America is buckling

It's hard to escape the feeling we're watching the slow-motion collapse of American self-government

The Statue of Liberty.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

If you've been following the news lately, it's hard to avoid the feeling that we're watching the slow-motion breakdown of American self-government.

I don't mean anything as dramatic and clear-cut as the seizure of authoritarian power by Donald Trump (although he's evidently trying). I'm talking about something a little subtler, but potentially just as destabilizing and perilous for America's future.

Donald Trump's antics — doing everything he can to steal the presidential election in the name of preventing his victorious opponent, Joe Biden, from stealing it — are a big part of this. But Trump is just an expression of something far more widespread in American society. While most Republican officeholders respond passively to Trump's ignorant, hateful nonsense, millions of Republican voters cheer it on, taking their cues from him and media personalities who amplify or encourage his acting out.

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Why is it happening? As you'd expect in a nation of 330 million people, there are many causes.

Some of it is an expression of assiduously cultivated partisan hatred of Democrats. Some of it is a consequence of a widespread collapse of trust in public institutions and a resulting turn to folk conspiracies as an alternative way of making sense of reality. And some of it seems to follow from a sheer love of conflict and combat for its own sake. A sizable portion of the American public appears to crave enemies. This feeds an increasingly agonistic politics modeled on warfare or a violent sporting event. Think of it as the resurgence of a warrior ethic unwilling to be tamped down by the niceties of liberal civilization. (Some Democrats also find a combative politics appealing, including the embrace of conspiracies, as we've seen throughout the Trump administration.)

All of this is very dangerous. But it isn't our only problem.

Liberals like to say that what the country needs most right now is a centralized response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that isn't obvious. Yes, the federal government should be doing a much better job of providing clear and intelligent public health guidelines, organizing testing, and making resources available for contract tracing and other measures at the state level. But a pandemic that waxes and wanes in severity over time and at different rates in different regions of a continent-wide nation would seem to be a crisis for which a government with a long, rich tradition of federalism would be quite well suited. Let states (and regions within states) lock down, open up, and regulate public spaces as conditions demand and permit. A combination of flexibility and practical wisdom would seem to be much preferable to a “one size fits all” approach.

Yet this isn't what we've seen. Instead of smart federalism, we've gotten dumb federalism, with many states actively denying reality by refusing to undertake any meaningful response to the pandemic at all, and citizens often responding with noncompliance to those states that have tried to do better. The results have been predictable, with regions that have imposed the fewest restrictions suffering the most severe outbreaks. In the most alarming cases of all, Americans are refusing to accept the truth about COVID-19 even as they draw their dying breaths.

But it's not as if states that have taken the threat more seriously are doing a great job either. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio may blame ignorance about the virus for the appalling number of deaths that took place on their watches last spring, but what's their excuse for allowing the teachers union in the city to get its way on shutting down public schools when restaurants, bars, and other businesses where the risk of transmission is much greater are permitted to remain open? And how about California Gov. Gavin Newsom's violation of his own state's public health guidelines on mask wearing?

Such foolish policymaking and flagrant flouting of sensible rules on the part of public servants just encourage non-compliance, fuel populist anger against elites, and further erode public trust.

But what about the incoming Biden administration? Won't a return to competent government in Washington lead to a marked improvement in the country's political condition?

It will certainly be better for the White House to be no longer in the hands of people actively trying to subvert efforts to coordinate a federal response to the pandemic. But beyond that, President Biden is likely to find himself overpowered by the forces of dysfunction coursing through American culture and society.

Already the prospect of divided government has Democrats talking about a presidency even more dominated by executive orders than we've seen under Trump and Barack Obama. Some of these orders would push into new directions of policy, but many of them would be designed merely to reverse orders decreed by his predecessor.

Governing by executive action rather than by legislation (because nothing significant can pass Congress) is already a bad sign of democratic breakdown. But doing so in order to enact reversals from the previous president's orders is even worse. With tax incentives and burdens as well as regulatory requirements and expectations in a state of constant flux, oscillating wildly from administration to administration, long-term planning for businesses and households becomes more and more difficult.

But that's nothing compared to the consequence for the country's power and influence abroad. Obama joined the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord. Trump broke from both. Biden is now promising to rejoin them. That's the geopolitical equivalent of split-personality disorder, with the country lurching from one position to its diametric opposite every four years. How can a country that undergoes such frequent 180-degree reversals be taken seriously on the world stage? How can it even be considered capable of governing itself in a responsible way?

Not everything is bleak. I agree with my colleague Noah Millman that the apparent success of efforts, in record time, to develop an effective vaccine (or two) to combat COVID-19 is cause for optimism in the medium term. It shows that the technological and scientific achievements of our civilization continue apace, despite our political struggles and woes.

But in the political and social spheres, it's becoming impossible to deny that the United States is buckling.

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