We cannot know our own country unless we see it in relation to somewhere else. For those of us who came to the USA from countries with more difficult histories, what currently is unfolding is a flashing red light, a wailing siren, a five alarm fire.
“America’s institutions remain strong” was a refrain I heard repeatedly in recent travels outside my usual professional and social bubble. This view, and the complacency it fuels, is profoundly misguided.
Institutions – “humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction” – are anchored in a shared commitment to limit conflict. The checks and balances architecture laid out in the US constitution provides a vital formal guardrail – but the foundation on which the edifice ultimately rests comprises a shared understanding among stakeholders that they will abide also by tacit, conflict-containing norms. In today’s USA, those norms are at – perhaps already beyond – breaking point. When conflict-containing norms break down, then look out below.
An increasing body of excellent scholarship has used a comparative lens to understand the USA’s governance crisis. (See HERE, HERE and HERE). In this piece, I add a personal perspective. Forty-three years ago, aged 23, I landed at Boston’s Logan airport, leaving behind a country then deeply in the grip of apartheid’s tyranny, in search of my version of the American dream, citizenship in ‘a more perfect union’. I continue to hope against hope that America’s better angels may yet prevail. But sustaining this hope is becoming increasingly difficult.
Two sets of entrenched habits of thought and action risk propelling the USA into an abyss. The first comprises a reckless propensity to polarize. Integral to a thriving society is a platform of shared commitment to the common benefit, to providing the myriad public goods which underpin a thriving society. Views will vary as to which public goods to provide, and how to provide them. With compromise, a society can thrive. But if protagonists adopt ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ approaches to collective discourse, social problems fester indefinitely. (Aficionados of game theory will recognize this as a description of the game of ‘battle’.)
Failure to address deeply-rooted social problems has been the reality in many countries – but not, I always assumed, of the USA. Yet currently the United States finds itself unable to achieve sufficient consensus to make progress on any of a myriad of pressing challenges: immigration reform, health care reform (including, as the covid19 pandemic has revealed, ongoing underinvestment in public health capability); investment in infrastructure; reforms to improve learning outcomes; protection of the environment; support for basic research; social insurance; the list goes on and on…..
At the limit, an unbounded, unconstrained willingness to do what it takes to impose my-way-or-the-highway solutions – to threaten and intimidate, including the threat of inflicting massive, mutual destruction – risks a slippery slope towards disaster. (Aficionados of game theory will recognize this as a description of the game of ‘chicken’.) The absence of a coherent public domain is not laissez faire capitalism. It is the destruction of the institutional platform which enables a market-economy to function. It is the loss of the predictability which provides the basis for thriving, vibrant human life. It is an accelerating destruction of wealth; social capital; culture; knowledge; the institutional foundations of civilization. The specter of state collapse and a descent into violence comes into view.
A second set of entrenched habits of thought and action, a sub-species of the first, may not lead all the way to state collapse – they risk driving the USA into a made-in-America variant of state capture. Here I have in mind a cluster of ideas and interests which demonize the public sphere. Being non-American born, and schooled in an eclectic economics tradition, I take for granted the virtues of a mixed economy, with distinct public and private realms. So the depth of American distrust of government has come as a surprise – though I’ve increasingly come to understand that it has roots both new and old: new in that it has been fueled by the billions of dollars spent by the Koch brothers propagating libertarian ideas (see HERE and HERE); old in that distrust in government has long had a hold on the American psyche, as Gary Wills has documented.
Libertarian world views offer no adequate response to changes in the economy in recent decades, spurred by a combination of globalization and technological change (see HERE, HERE and HERE) which have put new pressures on middle class livelihoods. Rather than work to construct a new vision, what has emerged among the protagonists of limited government has been the collapse of any sense of shades of gray. Inclusive policies of a kind which are uncontroversial in all other high-income countries become demonized as slippery slopes on ‘the road to serfdom’. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon become left-wing fellow travelers. This would be farcical were it not for the consequences.
A pre-occupation with keeping taxes low, at whatever price, has led to the political swamp – an openness to policies and ideologies profoundly antithetical to what had seemed to be deeply-held national values. What is unfolding resembles nothing so much as a made-in-America variant of state capture – a toxic hybrid of ethno-nationalism and a corrupt, praetorian politics.
Ethno-nationalism and praetorian politics draw on distinctive American legacies: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the violent white supremacist Jim Crow South (plus more genteel variants of superiority, rooted in a culturally-narrow vision of American exceptionalism). But what currently is unfolding resembles political currents which are distinctly non-American: the European ethno-nationalist fascist movements of the first half of the twentieth century (which in Hungary, Poland and other countries are making their own comeback); cults of personality of a kind which are all-too-familiar in Latin American or African ‘big man’ politics. Those of us who have lived and worked in such settings know that this generally ends badly.
Like most immigrants, I was drawn to America by what seemed to be a happy combination of bold risk-taking and a pragmatic, can-do spirit, a sunny optimism. More than I knew when I came to these shores, darker impulses also festered beneath the surface; now they threaten to overwhelm. It doesn’t have to be that way.
What drew me to America may have been an incomplete picture, but it was not false. Though currently in eclipse, the better angels of America’s nature could again be ascendant. Here is what I wish for: that the American center holds; that politicians of the center win a sweeping electoral victory, and renew the American polity, economy and society by learning from political practices which made America great in the 20th century:
- The ‘bold, persistent, experimentation’ which characterized the far-reaching, inclusive reforms which comprised the New Deal of the 1930s – reforms which were vilified at the time by those on the right but which, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself put it, “saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin.”
- The non-violent activism of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement, which offers an inspiring example of what can be achieved by embracing and universalizing, rather than crashing through, deeply-held (if imperfectly realized) American values of tolerance, respect for the individual, and the equal dignity of all people.
- A civic-minded corporate culture, part of a broader embrace of a mixed economy – an embrace which Yale and Berkeley political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson usefully remind us in their book American Amnesia was a key pillar of mid-twentieth-century American prosperity (with strong support from a variety of business organizations, including the Committee for Economic Development the Business Advisory Council, and the American Chamber of Commerce).
- Legislative compromise in pursuit of the collective good, including Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s National Interstate Highway Act, which authorized 41,000 miles of new road construction; white southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s championing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and Republican Richard Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and championing of an expanded, modernized welfare system (including early support for a variant of Universal Basic Income).
These practices made America great (for many, not all…..) in the twentieth century. Inclusive 21st century variants could provide a platform for renewal, for building a thriving, inclusive and environmentally sustainable society, one which offers equal dignity and opportunity for all – and, in so doing, could make America great again.
Thank you for this interesting and thought provoking perspective. The underlying question that permeated my thoughts as I read the piece was – why and how did it come to this? If history is any comparator, one wonders if the idea of “American Exceptionalism” has blinded those in power, just like the idea of “British Exceptionalism” blinded those at the beginning of the last century.
Not only those in power………. white Americans have overwhelmingly bought into the “American exceptionalism” notion……
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