Among practitioners of my particular journalistic subspecialty, U.S. foreign policy, the term American exceptionalism refers to the notion that the force of the American idea, along with the force of American arms, combine to make the United States the indispensable global defender of freedom and progress. Only Americans could have defeated fascism and Soviet Communism in a span of 50 years; only Americans, fueled by faith in the inexorable, universal rightness of their national creed, could successfully lead a global network of free and thriving democracies across a century.
But in our cover story this month, the writer Kurt Andersen argues that Americans are exceptional in other ways as well: We are, as a people, unusually susceptible to fantastical beliefs, implausible schemes, and visions of heavenly and earthly utopias. Our weakness for the improbable and the incredible makes our country a fountainhead of invention and idealism. It also turns us into easy marks for grifters and charlatans.
Andersen, a much-admired novelist and radio host who co-founded Spy magazine (where he first covered the misadventures of a certain highly imaginative New York City real-estate developer), writes of an America that is rejecting the notion that there exists something called objective truth. "The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control," he writes. "In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us."
All of us are hunting for the killer theory that explains the Trump phenomenon. I suggest you spend some time with Kurt Andersen's theory. You'll find yourself enlightened.
At The Atlantic, we spend a lot of time asking why our country's politics look the way they do. We also spend a lot of time asking whether technology is making our politics better or worse (I vote for worse, but I'm dispositionally Amish). This month, the writer Jean Twenge looks at another hazard of technology—the effects of pervasive smartphone use by the newly fledged adults Twenge calls the iGen. This generation is suffering in unusual ways—epidemic levels of loneliness and depression—and Twenge makes a convincing case that the culprit is in our hands.
There's so much more in this month's issue: James Parker delightfully dismantles what he calls the "whitest music ever"; Emily Yoffe investigates the havoc caused by the proliferation of plea bargaining in America's courts; Olga Khazan reports on women who mistreat other women in the workplace; and Franklin Foer writes about the disappointments of liberalism.
I could go on—it's an issue crowded with great articles. But let me simply thank you for being one of our readers. Without you, our journalism would not be possible.
Editor in Chief
Editor in Chief