With the entry of The United States of America in World War I, the world changed forever, and for the good. The principles for which America stood – a liberal democratic system of government that guaranteed the rights and liberties of its citizens to a life of freedom and individual choice – were cast like a net across the world.
Throughout the Twentieth Century America saved the world – and countless millions of souls – from the twin evil tyrannies of Fascism and Communism. The victory of the American (and by extension, Western) proposition that the crooked timber of humanity cannot be straightjacketed into a life of constrained choices, enabled a spectacular growth in human progress.
Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty as a direct result of the globalisation of economic growth and prosperity of Western, liberal, free-trading countries. Immanuel Kant’s great insight that democratic nations that work together in a rule-based system do not wage war on each other has rung true 200 years after he foretold this pattern of international behaviour.
In his inaugural address in 1949 Harry Truman declared “more than half the people in the world are living in conditions approaching misery. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of those people.” In the half century since, extreme poverty declined from 43% to 21%—a reduction of almost 1 billion people.
The greatness of the Western/American accomplishment in spreading and promoting liberal democracy idea has no parallel in human history. No other country has manifested its belief in bot the dignity of the individual and actually lifting it’s citizenry out of poverty so brilliantly for so many across the span of its international hegemony.
While the illumination of liberalism shines like a great beacon of human hope, it is also true that there are deep flaws within the system, especially when liberalism is chained to unconstrained capitalism. It is then at risk of becoming the catalyst that drives great inequalities.
Thomas Piketty documented in his masterful tome, Capital in the Twenty First Century, the high growth rates in Western economies that have been accompanied by a rise in incomes that benefited all since the thirty years after WW2. Liberal democratic capitalism has worked.
However, he further demonstrates that since the 1990’s, the very high level of private wealth has grown dramatically. By 1900 the richest 10% in Britain and France owned more than 90% of their nations’ wealth, with the richest 1% owning 50%. In the US today, the wealthiest 2% own 72% of the country’s wealth, and the poorest 50% own a collective 2%.
The natural tendency of capitalism is toward inequality. It needs constant intervention and constraint if the liberal virtues are to be upheld. And that is the role of Government as a stabilising force for the greater good.
Yet something remarkable has happened in the USA, unprecedented in it’s destructive force, that is tearing at the very bonds of society. There is a drive for unconstrained greed, inequality and militarism that seems to be growing stronger each year, ripping at the very social fabric that is holding the entire American experiment together. This may be of no consequence to anyone living outside the United States except of course that the US is the leader of the West, and culturally, militarily and economically speaking, we are all dragged along in it’s wake.
Two distinct trends have been pulling America apart: a shift in values and a decline in civility.
At first glance, it looks like core liberal values have been colloquially reinterpreted to mean the opposite of what that they once stood for. Take for example the value of Freedom. While most Western societies understand this to be a bedrock principle upon which a number of unique rights are based, such as freedom of expression, freedom to lawful assembly, a free press and so on, in America today it has come to mean untrammelled rights to individualism that are more important than the common good.
The right to bear arms is a poignant example. Once meaning the right to a popular common defence against a tyrannical Government, it has now come to mean a freedom to posses a weapon that is more commonly used to threaten and attack neighbours or schools. The NRA’s justification for military assault weapons to be freely available is simply staggering in its assault on human reason. There is no rational justification for assault weapons to be available to the general population.
Another mugging of reality: the response to, and determined destruction of Obamacare. There is a good argument about the cost of extending health care and the pressures on businesses to provide funding. That is one thing, but to argue that the common good is worse off by extending the reach of affordable health care to your own fellow citizens whose life spans are shortened because health care is too expensive, is a breath-taking assault on civic values.
The purpose of society is to promote the physical protection of its own. The health care changes introduced by President Obama increase the quality, availability, and affordability of private and public health insurance to over 44 million uninsured Americans. The law has also worked toward curbing the growth in healthcare spending which has been rising at an unsustainable rate. In other words, Obamacare has been working. The alternative is millions of Americans dying needlessly simply because they cannot afford medical insurance.
