This is the translation of an article that appeared in de NRC, a Dutch newspaper, on election day, November 3, 2020.
Forget the elections. Forget the candidates. Neither Biden nor Trump can save America. America is a failed state. Not in the classical sense, a state reduced to a shell of anarchy and chaos, but in the sense that America is failing to keep its own promise, failing to provide basic amenities and services. It is a country without cohesion, a society like loose sand.
The crisis of 2008 gave a foretaste, the corona crisis is merciless. Not only is clear that America does not have its affairs in order and does it show itself incompetent in crisis management, it appears to have no social contract, no mutual solidarity, no compassion. Americans themselves seem to have given up on their country. You can see them thinking: it is annoying what is happening, but it is none of my business. Or worse, what happens doesn’t actually happen, it’s a conspiracy, a political stunt, a fabrication of the media or of the president, and whatever it is, it will pass.
If empires have a life cycle, and history seems to point that way, do we see evidence that the United States is past its peak? It is not the challenge of another superpower that raises this question, but the spectacle of self-destruction, the erosion of a nation. It is not an issue that came up today or even yesterday. Donald Trump did not cause the decline. He personifies it and in his incompetence he also confirms the decline. America displays the characteristics of a third world country, including the embarrassingly low level of its elite.
More than 10 percent of American families have to survive on an income below the poverty line. Tens of millions of children depend on school meals, live in awful housing, do not enjoy health care. People who used to have well-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector have had to fall back on low-paid jobs, often part-time and with irregular working hours. Many Americans live on knife’s edge, from paycheck to paycheck, and this crisis is pushing them over. The lines in front of the food banks, the desperation of people who have lost their jobs, cannot pay their rent or mortgage interest, the standoff in Washington over possible aid: a civilized country would be ashamed of itself.
Despite Obamacare, 28 million Americans still don’t have health insurance. In the current economic crisis, millions of people are losing their jobs and with it the insurance provided by the employer. Meanwhile, the Republicans are determined to kill what remains of Obamacare. What passes for a free market has degenerated into a kind of robbery capitalism that even nineteenth century robber barons would be ashamed of.
CEO’s of American companies pocket tens of millions of dollars every year, picking up bonuses that their employees, the source of their success, do not participate in. In 1965, the CEO of an average-sized company earned about 20 times as much as a worker in that company. In 2020 he (mostly he’s) make 278 times as much.
Income inequality is greater than ever since the Great Depression, wealth inequality is shocking. The three richest Americans own more than the poorest 160 million compatriots. An inheritance can be passed on almost free of charge. A fifth of family households have no or negative assets, for black families this is 37 percent. The median wealth of black households is one tenth that of whites.
Since the 1970s, corporate America has exported jobs. First to the ‘deep south’ , later to other countries where wages were even lower and working conditions even worse. Unions were undermined and sidelined. Wages were kept low, investments were neglected to generate short-term gains for shareholders and, through a perfidious bonus system, for directors. Politicians danced to their tune.
A good argument can be made for the general benefits of globalized trade but hardly anybody dares to make it. We’re stuck in a kind of Neanderthal protectionism that has become the norm for all Americans, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump. Who would have thought that in 2020 self-sufficiency would become a target for the country that once drove world trade and the free market?
Studies that measuring well-being show the US is declining; in the Social Progress Index from 19th place in 2011 to 28th place now. In terms of quality of primary education, America ranks 91. Access to health care puts the country at 97. These are embarrassing figures that are greeted with a shrug, resignation or disinterest.
The always imaginary idea of the American dream can no longer fool anyone. American social mobility is minimal. Sure, the higher-income group is growing, but the lower-income group is growing faster. The middle class is shrinking, the chance that you will fall down is greater than that you will climb up. The mantra that you are responsible for success or failure releases society from interference and depresses those who fail. No wonder that the number of ‘deaths of desperation’, that is, from alcohol, drugs and suicide, has risen sharply. Last year 68.000 people died in the opioid crisis. Life expectancy in the US is falling.
Racism is structural, police violence is the order of the day. The country has an unashamed racist as president, a man who pits its citizens against each other. Black Lives Matter is widely supported, but that does not carry any costs and the practice of American daily life hardly changes. Anyone who thinks that racism will disappear in America in the foreseeable future lives in dreamland.
In 2020, America is a segregated country in the sense that the people who are doing well are barely in contact with Americans who are struggling to survive. They live in different neighborhoods, go to different shops, experience different daily lives. Worse, they are not interested in each other. I have always appreciated the helpfulness of Americans for people in their immediate environment, especially in comparison with the all too Dutch view that the government does take care of them. Rich Americans are now building a wall around their country house or neighborhood.\Americans fear each other, as the hapless couple in St. Louis demonstrated by using weapons of war to protect their mansion from an imagined threat. In a country armed to the teeth, the risk of accidents has increased sharply, especially now that the president justifies violence, protects Neo-Nazis and flatly refuses to condemn white supremacy activists.
