Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Decline and Fall of America

When I came to America in 1960, it towered over the rest of the world economically and politically. It played a dominant and generally benevolent role in the world. It had saved the world from fascism, rebuilt Europe and much of Asia, including its former enemies, and it was containing communism.
After the Vietnam debacle, the US was less sure of itself. By the late 1970s, during the Carter presidency, the country seemed to be in retreat, while the Soviet Union was still on the march. The dominoes seemed to be falling. After Cuba and Vietnam, next to go were Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, soon Afghanistan...
The Third World was more sympathetic to the USSR than to the US, which was frequently isolated in forums such as the United Nations. Despite generous foreign aid to dozens of countries, international anti-Americanism was widespread, as was US flag burning in many parts of the world.
While the US and its ubiquitous CIA did engage in some mischief, this country was not morally bankrupt, certainly not so in comparison with its great geo-political communist rival.
Today, of course, the Soviet Union no longer exists.

In the 1970s, America remained by far the richest country in the world. More importantly, the distribution of wealth was much more equitable than what it has become today. The average CEO’s compensation was 20 times that of his employees. Now the ratio is 300 to 1. Taxes were more progressive, Unions were far more powerful, the public sector was not being starved, the US resembled the Western European welfare states more than now.

As early as 1962, Michael Harrington’s Other America reminded us that not everything was perfect in this country. But by and large, most Americans enjoyed a quality of life unparalleled even in Western Europe. Public health, life expectancy, rates of home ownership and the standard of living were all higher here than in other major western countries, with the possible exception of a few small islands of wealth such as Switzerland (8 million people), Norway (5 million),or Luxembourg (600,000).

But During the past five decades, American inequality, homelessness and hunger have increased dramatically and the standard of living has stagnated or declined. The working class has lost enormous ground. Union membership has plummeted.

The nation’s public sector is being starved. Public assistance and services such as welfare, food stamps, unemployment compensation, sick leave and childcare have deteriorated. Home ownership has declined. Republicans aim to privatize social security, prisons and other public functions. Despite Obamacare, which barely survives on life-support, health insurance remains highly inadequate. Public health is deteriorating. America is one of the few countries on earth with a DECLINING life expectancy. Public schools are underfunded and the quality of secondary education is often dismal. Despite all this, the Republican plutocracy continues to brainwash the population and reduce taxes, especially those of the rich. “Socialism” is once again a convenient bogeyman, as was the epithet “Communism” during the McCarthy era.
 American Capitalism, once the envy of the world, has malfunctioned. As the multinationals have gone global and outsourced their economies, the country became de-industrialized. The American Dream is dead. The country is no longer the land of opportunity. There is now more upward mobility in Europe than in the US.

In the early 1970s, the country’s total prison population was 263,000, or 120 per 100,000. Today, it is 2,200,000 million or 700 per 100,000. A black man’s chance of going to prison is over five times that of a white man. His chance of being killed by a policeman is three times greater. American crime and violence have risen far above the levels in other Western countries.

What about civil rights and race relations? The conventional wisdom is that there has been much improvement in this regard. Perhaps. Certainly most de jure segregation is no longer the law of the land, as it still was in many states when I arrived in the US. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s had significant results. However, the criminal justice system and the relationship between law enforcement and the black community are as problematic as ever, if not worse than half a century ago. With the exception of one short decade (1965-1975), the economic position of blacks relative to whites has not improved. If the upper strata of many professions exhibit greater diversity now than fifty years ago, this reflects America’s demographic transition from a largely white society (88% white in 1960. 61% today).

When I moved to this country, it also dominated the world in science and technology. While many of the world’s great universities are still in this country, the US advantage is no longer clear-cut. In the 1960s, in my own field of Sociology, the bulk of the research and literature was produced in the US. And when it comes to the arts, the humanities, and popular culture, America’s preponderance was overwhelming, both quantitatively and often also qualitatively. Jazz and Hollywood flooded the world. America also had a rich and vibrant literature, the greatest classical orchestras in the world and museums featuring great classical art as well as modern domestic art. This is in contrast with the country’s cultural poverty today.