The quality of any society is determined by how it looks after those who are least able to look after themselves, and in this regard, America is a failing state. Once standing as a Great Society, generous and welcoming, the United States of America now stands as greed-driven, self-indulgent and unmoored in its civic virtues.
Take the extraordinary reversal of women’s rights and dignity. In an age where rights have become unhinged from responsibilities and accountability for one’s own actions, it is simply incomprehensible that the next US Administration has made it a cause celebre to ensure that changes to the Supreme Court are, in part, aimed to overturn Roe vs Wade. This seminal case made it law that a woman’s right to an abortion is not punishable. That’s right…that sanctions against women who choose to have an abortion will be reinstated 60 years since they were overturned.
In the Twenty First Century, the policy agenda of the next Supreme Court is to enchain women. In it’s trampling of a woman’s simple rights to her own body, it is incomprehensible in its backwardness, and signals that civic society is coming apart. So forget about gun reform to ensure the safety of the citizenry. And forget about money-in-politics reform.
This strikes to one of the most critical problems with this US Presidential Election: 4 years is long enough to do damage. It is true that things can be reversed. However picking 1, 2 or 3 Supreme Court Justices changes and embeds policy for 20, 25 years or more. Some things cannot wait this long. The damage will be too ingrained, like the reinforcement of cycles of violence and hatred that we as a society have spent years and resources trying to break. Most notably though will be the proposed changes to environmental control.
A popular reaction against science is not new. Even the Enlightenment’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed against science as leading to immorality and corrupting of society’s moral life. But there is a dark side to this denial of empirical evidence that predicts with 97% probability that something terrible is about to befall our planet. This is what Paleo-biologist Jared Diamond has pointed to in his masterful works on the collapse of society, and can be extrapolated to this situation. He documents that some collapses have occurred because humans simply did not adapt to the environmental changes happening around them. When they cleared the forest, denuded their food supplies and stimulated adverse micro-environmental changes, these societies, unable to adapt to a changing environment, collapsed.
I am not an alarmist by nature. But it is self-evident that the environment is changing and, as custodians of our own ecosystem, harming the system we are intimately connected to is bad for one’s health. When we do not repair our leaking house, we get water everywhere, our possessions get ruined, and we are forced to flee. The totality of our surrounding conditions are changing, the roof is leaking and some choose to live in denial.
Worse, many think old-system mining and dirty manufacturing jobs will be coming back after this election. Given what has been stated, the jobs that will be coming back will be associated with more public services, like prison jobs, not manufacturing.
In fact, the day after the US Presidential Election, prison stocks rose over 50%. America wants to incarcerate more people, not less. It needs to lock away the symptom of its racial and social divides, not solve the root-causes of its racial malaise. Out of sight is in this case out of mind. The consequence is to reinforce an ‘us and them’ racial and social divide that will erupt like volcanoes.
There is yet again an inversion of reason. $39Bn can be found annually for prisons, and more is to come. It is mooted that the $650Bn military budget is to be “super-sized” too. Yet limiting access to affordable health care and allowing untrammelled poisoning of the environment strikes hardest at those most vulnerable – the very people who threw the brick through the political window in the first place.
Perhaps the second most challenging rip at the social fabric across the western world is the liberation of being uncivil; the seemingly commonplace notion that it is OK to hate. Or as one commentator described it, the US campaign has now allowed us to say what we are really thinking. Is that such a bad thing?
One of the first things we are taught in school is to control our emotions in order to get along well with others. This is not for its own sake, although that is a good moral argument in its own right, but to enable peaceful resolution of differences and enhance respect for others. We do this because we value each person as an independent human being and to enable us to work together to achieve the success of the common weal. As we say in Emotional Intelligence, understanding each other makes for an effective life, liking the other is optional, but disrespect is never an option.
