The Stumbling American Giant
The United States has been the most powerful country in the world for 130 years and has actively led the international community for 75. With only 4.25% of the world’s population, the US still accounts for a little more than 24% of the world’s GNP. Its military is by far the world’s most powerful, with a budget larger than the next 12 biggest militaries combined. The US has the highest per capita income of any major country and the most diverse and creative economy the world has ever seen. It leads in virtually every technology critical for economic and military predominance, from artificial intelligence to materials science. Its democracy has set a standard the world has looked up to for 240 years.
But the American giant is stumbling. Today, Americans fear that the US is in decline. Its economy is progressively skewed to the ultra-rich. Its national government is almost paralyzed. China is challenging Washington’s international power and leadership. American society is more divided than at any time since the Civil War, with up to 40% of Americans believing that a “strong man” leader — a fascist — is preferable to democracy.
Will American Democracy Perish Like Rome’s?
Almost all Americans worry that for the first time in history, their children will be poorer than they are. Many of America’s political moderates and progressives fear that America’s democracy will be replaced by fascistic autocracy and consider former president Donald Trump and the current Republican Party fascist. Yet on the other side of America’s political divide, an NPR/Ipsos poll in December 2020 found that 39% of Americans believe that the country is controlled by a sinister “deep state,” and this enrages them.
My family and I are literally what made America. Since my ancestors arrived in 1620 on the Mayflower off the shore of Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, America was created by “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” popularly known as WASPs. The culture that shaped the United States for 350 years was overwhelmingly English, then Western European, with a dominant Puritanical, Protestant ethos.
For 15 generations, America was also culturally and legally a society for whites. Even for my generation growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, many Americans still changed their surnames to sound more “Anglo” — dropping the last vowel, say, from the Italian (and Catholic) “Lombardi” to “Lombard,” to appear more WASP-like and less “ethnic” or un-American. Fully 10% of the population was black, but they were excluded from power and lived on the cultural periphery. Half the nation still lived in an apartheid “whites only” regime, the legacy of centuries of white domination and black slavery. In the media, one saw only white faces like mine, except in subordinate or, rarely, in “exotic” roles. And, of course, America, like the rest of the world since time immemorial, was only a man’s world.
But with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, America began a stupendous social change, with blacks and women gaining unprecedented rights. Furthermore, non-WASP immigrants have arrived in the US by the tens of millions. When I was born, America was over 88% white. By the year 2045, under 50% will be white. The trend has already been clear for decades. In the past dozen years, the US has elected a black president twice, a black-Indian female vice president, and its second Catholic president.
Today, the US has a vibrant black middle class. Its Asian population is growing rapidly. Asian and Indian Americans hold many prominent positions in the country’s economic and scientific establishments. Women now hold countless key positions in all sectors of the US economy, including boardrooms. This demographic and social revolution has diversified America but also engendered a nativist, racist reaction and the rise of a fascist: Donald Trump.
Socially conservative whites — especially the least educated — have literally taken to the streets to “save” their country from these changes. Donald Trump voices their anger and their demands. Having lost the presidential election of 2020 yet having refused to accept verified results, the Republican Party has taken dozens of measures to restrict voting access for non-whites. There has been talk of civil war, and there has been an insurrection.
Real incomes have largely stagnated for about 40 years. Globalization has destroyed entire sectors of America’s middle-class economy. Much of US manufacturing has moved abroad to lower-wage economies. In the 1960s, the single male income earner could provide a middle-class life for most families. Today, 60% of families require two full-time incomes to maintain a middle-class life. According to a Brookings paper, women account for “91% of the total income gain for their families.”
In 2019, a Federal Reserve study found that almost 40% of Americans “wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that they could quickly pay off.” With $41.52 trillion in assets, the top 1% of households control more than 32% of the country’s wealth. With just $2.62 trillion in assets, the bottom 50% own a mere 2%. This concentration of wealth is creating social and political strains.
America Is No Longer One Nation
The Republican Party has based its appeal on these grievances for decades, and Trump, the classic demagogue, exploited them all the way to the presidency. Blaming stagnation and increasing economic insecurity of ordinary Americans — and their loss of white social status — on globalization has been a ploy of Republicans since the mid-1960s. The party has progressively based its appeal on such tropes and fears since.
Today, Republicans systematically oppose any action by the federal government as a threat to “freedom.” They seek to reduce taxes, gut economic regulations, lower investments in infrastructure and slash expenditure on education, which they deem to be a means of dangerous social engineering.
As McKay Coppins has pointed out in The Atlantic, after emerging as the leader of the Republican Party in 1994, “Newt Gingrich turned partisan battles into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump’s rise.” As speaker of the House of Representatives, Gingrich sought to demonize and destroy the Democratic Party. He refused to cooperate, let alone compromise with the Democrats at any level either in the White House or Congress.
