The Doubtful Future of the American Experiment

Image by Markus Spiske.

Signs of Decline

Peter Baker, the outstanding New York Times columnist, writes:

“There was a time, not that long ago, when the United States presumed to teach the world how it was done. When it held itself up as a model of a stable, predictable democracy. When it sent idealistic young avatars to distant parts of the globe to impart the American way. These days, to many watching at home and abroad, the American way no longer seems to offer a case study in effective representative democracy. Instead, it has become an example of disarray and discord, one that rewards extremism, challenges norms and threatens to divide a polarized country even further.”

It’s hard to contradict that assessment. Everywhere you look, there are signs of America’s political decline, and at every level of government. At the national level we see the chaos in the Republican Party and its transformation into a Trump cult; the consequent dysfunction of the House of Representatives; the Trumpian assault on the Constitution. The United States as a democratic system is up for a vote next year.

At lower levels of government, we have everything from book bans and antivax movements to violence against election workers and mindless populist gatherings, often in small towns, against virtually anything that government promotes. And then there’s the Supreme Court, once a hallowed institution and now riddled with corruption, its “originalist” decision-making run amuck.

It is almost unimaginable that next year the American public, surely one of the world’s most exposed to information, might elect a criminal as President. Here is a man twice impeached, indicted an unimaginable number of times, an outright fraud, an admirer of Vladimir Putin and other dictators, a consistent loser in elections and the courts since 2016—and yet, as he stands in the dock for his crimes, and offers the American public nothing more than rantings about witch hunts, is again the lead candidate of the Republican Party.

Advocacy of violence against anyone who opposes him lies behind those rants. David Remnick compares Trump to Rodrigo Duterte, the former Philippines leader whose anti-drug crusade may have killed as many as 10,000 people.

“Trump has made it plain that his plans for a second term are no less unbelievable than Duterte’s, no less vengeful or unhinged. We should listen. These are campaign promises. For many years, Trump has hidden in plain sight—he makes no effort to conceal his bigotries, his lawlessness, his will to authoritarian power; to the contrary, he advertises it, and, most disturbing of all, this deepens his appeal.”

As Trump has said, “I need one more indictment to ensure my election.”

The Logic of Liberalism

Strangely, although the American people prefer candidates other than Trump and Joe Biden, and lack confidence in just about any institution other than the military, they do support policies and programs that favor liberal government. By substantial margins, the public supports reproductive rights, strong action on climate change, same-sex marriage and transgender rights, protection of social security and Medicare, and (contrary to most media reports) aid to Ukraine.

In short, despite the best efforts of Republicans to limit Big Government, the public clearly favors an activist federal government. The Biden administration has delivered on most of the issues the public supports, with economic benefits to Red areas as well as Blue. To be sure, inflation and immigration plague his administration, and Biden’s age keeps coming up. But as David Brooks reminds us, Joe Biden has a pretty good moral compass, his intellect is still sharp, and even his low numbers in polls are better than those of other current leaders of democracies.

If logic guides politics, the Democrats should win in a landslide next fall. Because at this moment, we only have one functioning political party. As the columnist Charles M. Blow writes:

“All the inflamed consternation about Joe Biden’s age and Hunter Biden’s legal troubles will, in the end, have to be weighed against something far more consequential: Republicans — obsessed with blind obeisance, a lust for vengeance and a contempt for accountability — who no longer have the desire or capacity to actually lead.”

But logic and politics don’t mesh these days. Trump’s incoherent speeches and embarrassing behavior get far more media attention than Biden’s calmness and accomplishments.

Needed: An Awakening

Dysfunction at home has consequences abroad. The MAGA-ites are not the only people who take pleasure at our chaos. In Moscow, America’s problems may be the one thing that gives Putin hope of prevailing in Ukraine. Perceiving the US as a great power in precipitous decline can be dangerous in another way.

As the former defense secretary Robert Gates has recently written, “Dysfunction has made American power erratic and unreliable, practically inviting risk-prone autocrats to place dangerous bets — with potentially catastrophic effects.” America’s friends in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere count on our predictability and readiness to act. Lack of confidence in the US can be contagious, inviting illiberal populists to seek power and undermining security alliances.

In the not-so-distant past, we worried about America’s economic decline. First it was the Japanese who were (supposedly) in the ascendancy, more recently the Chinese who were said to be Number 1. Now the US economy is doing better than most others, including China’s and Japan’s, but the underlying political structure is tottering.

We need a great awakening. There is a silent majority that needs to be heard—one that denounces authoritarianism and violence, supports the rule of law and the Constitution, demands accountability, and defends human rights, civil liberties, the environment, and world peace.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.