A Review of
The American Crisis: What Went Wrong. How We Recover.
By the Writers of the Atlantic
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Whether or not the word “crisis” is an apt descriptor of the current state of the so-called “American project” is a matter of some debate. Some view the 2020 election as nothing less than an existential tipping point for the nation, while others are confident that our long-standing political structures will, well, continue standing whether Republicans or Democrats are in power for the next four years. But even if one feels that our situation is not so dire to merit the term “crisis,” it cannot be denied that the years 2016-2020 have been some of the most politically tumultuous in living history. The book-length compilation of essays titled The American Crisis: What Went Wrong. How We Recover from the writers of the Atlantic is a far-ranging exploration of the various cultural, political, economic, and even environmental forces at play during these tumultuous years.
The American Crisis can be viewed as a sort of “remix/greatest hits” album of a four-year span of writing from the Atlantic. Previously-published articles have been compiled, abridged and thematically organized into four sections. “Falling Apart” places the focus on cultural and demographic changes. “The Failure of Politics” covers political maneuvering and general systemic issues in American political culture, while “The Age of Trump” zeroes in on the Trump administration itself. Finally, “Becoming Citizens Again” closes the book with forward-looking and constructive suggestions for changing course. The essays are not chronologically organized, and thus the reader moves back-and-forth through time, occasionally jumping from a piece originally penned in 2016 to something published after the coronavirus pandemic began. Each essay/article includes a brief introductory note, giving some context to the original publication, as well as indicating if it was edited from its original form.
This structure actually works quite well for the book as a whole. Reading pieces from previous years with the benefit of hindsight, like Ed Yong’s “When the Next Plague Hits” (in which he spookily predicted the contours of the current COVID-19 pandemic back in 2018) or Franklin Foer’s “American Hustler” (a disturbing profile of Paul Manafort, written before some of the more-recent revelations about him were made public) is enlightening. Similarly, reading Molly Ball’s prescient “Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear,” originally written before the 2016 election, after four years of a Trump presidency reinvigorates her original argument.
Christian readers may be particularly interested in the inclusion of Michael Gerson’s excellent “The Last Temptation,” an effective and incisive summary of the last century of evangelical political attitudes, and Emma Green’s profile of the popular evangelical speaker “Will Beth Moore Lose Her Flock?” Both pieces were originally published in 2018 and remain insightful today, in the face of the 2020 election.
Two critiques are in order, which the prospective reader should know. First, like many essay collections, “The American Crisis” can occasionally feel uneven. Certain pieces are too long, in need of some tighter editing for a 500-page collection, while others end too abruptly. The quality of writing is generally strong throughout, but specific chapters rise above the others in style and readability, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The First White President” or Jeremy Raff’s “The Undocumented Agent,” or in powerful argument and sheer insight, like Anne Applebaum’s “A Warning From Europe,” Jonathan Rauch’s “What’s Ailing American Politics?” or George Packer’s brilliant “How to Destroy a Government.” Every essay is good, but not every chapter is great, and sometimes the great pieces throw the others into starker relief, but perhaps such is to be expected from an essay collection that pulls together writings from disparate voices, covering a myriad of topics over a period of four years.
Second, the weight of the book is firmly placed on the “What Went Wrong” diagnosis, rather than the “How We Recover” prognosis, to such an extent that the subtitle almost feels like a misnomer. In a book of 40 essays, 35 of them (and 480 pages of writing) are focused on “what went wrong.” To be sure, much of the best writing is found here, but a reader looking for more substantive, forward-looking political writing may be frustrated by this imbalance. On the other hand, those looking for a wide-ranging discussion of what plagues our culture will find it in spades here.
In sum, The American Crisis is organized well, generally engaging if occasionally uneven, and highly informative in a cursory, journalistic sense. Readers who are interested in a thematic tour of American political culture from 2016 to 2020, and are willing to read 500 pages of essays, will find much to appreciate in The American Crisis. Further, readers who already believe they have a firm sense of what is going on in America will likely stumble upon an argument or perspective that they had not previously considered, and fans of solid journalistic reporting in general, or specifically of the Atlantic, will find this to be a treasure trove of engaging, informed discussion.