Owing to America’s disproportionate military, financial, and technological power, the breakdown of rational politics in the United States is the most dangerous fact for the world today. And while President Donald Trump’s recent election defeat is a necessary step toward restoring sanity to American politics, it is only the first of many that will be required to stop the downward slide of the US and convince the rest of the world that the country no longer poses a threat to itself or others.
There are two urgent challenges facing America and the world in the wake of the US election. First, President-elect Joe Biden must take on the long uphill struggle to restore some measure of domestic political stability. Second, other regions of the world should forge their own paths of global cooperation, rather than waiting in vain for the US to return to global leadership.
America’s Rationality Crisis
The profound crisis of US politics has been starkly demonstrated in two ways this year. First, the federal government failed utterly to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic – or even to try. As 2020 draws to a close, the daily rate of new cases is approaching 200,000, far exceeding the previous peaks in April and July. During the week of November 15-21, the US had nearly 1.2 million newly confirmed cases, while China, America’s putative Great Power rival, had just 86 newly confirmed cases, despite having more than four times the US population.
The world’s environmental, social, and security problems are now so complex and interconnected that only strong cooperation within and across regions will suffice to manage them.
Second, the US can no longer manage presidential elections according to basic democratic standards. While the voting itself was highly orderly, with a large turnout and a careful, transparent ballot-counting process, the election did not produce the needed consensus on the outcome. Trump falsely and notoriously claimed victory on election night, and then, as Biden took the lead as mail-in ballots were counted, Trump brazenly claimed massive electoral fraud without a shred of corroborating evidence. Yet Trump’s claims were backed by senior members of the Republican Party, leading commentators in the right-wing media ecosystem, a burgeoning number of Facebook groups, and a shockingly high 75% of Republicans.
One is tempted to blame the COVID-19 and election fiasco on Trump himself, and Trump’s personal role was no doubt both malign and essential. He is a sociopath and a demagogue, whose political repertoire has consisted of fueling division, evading responsibility, and promoting delusions.
But factors beyond Trump are also at play. This is the fourth US presidential election in a generation, after all, that has been followed by a crisis of legitimacy. The 2000 election was decided only by a contentious Supreme Court decision that stopped a recount in Florida, handing the state – and the presidency – to George W. Bush by 537 votes. Following Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, Trump concocted doubts about Obama’s birthplace and citizenship. So-called birtherism was as destructive of public trust as it was phony to the core. The 2016 election was heavily influenced by Russian meddling that Trump both welcomed and denied. Moreover, in both 2000 and 2016, the Republican candidate won in the Electoral College despite losing the national popular vote. And, despite Trump’s extraordinary personal flouting of norms, most GOP leaders, many media outlets, and millions of voters supported and facilitated his outlandish behavior. Trump is not only a mentally disordered individual, but also a symptom of a gravely damaged body politic.
A Failed Great Power?
The events of 2020 are the latest additions to a growing list of American political debacles, both foreign and domestic. Since 2000, US foreign policy has been erratic at best. The US-led or US-backed wars since 2000 have created political and humanitarian disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Obama’s two foreign-policy successes, joining the Paris climate agreement and negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015, were both reversed by Trump, despite nearly global opposition.
At home, the US has failed to reinvest in its own dilapidated infrastructure, despite the rising frequency of massive losses from natural disasters such as wildfires in the West and flooding following devastating tropical storms. In addition to COVID-19, the US has suffered an epidemic of what Anne Case and Angus Deaton call, chillingly and accurately, “deaths of despair” (from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism) among working-class families, also without a meaningful policy response. And the US budget deficit is now chronically high at roughly 5% of GDP – even reaching an extraordinary 16% of GDP in 2020 due to COVID-19 – reflecting the lack of any semblance of political consensus about the federal government’s long-term funding and priorities.
The list goes on and on. Reflecting the breakdown of the legislative process, there has scarcely been a major domestic federal policy in the past 20 years that has been enacted by Congress rather than implemented by executive order of the President. The exceptions, such as the 2010 Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the 2017 tax cut, were approved by tiny margins with no support from the losing party.
There are many explanations for the derangement of US politics, and there are no doubt many intertwined processes at work. Surveying them makes clear that while Trump’s psychopathy has surely aggravated America’s political crisis, his presidency reflects the decline of US problem-solving and consensus-building over the course of more than four decades.
Sources of Systemic Strain
Among the factors underlying decades of increasingly frequent national failures and bouts of malaise, observers have identified an array of economic, cultural, and political trends.
Rapid technological change. The US and some other high-income countries are in the grips of the “future shock” envisaged 50 years ago by the futurologist Alvin Toffler. The rapid shift to the digital age has deeply disrupted and divided US society. A huge and growing gulf has appeared between a professional class, comprising those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, most of whom have experienced rising incomes and living standards, and workers with less than a bachelor’s degree, who have tended to suffer falling earnings, home foreclosures, and the effects of automation on the labor market. Trump rode the ressentiment of disaffected white, working-class voters to power in 2016.
