By David Brooks
In June a statistic floated across my desk that startled me. In 2020, the number of miles Americans drove fell 13 percent because of the pandemic, but the number of traffic deaths rose 7 percent.
I couldn’t figure it out. Why would Americans be driving so much more recklessly during the pandemic? But then in the first half of 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle deaths were up 18.4 percent even over 2020. Contributing factors, according to the agency, included driving under the influence, speeding and failure to wear a seatbelt.
Why are so many Americans driving irresponsibly?
While gloomy numbers like these were rattling around in my brain, a Substack article from Matthew Yglesias hit my inbox this week. It was titled, “All Kinds of Bad Behavior Is on the Rise.” Not only is reckless driving on the rise, Yglesias pointed out, but the number of altercations on airplanes has exploded, the murder rate is surging in cities, drug overdoses are increasing, Americans are drinking more, nurses say patients are getting more abusive, and so on and so on.
Yglesias is right.
Teachers are facing a rising tide of disruptive behavior. The Wall Street Journal reported in December: “Schools have seen an increase in both minor incidents, like students talking in class, and more serious issues, such as fights and gun possession. In Dallas, disruptive classroom incidents have tripled this year compared with prepandemic levels, school officials said.”
This month, the Institute for Family Studies published an essaycalled “The Drug Epidemic Just Keeps Getting Worse.” The essay noted that drug deaths had risen almost continuously for more than 20 years, but “overdoses shot up especially during the pandemic.” For much of this time the overdose crisis has been heavily concentrated among whites, but in 2020, the essay observed, “the Black rate exceeded the white rate for the first time.”
In October, CNN ran a story titled, “Hate Crime Reports in U.S. Surge to the Highest Level in 12 Years, F.B.I. Says.” The F.B.I. found that between 2019 and 2020 the number of attacks targeting Black people, for example, rose to 2,871 from 1,972.
The number of gun purchases has soared. In January 2021, more than two million firearms were bought, The Washington Post reported, “an 80 percent year-over-year spike and the third-highest one-month total on record.”
As Americans’ hostility toward one another seems to be growing, their care for one another seems to be falling. A study from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that the share of Americans who give to charity is steadily declining. In 2000, 66.2 percent of households made a charitable donation. But by 2018 only 49.6 percent did. The share who gave to religious causes dropped as worship service attendance did. But the share of households who gave to secular causes also hit a new low, 42 percent, in 2018.
This is not even to mention the parts of the deteriorating climate that are hard to quantify — the rise in polarization, hatred, anger and fear. When I went to college, lo these many years ago, I never worried that I might say something in class that would get me ostracized. But now the college students I know fear that one errant sentence could lead to social death. That’s a monumental sea change.