When Barack Obama was elected president, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acted ruthlessly to oppose everything the Obama administration proposed. Before the 2010 midterm elections, McConnell declared: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Today, McConnell has stated that “100% of his focus is on blocking” President Biden’s agenda.
Since the mid-1990s, American politics has turned increasingly polarized, its federal government almost paralyzed. There are two principal reasons the US suffers from political rigor mortis. First, the Republican Party has become increasingly intransigent and partisan. The Democratic Party remains more moderate and open to compromise but has gotten little in return from the Republicans. Second, America’s electoral structures accord a disproportionate weight to rural districts, which is where the anxious, angry and reactionary WASPs and other whites live. The more ethnically diverse, urban and educated citizens tend to live in the major cities, heavily concentrated on the country’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
On July 1, 2019, Wyoming’s population was 578,759 while California’s numbered 39,512,223. In the presidential elections, Wyoming receives three electoral college votes; California receives 55. This means a vote for president in Wyoming is worth more than 3.72 times a vote in California. However, it is in voting for the US Senate where Wyoming really has an edge. Every state in the US elects two senators, regardless of its population. This makes a vote in Wyoming 68.27 times more valuable than a vote in California.
This structural bias toward less populous rural states gives Republicans a tremendous political advantage. It has enabled them to triumph in two of the last six presidential elections despite winning a minority of the popular vote and to frequently hold a majority in Congress and Senate, despite receiving lower overall votes. America is so evenly divided politically that one party often controls the White House while the other dominates Congress, or at least one of its two chambers. Given the partisan gridlock in the US, this virtually brings legislation to a halt.
The consequences of this electoral and institutional schizophrenia are everywhere to see and experience: American roads, bridges, water mains, harbor facilities and education now lag far behind most developed countries and even many emerging economies. Some foreign visitors to the US have commented that American infrastructure reminds them of the 1950s — which is precisely when much of it was built. The Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train network, awes Americans, including myself, and it is 50 years old. America has always been a “third-world country” for the ethnically excluded. Now, the strains and failures of America’s social, economic and political paralysis extend more broadly through society. Even the WASPs are not spared.
Two global issues in particular shape American public life and self-doubts. First, the US is no longer the only great power. China’s rise has been breathtaking. Beijing challenges American preeminence in trade, technology, diplomacy and military strength, posing the greatest challenge to the US since World War II. Many Americans fear that China’s rise is a sign of American decline.
Second, global warming threatens the American way of life and shapes much of the political debate about the environment, the economy and the role of government. Signs of a literal cataclysm are already upon us. The West Coast has experienced the worst forest fires in recorded history and is living through the worst drought in 500 years. In 2012, the US Geological Survey estimated that sea levels would rise on the East Coast by nearly 50 centimeters by 2050. In 2021, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association projects the same level of sea rise in Boston and Massachusetts. By 2050, the spot where my Mayflower ancestors began the American experiment 400 years ago will be swallowed by the sea.
Yet even global warming divides America. Most of the Republican Party believes that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the “deep state” so that scientists can have jobs. Some even assert that the California wildfires are linked to “Jewish space lasers.” These Republican beliefs are an amalgam of lunacy and old fascist tropes. That one of the country’s two major political parties believes such dangerous lies and delusions bodes ill for America’s future.
During his campaign and since becoming president, Joe Biden has declared that the next four years will be a “battle for the soul of the nation.” He and his party have to end the paralysis of America’s public institutions and democracy, heal social divisions, and reduce growing economic inequality. They must rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and rise to the challenge of China as a fast-emerging peer competitor in international and economic affairs.
The Republican Party and nearly 40% of the American population will oppose every step Biden attempts. The rural bias in the country’s political structures consistently grants this 40% control of about half the House of Representatives and Senate. Biden must win majorities to implement his transformative economic, social, political and diplomatic policies with only the slimmest majority possible in the legislature.
Furthermore, this majority is fragile. Of the 100 seats in the Senate, Republicans have 50, Democrats 48 and independents two, both of whom caucus with the Democrats. The vice president presides over the Senate and supports the president but may only vote in the event of a 50-50 split. Historically, most presidents have struggled to enact their agenda even with strong electoral majorities.
No president since Abraham Lincoln in 1861 has had to deal with such an array of grave social, political and economic crises. Throughout history, many states have proven unable to address structural, systemic problems with legislation and policies that do not profoundly alter these structures or systems. In most instances, however, this requires major social and political upheaval, sometimes even revolution. This has happened before in America — in 1776, when there was revolution, in 1861, when there was civil war, and in 1929, when there was economic collapse.
Within the current framework of American democracy, Biden can probably only succeed in radically addressing America’s daunting democratic, diplomatic, social, political and economic challenges if his party wins a more solid majority in both chambers of Congress. Thus, all eyes, hopes and fears turn to America’s congressional elections of 2022, now only 16 months away. This historic vote may well decide who wins the “battle for the soul of the nation.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.