Saturday, June 17, 2017

While America Takes Itself Down...

Has America taken a self-inflicted, mortal blow? Has it been brought down from within? Fareed Zakaria ponders the question that most Americans refuse to ask themselves.

Partisanship today is more about identity. Scholars Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have argued that, in the past few decades, people began to define themselves politically less by traditional economic issues than by identity — gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. I would add to this mix social class, something rarely spoken of in the United States but a powerful determinant of how we see ourselves. Last year’s election had a lot to do with social class, with non-college-educated rural voters reacting against a professional, urban elite.

The dangerous aspect of this new form of politics is that identity does not lend itself easily to compromise. When the core divide was economic, you could split the difference. If one side wanted to spend $100 billion and the other wanted to spend zero, there was a number in between. The same is true with tax cuts and welfare policy. But if the core issues are about identity, culture and religion (think of abortion, gay rights, Confederate monuments, immigration, official languages), then compromise seems immoral. American politics is becoming more like Middle Eastern politics, where there is no middle ground between being Sunni or Shiite.

I have seen this shift in the reactions to my own writing and my television show. When I started writing columns about two decades ago, the disagreements were often scathing but almost always about the substance of the issue. Increasingly there is little discussion about the substance, mostly ad hominem attacks, often involving my race, religion or ethnicity.

This may not be something that can be mended, healed or cured. With every American blunder and misstep, rivals are moving in to exploit the inevitable power vacuum.  When Trump axed the Trans Pacific Partnership, China was there to move in. Now Beijing's "Belt and Road" initiative is crossing South Asia and heading for the Middle East and on into Africa. Chinese banks are now the numbers one and two foreign lenders in Latin America. With Trump's snub of Cuba China is apparently expected to piggyback on any Russian move to re-establish its presence in Cuba.

These changes in geopolitical spheres of power are not easily undone. Perhaps not even another leader of the international stature of Barack Obama could patch the holes Trump has driven into America's bilges, especially not if the American people and their political caste remain so paralytically divided.


Dana said...

I never know what you've seen and what you haven't. Forgive me if this is of the former category.

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the link, Dana. That is a brilliant essay.

Owen Gray said...

An excellent essay. The combination of ego and appetite make him a lethal weapon.

Anonymous said...

The USSR fell on it's own sword.
The USA will follow in its footsteps.
Both countries thought they were too big to fail; they weren't.
Both countries have similarities in that they were/are too diverse to govern.
They also sought to export their ideals; which are now being rejected.


The Mound of Sound said...

TB, read the linked article and let me have your thoughts. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

As interesting a it is I feel the article misses the point that it is not just a Trump phenomenon .
The USA has become delusional and is full of Trump wannabees!
The USA is the home of Honey Boo Boo and the home of those that kill for a pair of running shoes.
They, the USA, would seem to have more shysters per square foot than any country in the world and it's acceptable;everyone wants to be in on the game.
Trump is just more successful than others.
His loneliness is self made none wish to work with him as he is toxic to any future employment.

Purple library guy said...

This was deliberate. Any results inconvenient to those in charge are a form of blowback. It's somewhat analogous to shifts in the Middle East, actually.

Basically, the problem was class struggle and leftist politics. One solution was basically to resolutely change the channel. The academy went all post-modern, the media et al. became willing to talk about identity struggles but not economic issues, Cointelpro hunted down and killed some of the radicals, harassed and smeared others, leaving standing those black, gay, feminist etc. political actors who did not have a class analysis, who did not question the empire.

Similar things happened in the Middle East. Back in the fifties, Arab and Persian struggles were political and secular. Pan-Arab Nationalism was vaguely socialist in nature, with a developmentalist agenda, the President of Iran was a social democrat who was nationalizing his country's oil, and so on. Left alone they would have re-created the Middle East as a little superpower--a group of closely aligned developmental states building their own industry, trading internally, owning all the oil, pocketing a big surplus and using it for social programs and infrastructure. Probably they would have been collectively closer to the Soviet Union than to the US and NATO.

Something had to be done, clearly. Something was. It involved death squads and assassinations, Israel as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier", CIA-backed coups, propping up of the worst dictatorships and so on, but through it all the systematic targeting of secular populist Arab political movements and their leadership.

But the people had to have some kind of vehicle for their discontent; as a substitute, religious movements rose, often actively encouraged by the US and allies. Somewhat similar to the religious right and culturally-oriented political movements like the "Tea Party" in the US. In both cases there's been blowback and unintended consequences; in both cases the powers that be remain much happier with the results than with any kind of secular alternative, particularly anything vaguely left-ish.