America in Free Fall

Here’s an op ed by Crispin Hull from the Canberra Times, We are witnessing the fall of a great power. That would be the United States. I mostly agree with is, although I have quibbles about one section. It begins:

Just how rotten is the United States’ political system? The answer is rotten, as in it will only take a small kick for the whole edifice to fall in, let alone a big kick like COVID-19.

Then we have some passages about the past falls of great powers. There is a strong tendency in long-established powers to ignore warning signs and assume that the nation will right itself when faced with multiple crises. This section reminded me of some passages from Paul Krugman’s 2003 book The Great Unraveling, which criticized the George W. Bush administration. He described the Bush II Republicans as revolutionary powers that did not accept the legitimacy of long-established norms and were working to destroy the nation from within, and of course they’ve gotten worse since.

Hull continues,

Look at the US now. Its president is so psychiatrically disordered with narcissism that he is incapable of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in a coherent, empathetic way. Everything he says and does is through a prism of himself. He has now turned his whole re-election campaign into one of race hate, law and order and a bizarre invention of a threat from “left-wing fascists”.

Can’t argue with that.

But worse, the US seems to have a national self-delusion that once Trump loses and is gone, everything will return to normal. The delusion extends to a belief that the COVID-19-stricken economy will bounce back to normal in a V shape.

A whole lot of us know better, actually, although many citizens who are not politics nerds probably don’t grasp what we’re in for.

Here’s the section that falls short:

The underlying weakness in present US democracy is that partisanship has become so extreme that the nation is incapable of dealing with the major issues that face it. COVID-19 has illustrated that starkly, with every word and act predicated on party allegiance. Meanwhile, other problems like race, police violence, gun control, inequality, the health system, climate change and energy policy go unattended.

There are two underlying weaknesses in the U.S. that have been eating at it for a long time. One is that there is just too damn much wealth. Over time — especially since the 1970s but arguably since World War II —  the whole country has been corrupted into a vast machine creating more wealth for the wealthy. I guess it was always assumed there would be enough crumbs to keep the proles happy.

The U.S. middle class has been shrinking since 1971. Income and wealth inequality in the United States is substantially higher than in almost any other developed nation, and it is on the rise, it says here. There are communities so impoverished they might as well be in a third-world country.

Much of the middle and working class has gone along with this because it was happening slowly enough that people didn’t see it happening. Or they didn’t see it until it happened to them. The rise of two-income families enabled people to maintain a standard of living that one salary used to support.

The other underlying weakness is our great original sin, racism. This is the great wedge issue that has pushed middle- and working-class whites into voting against their own interests for years. The Jim Crow laws that blocked Black Americans from normal participation in the economy held economic growth back, especially in the South. In the early 20th century the Ku Klux Klan kept union organizers out of the South, because unions were associated with eastern Europeans. In the 1950s and 1960s, hysteria over school integration turned a big chunk of white Americans against the whole idea of public schools, and our schools have suffered. When Lyndon Johnson enacted the Great Society program that, basically, extended the New Deal to help African Americans, suddenly whites who owed their own financial status to the New Deal turned against “government programs.” And so on.

Racism is the deep poison that we’ve never been able to cure, and it’s still central to the partisanship that Hull talks about. It’s racism more than anything else that has enabled right-wing politicians to enjoy the support of poor and working-class whites, even though the political Right in the U.S. offers them nothing but hurt.

See my recent post Missouri and Medicaid — it was the poor rural folks who have no insurance, whose hospitals are closing, who turned out to vote against Medicaid. And a big reason for that is that they got glossy postcards warning them that Medicaid would give free healthcare to illegal immigrants.

Are both parties equally guilty of feeding partisanship? In some ways yes, in some ways no. The Republican Party turned itself into nothing but a corrupt machine in support of more corruption, exploitation, and inequality. But Democrats failed to put itself on the side of poor and working-class folks and instead became a party supported mostly by urban, college-educated upscale professionals. The Dems for too long tried to find a middle ground, supporting policies that at least wouldn’t piss off Big Money while carving out some benefits for the little people. It abandoned the rural poor entirely. And let’s not get started on the ways the Obama Administration failed to hold accountable the people who caused the 2009 financial crash.

So it was that we went into 2016 with the Democratic Party faithful certain that the nation was doing well, or at least heading in the right direction. But they were seriously out of touch. (See my 2016 post, Resist the Return to Normalcy.)

And partisanship? The Democrats too long negotiated with themselves to appease the Right and otherwise worshiped at the altar of “reaching across the aisle,” even after years of having their hands bitten as they reached. Even during the recent Democratic nomination debates, half of those Dem promised to “reach across the aisles.” Including our nominee, Joe Biden.

Now we get to the Bernie Sanders section of Hull’s op ed:

For a long time, the electoral process has been corrupted by state governors drawing unfair electoral boundaries so that the Republican Party is grossly over-represented in Congress compared to its vote, and has won the presidency twice this century with a minority of the vote.

The electoral process has also been corrupted by runaway bribery through political donations.

Another vicious circle has emerged. The politicised Supreme Court from 2010 on has refused to control corporate and individual political donations – thus favouring the Republicans.

Donations from billionaires, mainly to the Republicans, consequently boomed from just $17 million in 2008 to $611 million in 2018 – and rising. This results in policies more skewed to the wealthy and conservatives, and therefore greater inequality. These policies include engaging in wars in remote places where the only real US interests are those of war profiteers. In turn, these policies result in more donations from billionaires, who get repaid manyfold, and who now have as much if not more control of the process than voters.

Yep, that’s all true, and many of us have been bitching about this for many years.

Tragically, American exceptionalism – “we are the first and best democracy on Earth” – contributes to the self-delusion of indestructibility. There is nothing automatically self-correcting in US democracy. Even the so-called checks and balances are not working – they are causing gridlock, rather than adding a bit of mild caution to a system that is overall supposed to be geared to problem-solving, not political point-scoring.

American exceptionalism is a big reason people have refused to see how the U.S. has been deteriorating and falling behind other first-world democracies in many respects. For too long, any attempt to explain this deterioration, or to ask why other countries are able to provide health care and child care and better wages, etc., for their people, hits a wall of American exceptionalism. Remember Hillary Clinton’s “We are not Denmark“?

The system has become so warped that those disenfranchised, disempowered and disenchanted are taking to the streets, questioning the legitimacy of the whole system.

The only question is whether the taking to the streets can break these vicious circles, or whether it is just another step in the decline and fall of a great power.

We can’t afford four more years of either Trump or Mitch McConnell, never mind both. I think the country can save itself if Dems can take the federal government in November, and if the long-entrenched leadership doesn’t squelch the progressives. And even then it will be a long haul, and the U.S. will never again be the global leader it used to be. But maybe it will be a decent country to live in. Eventually. In a few years.