It’s been a while since I read anything as disturbing as Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune on Sept. 11 (“We’re No. 28! And dropping!”).

The latest Social Progress Index shows the United States performing miserably. You can argue with rankings about specific criteria, but that’s a fool’s errand. Our nation is failing its people with regard to education, health care, freedom, safety, nutrition and other societal necessities.

It’s a disgrace. There is no other way to put it.

The question is: What went wrong between the time we led the world in many of those categories and today? There are no easy answers, but two shortcomings stand out: a lack of leadership and a slide toward populism.

The paucity of leadership begins with the president. He talks a lot but accomplishes little. He focuses more on dividing the nation than on uniting us. And he shows little intellect, few leadership skills and no moral suasion.

He’s not alone. Senate leaders such as Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer do not fulfill their leadership responsibilities to provide constitutional checks and balances. The same is true in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Republican counterpart seem more interested in complaining than leading.

In education, we have marvelous teachers, but governors and legislators leave educators dangling before overcrowded classrooms and confusing expectations. We dissipate the education experience by trying to be all things to all people — populism again.

It’s fine to teach youngsters how to speak Portuguese, but first and foremost we should teach them how to be good citizens. Good citizens do not create danger for others by refusing to wear face masks during a pandemic.

In higher education, we still have the finest universities in the world, but that status is fading as universities become more and more dependent on research money and as curriculums become ever more fractured and trivial.

In the medical field, the nation leads the world in medical technology, but we fail to provide adequate medical care for much of our population. That means we have too many medical specialists and not enough general practitioners. Medical education seems to favor technology over service.

Populism is what got Donald Trump elected — and gave simplistic Bernie Sanders a platform. Trump pushers talk about his “base.” In this case, base implies the most pejorative meaning of the term — low, shameful, servile.

Populism leads to the lowest common denominator. It tears down; it does not build up. In some ways, leadership and populism are contradictory terms. One cannot lead if one is driven only by the latest public opinion poll.

Democracy is not populism, and populism is not democracy. We have the most powerful tools in history to sustain a democracy through citizen awareness — public education, abundant libraries, radio, movies, television, digital technology. But instead of focusing on the incredible amounts of information those technologies provide, we focus on the celebrities who present it.

One does not become a leader by reading a script written by someone else about another someone else who actually accomplished something, never mind the celebrity who pretends to be a comic book character created by someone else and brought to life by a dozen or more “special effects” specialists.

The United States of America is in serious trouble. And until we find leaders who are wiser than the rest of us, more concerned about citizens' well-being than about their own and more understanding of the nation’s unique role in history — until we find such leaders, the nation’s status in the world will continue to deteriorate.

Don Gale.

Don Gale is a longtime Utah journalist who has written about the ups and downs of American leadership for more than 50 years.