White backlash. The US is in a long-term transition from an overwhelmingly white, Protestant nation where de jure and de facto discrimination prevailed until the 1960s, to a majority non-white nation in which people of color are finally winning civil rights. Since the 1970s, this has led to often-furious white reaction. Obama represented the vanguard of the new multiracial society, and Trump an especially brutal backlash. (In the weeks after the election, Trump openly and brazenly urged Republican election board members not to certify the votes from mostly African-American Detroit.)
The end of social democratic politics. The US had a majoritarian social democratic ethos, led by the Democratic Party, from the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson (1963-68). Government expanded to provide a widening range of social protection, in alliance with the growing organized labor movement. Yet this majority bloc collapsed after 1968, mainly because the Civil Rights era of the 1960s spurred an exodus of white working-class voters and southern “Dixiecrats” in Congress to the Republican Party. The Republicans became the party of white backlash and social conservatives who opposed “big government,” while the Democrats became the party of professionals, minorities, and social progressives calling for racial, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. The prior consensus for social-democratic policies collapsed.
The evangelical awakening. The US experienced a surge of white Christian evangelical religiosity and activism from the 1950s till the early 2010s. Mainline Christians flocked to socially conservative evangelical mega-churches that preached a form of biblical literalism that was anti-science and fervently anti-government. Instead of funding social programs with their taxes, congregants were told by their preachers to oppose taxes and instead to give larger tithes to the churches in order to reap divine returns. White evangelicals have aggressively opposed the civil-rights and progressive social agenda, as well as government social protection. They were ardent supporters of the Cold War as a crusade against the godless Soviet Union, and more recently have supported wars against militant Islam and trade wars against atheistic China. In 2016 and 2020, they voted overwhelmingly for Trump.Sign up for our weekly On Point newsletter
Plutocracy. Policy gridlock has served the interests of the wealthiest Americans, who are benefiting from the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle-class to the rich in human history, while also being assured that political paralysis will keep them free of new federal taxes. The plutocracy has been abetted by successive Supreme Court rulings that have permitted unlimited anonymous campaign contributions. It is estimated that $14 billion was spent in the 2020 elections, with each party backed by dozens of billionaires.
Antiquated political institutions. The longevity of political institutions is a double-edged sword. The core of the US constitutional system dates back to 1787. It included dysfunctional anomalies such as the Electoral College, first-past-the-post voting in single-member election districts, and an overly powerful president. These institutions are now baked into the US political system, even as they lead to over-weighting of votes from sparsely populated states, a two-party system that severely distorts the representation of public opinion, an autocratic executive, a near-moribund Congress, and a Supreme Court that has been weaponized by the main political parties.
Social media. Marshall McLuhan was right that fundamental changes in the media of communications reshape politics and culture. Radio broadcasting and mass-circulation newspapers led to the rise of public relations, mass advertising, and highly personalized politics through mass communication. The new social media have led to the disintegration of a single national discourse and the pervasive misrepresentation of reality. With as many “truths” as Facebook groups, agreement on basic facts, much less a consensus about what they mean, has collapsed.
(For a play-by-play account of the rise of many of these forces during the 1970s, see Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland).
The Bleak American Exception
Each of these factors shines a light on one facet of today’s reality. Some of them are common to most high-income democracies. Western Europe, like the US, faces rising inequalities from technological change, a social media-driven breakdown of consensus, and deepening political divides caused by tensions accompanying its societies’ changing ethnic composition. In the US, ethnic change reflects the growing share of Hispanic and Asian populations, whereas in Europe it has been driven largely by four decades of immigration from the Middle East and Africa.
Yet many of the factors are specific to the US. Europe has not experienced a collapse of social democratic norms, which are deeply embedded in the European Union’s laws and institutions. Europe does not have America’s entrenched white supremacist politics, which the earth-shattering crimes of Nazism discredited and uprooted more thoroughly. Nor does Europe have the religious-based and politicized social conservatism seen among America’s white Evangelicals. And by virtue of Europe’s utterly tumultuous history, notably the wars and revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its parliamentary democracies are generally more up-to-date and better structured than America’s eighteenth-century presidential model.
There will be no quick fixes for the US. Only with good fortune and skilled leadership will the US pull itself out of the downward spiral of internal division and external war that has characterized the country for more than 40 years. Biden will aim to heal American divides, a task for which he is well suited. He is a centrist, a moderate, a rationalist, and a gentleman. He understands disaffected white America as well as any US political leader, and he knows that he needs to win the support of swing states and Republicans in Congress, not run over them. Nor does he bear grudges. He knows that sharp elbows are part of politics and wisely shrugs off the jabs, insults, and preposterous claims.
But these highly favorable personal traits will not be sufficient. When Trump’s predecessor, Obama, took office in 2009, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and immediately began to pass legislation on almost straight party-line votes over united Republican opposition. Such party-line voting was unusual for the US Congress and was a clear expression of political polarization. But since 2010, when the Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives, divided government has prevailed, with the exception of 2017-18, when Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. This has blocked nearly all legislative initiatives.