But it is in the political sphere that the worst deterioration has occurred. The country’s Right has been in the ascendancy for several decades, so much so in recent years that it is assuming fascist characteristics. The country is polarized. There is a resurgence of white supremacism and racism is arguably on the rise. The rise of the Right began with the neoconservative movement of the 1970s, it gained strength thanks to the Reagan and Bush administrations and the Tea Party, and it has culminated with Donald Trump.

It is not clear when America’s decay began, or when it became precipitous. At first, during the first few post-war decades, one could expect this country to lose some of its advantage, as the rest of the world recovered from the war.

Thereafter, the US continued to lead the world in many ways, albeit more and more tenuously. By the end of the millennium, the country’s internal contradictions were becoming blatant. Its claim to be a model democracy for the rest of the world became less and less plausible. Its government in fact became a “minority government.” That is, the federal government’s three branches were no longer representative of the people. Rich, white, Republican men were over-represented, at the expense of all other categories.

This became possible due to built-in, undemocratic devices: The electoral college, the undemocratic senate, the life-time Supreme Court, plus practices like gerrymandering, voter suppression and campaign financing practices. America ceased to be a democracy and became, instead, a plutocracy ruled by strongman Trump in alliance with Wall Street.

Government corruption and paralysis have reached a zenith just when the country faces a devastating pandemic . In a brilliant article in the September 9 issue of the Atlantic: America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral; Ed Yong compares America’s response to Covid-19 to the behavior of ants. Sometimes, ants get into a death spiral. They begin to walk in circles, each following the one in front, until they die. They are the victims of their own (faulty) instinct. This metaphor illustrates America’s response to Covid-19.
Unlike other countries, the US has reacted with a “serial monogamy of solutions,” focusing upon one solution at a time, thus making no headway in solving the problem. It has created false dichotomies (e.g. combating Covid-19 vs. opening the economy). It has fallen into the “normality trap.” That is, it glossed over the pandemic while attempting to “return” to a normal lifestyle. Led by President Trump, the country has descended into an “intuition death spiral,” relying on theatrics such as travel bans, magical thinking (heat and light, hydroxychloroquine, etc.) and blaming everyone (China, the WHO, governors, Barack Obama, etc.).

Most terrifying is Yong’s conclusion, titled The Habituation of Horror: “The US might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment,... and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.
The author points out that if ever there was a time for this country to shed its arrogant claim of “exceptionalism,” that moment is upon us. To which I'll add this: America is neither God’s gift to humanity, nor the opposite of that. Like the rest of the world, it struggles and makes mistakes. It is time for Americans to talk less and do more; to stop bragging and waving the flag and, instead, start fixing the country. Is Covid-19 the force that defeats America, once and for all?

All countries face social problems, intermittently. Unlike other Western democracies, the US has become uniquely unwilling and unable to tackle its social problems. The country has reached a perfect storm. It is facing not one, not two, not three, not four but at least five catastrophic and simultaneous crises: Covid-19, the collapsed economy, the environmental crisis (California and the West are burning, the Gulf states face relentless hurricanes), race relations and “president” Trump. Add to these the following long-term problems: growing poverty and inequality, inadequate health care and deteriorating public health, gun violence, a decrepit infrastructure, deindustrialization and astronomical trade and government deficits.

Before a social problem can be tackled, it must be recognized. A vast segment of the American population is unwilling to face, recognize and understand the problems they face. We are politically paralyzed. The country is becoming ungovernable. In time, a country that is ungovernable becomes a failed state. There are countries in the world - Somalia, Honduras, etc - that are de facto only countries on paper, not in reality. Other countries’ degree of disintegration is less severe; they still function, although badly. Mexico is an example.

And then there is America. Here, the tragedy is not that the country is in imminent danger of total disintegration. It is the spectacular deterioration that has occurred over the past half century. The waste of a country that was once the envy of the world, and became a struggling and dysfunctional semi-democracy, in the same league as, say, Russia or Brazil. It is in comparison with what it was in the past that one wants to cry when looking at America. Once I was a young and idealistic immigrant, proud to become an American and eager to contribute to the welfare of my new country. Can one hope that the election on November 3 will be the beginning of a long and arduous recovery?

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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