None of this was inevitable, an accident or an unintended result. We see the consequences of conscious policy here. From 1980 on we have seen an orchestrated attack on the public good. As Thomas Piketty has shown, US income disparities widened sharply after President Reagan’s lower income tax, officially intended to encourage people to work harder, unofficially to kill the public sector. In the words of anti-government activist Grover Norquist, “We want to make the government so small that we can drown it in a bathtub.”
Again and again Republicans sold tax cuts with the lie that economic growth would make up for the loss of government income. In reality, entirely predictable deficits forced a reduction in social spending, while corporate subsidies and defense spending went up. The government did not get smaller, only poorer. Companies eagerly continued to suck the government for as much as they could, no wonder the number of lobbyists has grown explosively since 1980. They write legislation for lazy politicians, who find lucrative employment in the same lobby circuit after their political careers. They made sure that Donald Trump did not have to pay taxes.
Everybody acknowledges that American infrastructure has deteriorated for decades now. Public facilities such as airports, train stations, metros and a high-speed internet would fit better in a poor third world country. America doesn’t have any high-speed trains, it does not even have slow trains. That is not because there is no need for it, the reason is quite simply and quite devastating that American people do not want to make the investment. Climate change is not a priority because it requires government investment. America no longer invests in America.
Can a country run the world without internal cohesion? The fatigue of the average American voter is palpable. Let the world take care of itself. Donald Trump made sure the world is writing off America. If there was anything left of America’s reputation, it’s gone now. Where admiration, jealousy or aversion used to play a role, now compassion is the dominant feeling.
A structural problem is that the American political system is no longer adequate for these times. The electoral system with its electors is undemocratic, worse, it is downright hostile to democracy. It leads to disinterest.
The separation of powers no longer works. The executive is not controlled by the legislature, the legislature does not accomplish anything unless both the House of Representatives and the Senate are in the same hand. And even then Republicans between 2017 and 2019 managed not to pass any serious legislation except tax cuts for the rich and for corporations. The Supreme Court is more politicized than ever, raw power is being used to secure seats.
The two-party system, as a result of the existing political system, has become dysfunctional. Both sides wasted their energies in clownish culture wars or identity competitions while socio-economic policies were neglected or made suspect as European style socialism. The political and economic elite were mainly concerned with themselves, with self-enrichment and blatant abuse of the system.
In America you don’t need a coup d’etat to move towards an authoritarian regime. You can take small steps to undermine democracy, corrupt the rule of law and get citizens used to behavior that was once unacceptable. You just have to politicize the institutions that keep the state afloat. Then judges, prosecutors, supervisory lawmakers and law enforcement agencies lose their neutrality and become a tool in the hands of would-be authoritarian leaders. We see it happening.
Signs of a corrupt state: a president who uses office for personal and political benefit and surrounds himself with family members, pardons convicted mercenaries, politicizes and abuses the Justice Department. Senators using the knowledge gathered in secret briefings to safeguard their assets, corporations profiting from corona support, the replacement of bureaucracy professionals with politically loyal lobbyists. Taunting, dismissing, the free press and independent science. Abuse of the state institutions. Never before the US military had to explicitly declare that it would not be used for political purposes.
It is not just a crisis of democracy, at least not in the instrumental sense. If only that were the only problem, it could be solved with elections. No, even with perfect democracy, with civilized and intelligent leaders who follow the rules, want the best for the country (say, someone like Barack Obama), America is not doing well. It not a great surprise that a country in decline elects and supports a president like Donald Trump. Or rather, it is no coincidence that in that tragic country the choice was between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Without going into detail about both persons, we can conclude that they were a perfect fit for this dilapidated America, each in their own way.
It is tempting to think that another president with more decency and more community ideals can save America. I am profoundly skeptical. Joe Biden won’t do it. Maybe his vice president can do it, if she gets the chance. Maybe someone knows how to seize the moment and reconnect the country. In the past century some of the most successful presidents were successors to their deceased bosses.
America runs on optimism and in the past it managed to save itself from episodes of self-destruction, however, that now seems more wishful thinking than a realistic option. It hurts to look at the country that I have worked with as a journalist and academic for 40 years, that I lived in, a country of which my wife and children carry a passport. To have to conclude that is has lost its way.
My beloved America, a failed state? True, you don’t get a sense of decay walking around Washington or living in a gated Los Angeles suburb. But that’s not the point. America has become a land of islands that have little in common. Large groups that are well off. Large groups that are badly off. No connections between these groups. No sense of common interest, of common life, of a society that provides primary facilities and establishes and maintains connections.
Okay, maybe not a failed state but a failing state, a festering wound of promises not kept. The decline is in progress, has been going on for a long time, and the question is whether it can be stopped. The results of these elections are only a limited factor in this.
Frans Verhagen is a journalist and American expert. He wrote The United States Presidency, The Most Powerful Office in the World. He blogs at meiguo.nl