Is America Getting Crazier?

Sometimes, I worry about us. I worry that, for some unknown reason, the United States is getting crazier than it used to be. I worry because I have followed the news about the GOP primary season, where the King of the Moon is trying to knock off the Millionaire and his wife. I worry because I have a 500-channel cable universe/the Internet/social media, which all bombard me 24/7 with messages about fantastic claims, wild conspiracies, and upcoming apocalypses, all infused with secret plans and outrageous beliefs. And there are clearly lots of people out there who believe this crazy stuff.

I know I’m not alone in my concern and that this worry exists on both sides of the political aisle. My dearest Republican friends and social media “friends” who I don’t actually know on Facebook and Twitter worry that our country is so crazy and deluded it might just re-elect our Muslim, Antichrist, foreign-born, socialist president so he can carry out his secret plan to destroy our way of life and let the terrorists win. They really believe this. At least some of them.

A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 34 percent of conservative Republicans thought Obama was a Muslim. Curiously, many of the same folks who believed Obama is a Muslim simultaneously believed that Obama spent far too much time listening to the sermons of Christian minister Jeremiah Wright.

A Harris Interactive Poll found:

  • 67 percent of Republicans believe Obama is a socialist.
  • 25 percent of Republicans believe Obama is the Antichrist.
  • 22 percent of Republicans believe Obama wants the terrorists to win.

Last year, a CBS/New York Times poll found:

  • 45 percent of Republicans believe Obama was born in another country.

Perhaps it should be of some kind of a perverse comfort to know that Americans, the same amazing people who put a man on the moon and invented the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, also believe in lots of other non-political crazy stuff.

A Gallup poll found:

  • 21 percent of Americans believe in witches.
  • 24 percent of Americans believe that extraterrestrial beings have visited Earth in the past.
  • 32 percent of Americans believe in ghosts.

In some areas, liberals are clearly more crazy than your traditionally nutzoid, far right-wing nuts. While 25 percent of conservatives believe that the spirits of the dead can come back to haunt us, a whopping 42 percent of liberals said that they believed in haints, according to Gallup.

A 1997 CNN/Time poll showed that 80 percent of Americans think the government is hiding knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life forms. Come on! While it’s easy to believe “they’re out there somewhere,” how can anyone believe the government could keep a secret? Any secret. Ever heard of the Drudge Report?

And while it’s hard to find a good number on the percentage of Americans who believe they have been abducted by aliens, it’s worth noting that — a site for those in Northern New England who believe they have had contact with space creatures — has a current campaign ad for sensible ol’ Mitt Romney.

Turning to serious illness — not just loopy beliefs — mental illness remains a serious problem in our country, but the percentages do not seem to have changed much over the past few decades.

In 2010, there were an estimated 45.9 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States who had suffered from a mental illness in the past year. That’s 20.0 percent of all adults in the country. And 5 percent suffered from a serious mental illness in the past year. That is a very serious problem, but the percentage is pretty close to what it has been for the past 30 years.

I have drawn some comfort lately from a book I’m reading about Aaron Burr. In 1804, Burr, then the sitting vice president, fought a famous duel and shot Alexander Hamilton dead as a doornail. Not long after, the homicidal Burr presided over a session of the U.S. Senate while he was under indictment for murder in two states. This was sandwiched between the Whiskey Rebellion (over taxes, of course) and the Hartford Convention, where New England threatened to secede from the union. This all makes the curt exchanges between President Obama and Speaker Boehner and the “vicious” attack ads of Mitt Romney seem a touch more civil and less crazy by comparison.

The good news? We really aren’t now crazier than we used to be. But the bad news is that, sorry to have to tell you, but we have always been a bit crazy. It seems to be the American way.