"Those connective tissues that were there, they're gone — and they're not being replaced," says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, which studies American life in Muncie, Ind., and other towns like it in the Midwest. "The withering of those connections," he says, "leaves people with a sense that they're at sea, they're on their own."
Opportunities to draw together with our neighbors — people who were like us but also different, compelling us to learn to get along — are becoming harder and harder to find. And that chips away at the feeling of being part of an enduring civilization. Yes, that's a cultural thing, but it is also part of why are politics are the way they are.
"To get things done," says Connolly, "you need other people."
What to do? When to do it? Who to listen to? How to view the nation and its path? Answering those questions is your responsibility, Mr. President, but it's also all of ours. And maybe, un-American though it might sound, sometimes the act of doing is not the only answer.
"Taking things seriously doesn't always mean immediately fixing. Sometimes it means thinking about it," says Asma Abbas, who teaches politics and philosophy at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts.
Bright rays poke through. We have endured enormous challenges before and prospered. Our innovation, optimism and entrepreneurial human capital remain the strongest in the world. So far, we are expressing our national crankiness with words, not weapons. In person we are mostly nice, even if on Facebook we are not. And remember, though more than half of us think the country's on the wrong track, more than a third think it's on the right one.
Let's return to Bryan Stone, the man at the top of this letter. He gazes out at the edges of our political system, at the poles that give their name to polarization, and he sees no real way forward there. "I'm 60 years old," he says, "and very few times in my life have I seen the answers come from the extremes."
Long ago, Mr. President, one of your predecessors spoke in his inaugural address of "the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me." ''No event," he said, "could have filled me with greater anxieties."
That was George Washington, one of the few politicians most of the country can still agree on. He gave shape to shapelessness and helped define the contours of the new republic with very little in the way of a road map to guide him.
Your road maps are many, Mr. President, but they all say different things. And somehow, 224 years after Washington took office, the shapelessness feels even bigger now, the challenge even more confusing. So what will you do next?
Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted
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