The prospects for the US look bleak. With continuing rapid decline, rampant inequality, falling living standards, rising unemployment, and China becoming the world’s largest economy, the divisions will grow ever greater. The Capitol Hill insurrection was more like the beginning than the end of the polarisation and turmoil. The US is in danger of imploding, which will only hasten its decline. My latest column for the Global Times.
The extraordinary events in Washington DC will mark a fundamental change in how the world sees the US. America likes to present itself as a model of democracy, an example for every other country in the world to follow. Yet the spectacle of armed demonstrators, with the encouragement of the outgoing president, breaking into Capitol Hill and seeking to disrupt the confirmation of the new president, is the kind of behavior we have associated in the past with a handful of Latin American countries. The riot, the uprising, the insurrection, the attempted coup, call it what you will, serves only to underline the gravity of the political crisis that now confronts the US. This event was no aberration: on the contrary, it is a symptom of the country’s worst political crisis since the Civil War. One fears it is more a beginning than an end.
How has America reached this nadir? The fundamental causes have been long in the making. At its heart is America’s relative decline since the 1980s, although only very recently has this decline received widespread recognition. Well over half the population have experienced falling or stagnant living standards for in excess of forty years. Inequality is not only the worst in the rich world, but it has returned to the levels present in the US in the 1930s, if not even earlier. A majority of people now believe that their children will be poorer than they themselves were at the same age. For the majority, the long-standing and much-vaunted American Dream is already history.
For a country that has been more or less on the rise for the whole of its history – in other words, for well over two centuries – this has come as a huge shock. Americans have thought of their country as the land of opportunity, God’s chosen people, the leading country in the world. Given this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Americans were totally unprepared for what has happened in the last twenty years: two failed wars, the 2008 financial crisis, a weakening economy, accelerated national decline and the rise of China. The consequence has been unhappiness and angst, profound uncertainty and loss of confidence about the future, and growing divisions.
America is now a deeply polarized country. Republicans and Democrats no longer speak the same language. There are two narratives, two versions of the truth, one based on nationalism, the Confederate tradition, white superiority and conspiracy theories, the other rooted in the idea of American leadership and exceptionalism, and the post-1945 norms and principles of the liberal establishment. American politics has always depended on a broad consensus. For many decades there was a big overlap and much common ground between Democrats and Republicans: now there is a chasm between them. They occupy different worlds. And the result is a growing paralysis of government.
Biden will soon be president. He will enjoy a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. He faces a large hostile majority in the Supreme Court. Most seriously of all, he is confronted with a large part of the Republican Party that is bitterly opposed to him. And even more seriously, as we saw in the debacle on Capitol Hill, there are many people on the ground that believe he and what he represents is the Devil Incarnate, the enemy within. We cannot describe America as comprising two nations, but the bitter divisions that have opened up as a result of the Trump presidency, his veiled threats of a coup if he was not re-elected, and his deliberate encouragement of opposition bordering on insurrection, suggest that this could yet become America’s future. The Civil War offers a chilling historical precedent, with eleven states choosing to secede from the Union because of their refusal to accept the ban on slavery.
Such a modern-day equivalent seems extremely unlikely but no longer, in the light of recent events, entirely inconceivable. But even short of this, the prospects for American governance look bleak. With the US in continuing rapid decline, rampant inequality, falling living standards for the majority, rising unemployment, and China on the verge of displacing the US as the world’s largest economy, the tensions and divisions are likely to grow ever greater.
Biden may well get at least some of his legislation through Congress, but, with Trump in full cry, it will be contested and resisted on the streets in a way not seen in recent times. The acuteness of the divisions will undermine the legitimacy of governance. America will become unpredictable and unstable. America’s voice in the world will count for that much less because those fissures will be clear to the rest of the world. The future will be constantly uncertain. America desperately needs major reforms – to deal with infrastructure and inequality, for example – but these will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve. The implosion of America seems like a recipe not just for further American decline but a far more rapid decline in the future.
The author was until recently a Senior Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. He is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University and a Senior Fellow at the China Institute, Fudan University. Follow him on twitter @martjacques.