According to the neurologists who first recognised the condition, “Americanitis” described a fraying of the nerves caused by the relentless speeding-up of modern life. Time and distance-shrinking inventions, such as the telegraph and the steam train, put a go-getting nation under psychological strain that its nervous systems had not evolved to handle. Silas Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia doctor, reckoned that two categories of American were at high risk from the condition: competitive businessmen and social-climbing women. The only cure was rest, plus a diet that included four pints of milk a day.
America has always been synonymous with restlessness. Most of the tribes that inhabited north America before 1492 were semi-nomadic hunters, moving around with the seasons. The European colonists who came later were restless enough to risk the voyage and the harsh conditions on arrival for a new life. The African slaves they imported couldn’t wait to move off the plantations once they gained their freedom. Going west, riding into the sunset, road trips: so many American clichés suggest movement in search of something better.
In the decade that just ended, America lost some of that vigour. One of the rationales for introducing freedom of movement in the EU was to make Europe’s labour market more efficient, more dynamic, more American. But in the years since that European treaty was signed, the share of Americans who relocate in a given year has halved. In 2019, internal migration reached a 73-year low. Technological change used to encourage movement but as legions of white-collar Zoom workers can attest, it no longer does.
The 2010s, according to William Frey of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, saw the slowest rate of population growth in America since the 1780s. There are, according to more up-to-date medical science, two ways to increase a nation’s population: either make more humans or import them. The average number of births per woman in the US is now slightly lower than in France and about the same as in Britain. And even before Covid-19 closed borders (or Donald Trump had been elected to build the wall), the immigration rate was falling.
This convergence extends to religion too. There is a whole branch of sociology dedicated to explaining why, unlike other rich nations, the US did not become less religious as it got more prosperous. In the late 20th century the leading theory was that the absence of a state church resulted in a free-market competition among different branches of Christianity for worshippers, a kind of Reaganism for souls, which kept American religion lively and popular. Yet during the 2010s the share of Americans who described themselves as Christian fell from 77 per cent to 65 per cent. Overall, Americans now attend religious services more frequently than Italians and less often than Poles. That no longer seems so exceptional.
A more sedentary America, with its slower population growth, is a challenge to the country’s ever-expanding idea of itself. The classic version of the nation’s story is a relentless pushing of the frontier from sea to shining sea and, when that got old, into space. Politicians who tell voters that there are limits to what is reasonable to consume do not fare well. Jimmy Carter’s suggestion in 1977 that Americans should turn their thermostats down to 65 degrees (18C) in the winter to conserve energy is still a cautionary tale among campaign consultants about how to antagonise swing voters.
What does this creeping Europeanisation mean for politics? One of the country’s two political tribes associates Europe with desirable things like universal healthcare, paid family leave and soccer. The other one associates Europe with horrifying things like sloth, socialism and soccer. The result is likely to be more conflict, because the changes in population, internal migration and religious practices do not suggest that fans of a US that is more like Europe are winning. Instead, the averages hide the extent to which the US is pulling apart.
Conservative America sees larger families as more godly and falling birthrates as both an economic and a moral problem. Before the Trumps became American conservatism’s first family, the Duggars, stars of their own reality TV series 19 Kids and Counting, had a claim to that title. No conservative political gathering in the mid-2010s was complete without an appearance from Duggar progeny, whose number made them formidably efficient at book signings. Upscale liberal Americans, by contrast, don’t want more kids than they can fit in a jogging stroller.
Conservative America still goes to church a lot. The overall decline in churchgoing and in Christian affiliation is mainly down to the increase in the number of (liberal) Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all. As the US has become a less Christian nation, the sense of threat from the broader culture felt by white evangelicals in particular has increased, which helps to explain their willingness to embrace a powerful protector like Trump — despite his rather obvious shortcomings as a figurehead for a group aspiring to live for Jesus.
As these groups move further apart, the mutual incomprehension that characterises American politics will probably grow. On the conservative side, a country that is becoming more European is alarming, and could result in further radicalism and ambivalence about democracy. On the liberal side, the frustration at the power that conservatives exercise through counter-majoritarian institutions like the Supreme Court, the Senate and the electoral college, will increase. And this strain of Americanitis, unfortunately, will not be fixed by a nap and a few pints of milk.
John Prideaux is US editor of The Economist.