Parliamentary democracies can function routinely with straight party-line voting, because the government (almost by definition) has the majority or plurality of votes needed to enact legislation. In the US, by contrast, whenever the president and at least one house of Congress are controlled by different parties, or when there is an effective blocking coalition in the 100-member Senate due to the filibuster rule (which requires a 60-vote supermajority for some legislation), party-line voting means paralysis.
There is a slight chance that Biden will have a working majority in both houses of Congress, if the Democrats win the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia on January 5. A sweep for the Democrats would give each party 50 seats, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting a tie-breaking vote.
It is more likely, however, that Biden will need Republican votes in the Senate, and often in the House as well (when a few Democrats vote against the president). This will pit the structural factors leading to division in the US against the legislative imperatives for action and change. Biden will then need to take his case to the people in an effort to win over some moderate Republicans to restart the gears of the federal government.
In the US system, a president can do much without legislation. Trump managed his entire foreign policy, including trade and sanctions, almost without any congressional input, and Biden, too, will no doubt govern by decree, at least in some areas. Yet this practice has several serious downsides. First, it is autocratic. Second, executive orders alone generally do not provide federal financing, only regulatory changes. Third, executive orders are easily overturned by the next president, and therefore do not bind future governments or promote the necessary long-term changes to business investments.
The Active Executive
In any event, Biden will have no choice but to rely on executive orders at the start of his administration. This will be necessary to re-establish the federal role in containing COVID-19, which will be enormously beneficial in overcoming the crisis. Likewise, Biden will not have to rely on Congress to return the US to United Nations treaties and agencies, including the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization. He will most likely return the US to the Iran nuclear deal and other UN agencies and processes as well, and rescind various unilateral tariff measures and sanctions imposed by Trump. And he will likely announce by executive order the US goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions (“climate neutrality”) by 2050, in line with the EU, Japan, Korea, and China (which has set 2060 as its target date).
Yet accomplishing more than this will require ending the logjam in Congress, which can be accomplished only if enough independent and Republican voters get on board. By dint of personality and pragmatic policy vision, Biden has the skills to win such backing. The question is whether today’s deeply divided Americans can revive a long-dormant capacity to reason together.
Biden will have to convince conservative white working-class voters that COVID-19 control, more accessible health care, higher taxes on the rich, and relief on crippling student debt are policies intended for them and their families, rather than being narrowly aimed at Democratic Party constituencies that these voters shun. To win cross-party support, Biden has to sell the inclusiveness of social democratic policies, rather than relying on identity-based appeals.
Biden must also convince more voters that a shift to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels will deliver a similar nationwide boon. Fortunately, most US states, both blue (Democratic) and red (Republican), have vast untapped wind and solar power potential. Moreover, the swing states of the industrial heartland (including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio) and northern Appalachia (including Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia) would play a huge role in building the solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles that will form the heart of the low-carbon economy. Mayors of eight major cities in the industrial heartland recently called for precisely this kind of reindustrialization policy to build the new green economy.
The World After America
Whatever happens in the US during the 2020s, important lessons for the rest of the world are already clear. Most important, the US will, at best, be a cooperating partner in the coming decade. It is far too wounded and divided – and often confused and misdirected – to provide global leadership. The Asian-Pacific region has vastly outpaced the US and Europe economically during the pandemic, and will continue to drive global growth in 2021.
Europe above all needs to look beyond its long-strained relations with the US to forge its own foreign policy, including security policy, and defense capability, as well as boost its competitiveness in the new digital technologies. The US under Biden will be a good partner, but there is no substitute for Europe achieving its goal of “strategic autonomy.” Moreover, Europe is the world’s leader in sustainable development policies, and should use its position to promote environmental sustainability and social inclusion around the world.
The EU needs to craft its own cooperative policies with China, rather than duck behind the US. And it needs to continue to lead on global governance issues such as digital taxation, digital security, and digital privacy, areas where Europe is well ahead of the US and will remain so for the coming decade.
Asia, for its part, has the opportunity to break free of a US cold-war mentality obsessed with “containing” China and isolating it from its neighbors – a preposterous idea that has nonetheless recently animated both US parties. Asia’s growing economic and technological strength will best be nurtured by strong regional institutions. The newly signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free-trade area that includes the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, along with China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, is a promising harbinger of cooperation within Asia, and between Asia and the rest of the world.
In fact, the Biden administration should welcome a strong Europe and regional initiatives such as the RCEP, and aim to bring the US in as a supportive partner. We are past the era of hegemonic leadership, whether by the US or any other country. The world’s environmental, social, and security problems are now so complex and interconnected that only strong cooperation within and across regions will suffice to manage them.
Biden’s success in healing a deeply divided America will be essential not only to restoring political rationality and problem-solving capacity at home, but also to enabling a constructive US contribution to the global cooperation we so urgently need.
Jeffrey D. Sachs