Since our society is composed of "large groups" (ie, Liberals, Progressives, Conservatives, Republicans, etc) it is useful to think about American societal regression as a progression from large group regression to larger and/or multiple large group regression.
One of the signs of large group regression, number 6 on the list established by the American Psychoanalytic association panel on symptoms of large group regression, discussed in Terror and Societal Regression is
Magical thinking, blurring of reality, and new or modified societal patterns.
Magical thinking is ubiquitous. There remain considerable numbers of Americans who do not believe we ever went to the moon; there are significant numbers of Americans who believe that HIV was developed by government scientists in order to kill minorities; there are significant numbers of Americans who believe the Bush administration engineered the attacks on 9/11. What matters is how such paranoid and magical thinking spreads, or is encapsulated, by the body politic. Like an infection, if such thinking spreads to the larger society, ie multiple large groups become infected or a threshold number of individuals become recruited into the conspiracy of fear, it can be both a symptom and a cause of societal regression.
Consider the fate of two different magical ideas.
Anthropogenic Global Warming hysteria is clearly based on magical thinking. There is quite simply no evidence in the paleogeologic record of a runaway green house effect on the planet Earth. (If such had occurred the planet would have been cleansed of all life long, long ago.) Further, we know that CO2 levels in the atmosphere have been significantly higher during past epochs. Yet, many people became convinced that we were headed for catastrophe based on the possibility of a rise in ambient temperature of a few degrees. Even if human activity generated enough CO2 to effect climate change, our ability to adjust is more than adequate to handle a few degrees; the hysteria reflected in such silliness as The Day After Tomorrow, a movie in which the scientific pretensions were simply laughable, was the result of irrational thinking. The UN approach to climate (to beggar the developed world in order to save the planet) and such lunacy as Cap-and-Trade reflects the magical thought that if only we treat Gaea well, she will not harm us.
Contrast the fate of AGW with another potential danger that has claimed the attention of a different large group, the threat of an EMP attack (the subject of One Second After, which I discussed here.) The potential danger of an EMP attack is significant yet it has not become the subject of widespread hysteria. Because it has not become part of a media campaign, the ability of those concerned to address the question in more rational terms has been enhanced. Robert Farley, at Information Dissemination does an excellent job offering some perspective:
I think it would be fair to say that there is no clear scientific consensus on a) the amount of damage that a concerted EMP attack could cause to the United States, or b) the size of the nuclear warhead(s) needed to cause a substantial EMP effect. One key reason for this uncertainty is simply that there are hard limits on what can be learned about the effect of EMP in the absence of an actual EMP attack, and certainly in the absence of atmospheric nuclear weapon testing.
Because of the limitations of the science, I'd like to focus on the strategic question. EMP awareness advocates argue that an EMP attack provides the perfect opportunity for China, a rogue state, or a terrorist organization to strike a devastating blow against the United States. Rather than simply destroying one city, the story goes, an EMP attack could wipe out the entire US economy, and even (according to the wildest estimate) lead to the deaths of 90% of the US population within a year. The EMP attack probably wouldn't eliminate the ability of the United States to respond, but because of the initial lack of lethality, the story goes, it would be difficult to launch a devastating nuclear counterstrike. While the US could respond with its own EMP attack, China and the various rogue states have economies less dependent on modern technology than that of the United States, and accordingly could weather a counterattack.
Alright, deep breath. Here are the parts of the story that I find strategically implausible:
Robert Farley points out that the science is not yet fully informed on the question (which is similar to AGW) and that the risk of an adversary obtaining the ability to attempt an EMP attack in a situation of such uncertainty must be considered lower than many other more pressing concerns. Read the entire post for his reasoning, which I find persuasive. (Be sure to read the comments as well for some plausible explanations for why this issue continues to find some expression.)
The obvious point of departure between the two stories is how they have been approached by the MSM. Reporters generally have minimal scientific expertise; they do know how to create stories, however. They work, more than any other large group in our society, as a force multiplier for magical thinking. A scientifically illiterate population is particularly susceptible to hysteria generated by a press in thrall to magical thinking that supports their industry and their political inclinations (for the government to "save us.") It requires firm determination to maintain or return to a rational stance in the face of the hysterical regression to magical thinking, but the ability of the American people to retain and/or regain their rationality (consider the polling on cap and trade and AGW) is heartening.