The best thing about Joe Biden’s presidency is his penchant for short speeches. It is unclear if he has the stamina for the marathon orations of his predecessor, but certainly the American people do not. The dismal ratings for this year’s State of the Union Address bear that out as they did for Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last year.
Who can blame them? The American people have endured much lately. One might not know that from listening to Biden’s remarks on March 1st where he evaluated the state of the union as “strong.” But leading societal indicators suggest a different adjective – “Hobbesian.”
Seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes is among the theorists most associated with the concept of the “social contract,” the process by which members of a society surrender some of their liberty to a higher authority in exchange for that authority’s protection of their rights.
Hobbes’ magnum opus is the treatise “Leviathan” (1651), in which he described the “state of nature” that existed before order was established via the social contract. Hobbes described the state of nature as a “war of all against all” with nothing preventing one neighbor from killing another and taking his property. In Leviathan’s most famous passage, Hobbes characterized life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Life in America has recently taken a Hobbesian turn.
Solitary. The long-term trend of decreasing human interaction has been greatly exacerbated by pandemic-related social distancing. The Survey Center on American Life says Americans maintain significantly fewer close relationships than a generation ago, with half of the country reporting having less than three close friends and one in eight Americans having no friends at all. And while the coronavirus killed tens of thousands of elderly nursing home residents barred from their loved ones, youngsters were not spared the effects of isolation. According to the CDC, adolescent suicide attempts spiked during the pandemic and continued to climb as lockdowns and social distancing mandates lingered.
Poor. Americans are becoming poorer as the highest inflation rate in 40 years cost the average household $3,500 last year. The erosion of wealth has no end in sight as the annualized inflation rate hit 7.5% in January. Real wages are declining as prices have risen across the board, with food and fuel leading the way. In contrast, annualized inflation stood at 1.4% and oil was $55 dollars/barrel in January 2021, when Biden terminated the Keystone XL pipeline, a mindless infliction of pain reminiscent of Franco’s bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in its lack of strategic benefit. Coherence not among his strengths, Biden curtailed domestic energy production while simultaneously imploring OPEC to increase production.
Nasty. “Stupid son of a b—-,” is what Biden called a member of the White House press corps. His predecessor applied an analogous appellation to another journalist. Neither president is the cause of America’s coarsened culture, but both are reflections of it. Marx foresaw a classless society. Take a look at the sewer that passes for American political discourse and behold a society without class.
Brutish. The murder rate increased by 30% in 2020, dwarfing any previously recorded increase. The bloodbath continues unabated as city after city reports record homicides. The deadly riots of 2020 sparked a new era of urban lawlessness as mass theft has forced retailers to close stores in inner-city locations. But nowhere has lawlessness been more pronounced than on the southern border. Over two million people from scores of countries entered the country illegally last year. This humanitarian crisis is the consequence of Biden’s unforgivable empowerment of drug and human trafficking cartels through his reversal of the prior administration’s immigration and border security policies.
Short. Average life expectancy decreased by almost two years in 2020, as the coronavirus and drug overdoses took their respective tolls on opposite halves of the age spectrum. Despite the availability of vaccines, more Americans died of the coronavirus in 2021 than the year before. Drug overdose deaths topped 100,000 during the pandemic’s first year. Narcotics are not the only contributor to the thinning out of America’s youth. Birth rates are the lowest on record as Americans have given up on the future.
Forty years ago, the “Misery Index” chronicled the combined effect of high inflation and high unemployment. Today the “Hobbes Index” paints a more comprehensive picture of the decline in the quality of American life. In spite of the social contract, the state of the union is a little more like the state of nature than it was just a few short years ago. On the bright side, at least we are not Ukraine.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.