Once—not all that long ago—we were a great nation: confident, aspirational, perhaps even blessed. A shining city, set upon a hill. But now it seems to me the sun is setting on America. We’re torn and tired, sad and angry, divided, lost, maybe even defeated. Is our day done or is there still a little daylight remaining? We’ll know soon enough.
We did this to ourselves. Six years ago, we elected a flawed man of questionable character who remade the Supreme Court with ideologues of his ilk, three newly minted justices who lack the experience, temperament, and intellectual gravitas to make thoughtful, centrist judicial decisions. In so doing, Mr. Trump and his GOP minions made the Supreme Court, at least in Constitutional theory, the only non-partisan branch of our government, into a vengeful political weapon. Equal justice under law? Not anymore. The decisions of this court only seek to further an extreme political agenda that runs against the grain of a majority of Americans who believe that guns should be regulated, that a woman has the right to choose, and that love is love.
There is no true north anymore; our collective moral compass spins wildly. We are polarized, paralyzed. We separate into tribes and reorganize in the wings, farther and farther from any common ground. Just over a hundred years ago, William Butler Yeats predicted all this in his poem “The Second Coming,” written coincidentally in the aftermath of another global pandemic:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
When I was younger, I was a patently cheerful optimist. But now that I’m older, I see things differently. It took several centuries for the Roman Empire to decline and eventually fall, leaving the Western World in darkness. Barbarian threats from without, political instability and corruption from within, a failing economy, and the rise of other empires slowly eroded the power and sway of Rome, eventually causing it to collapse. More recently and much closer to home, there was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, but within only a century or two, that empire also shrunk and disappeared, writing one more painful chapter in history’s long textbook.
These days, events move more swiftly; the slope is much steeper. The evening of America—if that is indeed what this moment is—might only last a few short years. I would like to think there’s still time to right our ship, but it sure feels like the tide is running fast and the wind is blowing hard. I’m worried.
But over on the horizon, there is still that small glimmer of light. Maybe there’s still time to get this right. We have to ask ourselves if we have the will, the resolve, and the patience to maintain our place in this world. We like to think of ourselves as a great experiment in the power of democracy, an ideal for others to emulate, but I’m sorry to say we’re looking less and less like that shining city set upon a hill. Yeats was right: things are falling apart.
I sound like Eeyore: “things could be worse, but I’m not sure how.” I’ll do my best to rekindle my faith in America. Will you do the same? Maybe it isn’t the evening of America, only the darkness before the dawn.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon.