Something rotten in the states of America

Just how rotten is the United States political system? “Rotten” as in it will only take a small kick for the whole edifice to fall in, let alone a big kick like Covid. The idea is about as fanciful as the collapse of the Soviet empire seemed in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan famously demanded: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Yet, a short time later, a little chink in the Iron Curtain at the Hungary-Austrian border saw the whole rotten regime collapse.

Almost nobody predicted it, with the notable exception of Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik. Amalrik is not as well-known as dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzehenitsyn because he was killed in a car crash in 1980, but not before his writings had been smuggled out to the West. Amalrik was unlike other dissidents who sought east-west accommodation and a little softening of the Soviet hardline while still under a Communist regime because the end of the regime seemed a hopeless cause.

Amalrik pointed out in detail the inherent rottenness of the Soviet Communist system which he said would be gone by 1984. He was not far out. He pointed out the circumstances in which a great power succumbs to self-delusion because it imagines itself to be indestructible. 

Charles King, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University in Washington DC, wrote an essay in the most recent Foreign Affairs magazine outlining Amalrik’s theory of great-power decay, very cleverly avoiding directly applying it to the US.

King wrote: “The ‘comfort cult’, as Amalrik called it – the tendency in seemingly stable societies to believe “that ‘Reason will prevail’ and that ‘Everything will be all right’” – is seductive. As a result, when a terminal crisis comes, it is likely to be unexpected, confusing, and catastrophic, with the causes so seemingly trivial, the consequences so easily reparable if political leaders would only do the right thing, that no one can quite believe it has come to this. . . . 

“Viewed from 2020, exactly 50 years since it was published, Amalrik’s work has an eerie timeliness. He was concerned with how a great power handles multiple internal crises—the faltering of the institutions of domestic order, the craftiness of unmoored and venal politicians, the first tremors of systemic illegitimacy. He wanted to understand the dark logic of social dissolution and how discrete political choices sum up to apocalyptic outcomes.”

Look at the US now. Its President is so psychiatrically disordered with narcissism that he is incapable of dealing with the Covid 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”.

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-stricken economy will bounce back to normal in a V shape.

But Trump is as much just a symptom of the underlying rottenness as an integral part of it, even if his sucking up to authoritarian leaders in Russia, China and North Korea is unprecedented.

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 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.

The motives of “the other side” are routinely vilified without evidence. The Democrats are blamed for everything. The Republicans can do no wrong. And to a lesser extent, vice versa. My side of politics right or wrong.

In a vicious cause-and-effect circle, the imperative of winning at all costs corrodes the political process and the corroded political process makes winning at all costs even more imperative.

The Trump presidency has made all this worse, but the seeds were there long before. He has appointed incompetent ignorant toadies to the most senior positions in Cabinet and the bureaucracy. He has undermined the Supreme Court with appointments based on politics not law.

For a long time, the electoral process has been corrupted with 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.

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 the adding of a bit of mild caution to a system that is overall supposed to be geared to problem-solving, not political point-scoring.

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.

Whatever happens, Australia must not go any further in the direction the US has gone in the past few decades.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 11 July 2020.

11 thoughts on “Something rotten in the states of America”

  1. I’m an American watching this unfold from the inside for years now (long before the rise of our current president). You are spot on. For those of us who can see it, it’s an experience that runs the gamut from bewildering to frightening to maddening.

  2. “Fall”? of a great power? Respectfully, mate, you’re only looking at one half of the story. What you’re overlooking is the response to this arguably, observably awful period the U.S. is going through at the moment. Comparing this to the collapse of the Soviet Union is misinformed at best, disingenuous at worst, laden with schadenfreude at even worse than worst.

    The majority of American public opinion has not just turned against Trumpism and its adherents, it’s doing so with some very clear ideas about where it wants this country to go when we finally turn the page out of this shitshow we’re currently living through. Further, no one really believes that “things will be fine again when Trump’s gone”. No one. What we expect is that a Trump defeat will trigger violence from the right, egged on by Trump himself with an assist from Bill Barr. Not a civil war as such, but isolated acts of domestic terrorism that will kill some people, injure still more, and destroy property… but we’ll be ready, we will defeat the forces of anarchy, and we’ll enter a new era, one that’s more progressive than anything yet seen in this country, even if it’s not up to the full satisfaction of the far left.

    Our allies are leery of us now, but the presence of Joe Biden – the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as well-respected a figure abroad as one could ask for – will allow us to repair those relationships, and once his time in the White House is over, his legacy will be carried on by whomever he picks to be his vice president next month.

    By contrast, the vacuum left behind by the defunct Soviet system had no forward-thinking leaders to take Russia forward, only a demoralized, alcoholic population led by a buffoon in Boris Yeltsin, and a broad contingent of Russians mistily nostalgic for the “good old days” under Josef Stalin. A nation that had lived under authoritarian rule for over 1,000 years and was unprepared for the demands of democracy.

    So please. Contain your enthusiasm for our demise, as reports of such are greatly exaggerated.

  3. Great thought-provoking article.

    There’s probably numerous people who seemingly would celebrate the US fall but probably don’t think through the consequences. Indeed I think your article underlines an ominous sign for the world at this juncture. The contest between China and the US / West appears to be the Thucydides’s Trap playing out in real time today.

    If we really think about it, who or what is going to fill the power void, replace the US led world order if. or when, it does collapse? China? Russia? An alliance of these superpowers?

    We can be certain there won’t be the same freedoms we currently enjoy for the most part if the world order is reorganised under these regimes and likely potentially worse.

    I reckon this is one of the bigger consequential questions that needs to be asked or at least considered in commentary, namely what will the world look like post a US-led liberal international order?

    Is this something you have pondered?

  4. “Whatever happens, Australia must not go any further in the direction the US has gone in the past few decades.” Quite true, but repeating all the mistakes of toxic Capitalism USA-style is IPA-Coalition doctrine.

  5. Well stated Crispin. It would appear that the only way Trump will win in November is if there is an international diversion of catastrophic proportions. And as anti-China propaganda increases a new US-Sino War looms large.

  6. I fear we started following the USA down the same path when Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal Party but that begs the question. How can we, Australian Citizens, attract politicians with Intelligence, integrity, courage and compassion, who will always be looking for upward paths away from the quagmire of politics you describe?

    I have pondered that for many years; election finance reforms and integrity commissions would no doubt help but they are post facto. I would like to read an article by you, from centre left of politics and John Hewson from the centre right, with suggestions to resolve my question and thus reduce the need for post facto solutions.

  7. History is replete with examples of power structure collapses: the Roman Empire, Napoleonic grandeur, European imperialism post World War One, etc etc. A timely and perceptive analysis re the US. The same reasoning might apply to China in the future, which will bring intense pain in its wake.

  8. Australia shouldn’t be smug, with a “Labor” government brought to its knees, by over-population, over-privatisation, and elitist urban “planning”.

    Let’s say Piketty is right: Liberal and Labor/Greens both represent the elites. Then we will struggle to inch the dial away, from the divisive US/UK models towards the (slightly) more egalitarian European models.

  9. Could the USA fragment like the Soviet Union? California almost seems like a separate country already. In many respects – education, health, local government – the USA is much more decentralised than Australia. Perhaps the national political system could implode without destroying what is still the most significant economy in the world.

  10. “Whatever happens, Australia must not go any further in the direction the US has gone in the past few decades.”

    But my perception of our conservative federal government is that it is guided by a willingness to emulate the US conservative policies of granting a bigger slice of the economic pie to the wealthy at the expense of a smaller slice for support and services for the poor.

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