Anthropologists know this very well; if all you are doing is arguing with and fighting everyone around you, then all you ever learn is how to fight. This increases your chances of a nasty, brutish and short life. It is entirely self-defeating .
What this election, and indeed the tumultuous political changes happening around the western world show, is that the new normal is to be crass, vulgar, obnoxious and racist. We know that voicing hatred to those around you is the path of least maturity, yet it seems to be the path most travelled now.
I have never heard so much hate and anger spewed out about President Obama as I have after this last US Presidential election. It is as though the election has pulled the veneer of respectability off a festering wound of vitriol, boiling and simmering against any form of moderation.
We are in a post-truth politics world; it doesn’t matter what the facts are because it is our emotional responses that matters most to the polls. Truth or lies are secondary to the effect we want to make. The time for civility and moderation, to our collective misfortune, is seemingly over.
To understand that this is an issue beyond the borders of the US, look no further than the Brexit vote.
In the northern England city of Sunderland, for example, there is a Nissan car manufacturing facility. This site produces the luxury Q-series vehicles. With England leaving the EU, a 10% tariff will automatically be applied to English manufactured cars being exported to Europe – the United Kingdom’s single biggest customer. This will make it harder to sell the Q-models and Nissan may need to restructure, downsize/ or even close their plant if they are to remain profitable. Yet Sunderland voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. This is self-defeating politics at work.
Post-truth politics is the language of denial, and if we deny reality, we can never change for the better, let alone reverse what has happened. We may be comforted in our delusions, but we will inevitably lose out to the reality that pervades our world.
On the other hand, there is validity to the claim that political correctness has stifled debate. Hard truths, unpalatable as they are to swallow, need to be voiced from time to time if we are to confront hard realities and grow for the better. Some of the greatest speeches of history are not great because they voiced beautiful images, but rather because they shone spotlight on the dark corners of society in order to inspire change.
What we’ve learned so far about the least-experienced President-elect in history is as troubling and ominous as his critics have feared. The Greeks have a word for what may be defined as the emerging Trump Administration – Kakistocracy: a “government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.” Webster’s is simpler: “government by the worst people.”
In a prescient article in Foreign Affairs about Latin America’s experience of populist leaders, Shannon O’Neil writes:
“Perhaps the most consequential feature that all versions of populism share is the weakening of liberal democratic institutions. Populist leaders concentrate power in their immediate circle; they gesture toward enhancing political participation and claim to expand the civic sphere, but in fact they bypass, and thereby weaken, crucial institutions, such as political parties, independent judiciaries, and the free press. Populist leaders favour administrative decrees and marginalise legislatures. They undermine checks and balances on executive authority by casting themselves as the sole arbiters of right and wrong and by encouraging their followers to distrust and oppose anything connected to the old establishment. This kind of demagoguery can devolve into overt efforts to silence critics – sometimes even through violence…Things fall apart.”
There is not an area of civic, environmental, economic, social and international life that is not threatened with populism instead of policy.
The ancient Romans had a name for this shift in leadership: Dictator rei publicae constituendae – Dictator for the purpose of restoring the Republic. The question remains, will this President-elect restore the Republic, or derail it beyond repair?
One of the great advancements of the contemporary world is that we have moved on from following the self-appointed leader who is the biggest bully in the playground. We no longer serve the personal whims and needs of the King or Khan. Emperor is a title we look up in history books. Indeed, the very foundations of the American experiment in governance was all about breaking away from an authoritarian monarch in favour of the public choosing who would lead them, not rule them.
With the stacking of the Supreme Court, the ‘ancien regime’ may be gone forever and populism triumphant in its stead. The question left to us is what we choose to evolve into, not what we react against. The recent election has very clearly signalled that the divisions that splinter our polity are greater than the values that bind us together. The assault on reason and the absence of social trust will continue unabated until something new and better develops.
Where that leads us to and how that turns out when faced with global environmental challenges, Russian and Chinese expansionism, and a rising tide of popular anger and foment, is a very scary prospect indeed. I fear for America and so I fear for us all.