat.

Right now in the US, there is a large segment of the population who whole-heartedly believes that they absolutely should have the right to own as many semi-automatic rifles as they like, and teach children how to use them. There’s a huge segment of the population who believes, without a trace of doubt, that they should have the freedom to avoid vaccines. Another huge segment of the population believes that they should be free to force other people to obey the precepts of their religion, and yet another subset of the voting public believes that they ought to be free to intimidate other voters at the polls.

Freedom isn’t limitless. There are times when it is right and proper to limit freedoms, and you can probably think of half a dozen of them off the top of your head. Limiting someone’s freedom to bribe politicians, for example, is a very good idea.

The US is the “land of the free,” but over time that very statement has become problematic when our people can’t be trusted to use that freedom responsibly. Just because we have freedom of speech doesn't mean our leaders should be free to lie to their voting base; just because we have the right to bear arms doesn’t mean that we should have the right to own any kind of weapon; just because we have freedom of religion doesn’t mean that religions should be free to intrude into a non-believer’s life.

Freedom is now and has always been a balancing act, and placing too much emphasis on individual freedom is corrosive in a world where picking our own version of reality has become a national pastime. Please be clear: I am very much in favor of freedom. I quite like it. But our national narrative on the subject has grown comically simplistic, and this is a problem for the nation.

The Cracks in Equality

Ok, this one’s pretty simple: even when our finest statesmen declared that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, that wasn’t true in the reality of the nation at that time, and it’s not true now. The US has always prided itself as a land of equality, even as large percentages of the people who live here were enslaved or disenfranchised.

And look, I’m not not trying to say that we haven’t made progress. We absolutely have. But there are still systemic issues to address; we are still falling short of the ideal by a considerable margin. Women are still a minority in most positions of power, minorities still routinely experience discrimination at all levels of society, and our justice system is titled heavily in favor of the wealthy, just to name a few common examples.

It’s hard to get proud of our nation’s commitment to equality when we see a constant drumbeat of news articles that demonstrate the opposite.

Re-Establishing the Narrative: What do We Believe?

The point to all this is that our national narrative needs some brushing off. We aren’t as special as we like to think we are, not anymore at any rate. It used to be that the US was a center of progress and advancement, and in some ways that’s still true, but we have a lot more competition these days.

We can’t claim to be a “new world” in 2022; we’ve been here too long. There is no more west to go, no more land to grab, and we’re the third most populous nation on Earth.

We can’t claim to be a center of opportunity anymore; we’ve jailed too many people, for too many ridiculous reasons, for trying to get here. And once they are here, there’s not as many good opportunities to thrive as there once were.

We can’t claim that hard work is all you need to succeed in America. That’s just manifestly untrue.

We can’t claim that we are the home of freedom. There are plenty of countries in the world with freedom, many of whom make sure their citizens are free from a lot of things (e.g., exorbitant medical bills) that we don’t.

We can’t claim that we are the most equal society in the world. That was simply never true, and these days several countries have enshrined equality into their own Constitutions in ways that we simply don’t do.⁷

So what’s our play, here? Not to put too fine a point on it, the US needs a new narrative. We need something that we can rally around, something that we can claim as our own, something that makes us proud to be Americans. Too many of us either aren’t as proud as we used to be, or we are proud for arguably the wrong reasons.⁸

What’s that new narrative going to look like? Do we fix the problems with the old one, or do we start fresh? I’m sure lots of people have ideas on this subject, and for me that may be a future article, but for now I’ll leave you with this — the national narrative defines who we are as the Big Tribe (the nation). If we don’t have one that at the very least isn’t ridiculously hypocritical, we are ever more likely to slip down the slope of national despair.

¹Ok, maybe it isn’t all that simple, but here’s an interesting summary of scholarly research on the subject: https://www.amacad.org/daedalus/american-narrative

²This is an interesting article that provides some perspective on the subjects, but the core idea here is that we enjoy freedom under the law, which is to say freedom from arbitrary laws and tyranny, and specific freedoms defined in law. This does not mean that we are free to do absolutely anything we want, for a very large number of reasons. If you ever encounter a truly free man, run. Because he will have no compunction about killing you for your watch. https://lawmagazine.richmond.edu/features/article/-/15500/what-did-the-first-amendment-originally-mean.html

³Which is to say, freedom to do. As in, I am free to do as I like provided that I do no harm.

⁴Which is to say, freedom from. As in, I am free from the requirement to be, for example, a Catholic Christian, free from racist oppression, etc.

⁵There are lots of fascinating discussions of this concept lying around, and here’s one of them. https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/a-neuroscientist-says-its-our-stories-that-make-sense-of-our-world/

⁶For a delightful take on this subject, I strongly recommend that everyone read “Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett. Actually, do yourself a favor and read all of the Discworld novels, it’ll change your life for the better.

⁷Several nations have relatively recently overtaken the US in explicitly guaranteeing rights in their Constitutions. Now, guarantees don’t make it so, but putting this sort of thing on paper is actually pretty powerful. https://ph.ucla.edu/news/press-release/2020/jan/us-protections-constitutional-rights-falling-behind-global-peers

⁸Listen, under no conceivable circumstances do we actually have the best medical system on the planet, just for example. We pay more money than anyone else for worse outcomes. I’m sorry, but that’s all there is to it. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/05/global-health-rankings/

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