BY STEWART SLATER
Much of the shock over the recent events at the Capitol in Washington is due to the fact that they seemed so out of character. Some countries might act that way, but not the U.S. This is not what America is. But what if our image of the country is out of date? This is what America is like now, we just have not adjusted our perceptions to the fact. In a YouGov poll last year, about a third of respondents said violence is an acceptable way of pursuing political goals. Societies which believe such things behave the way we saw recently. If you think America is still a “shining City on a hill”, you might see Biden’s inauguration as a return to normality, a dawn in which it is “bliss to be alive”, but a sceptic would point out that the line comes from a poem entitled “The French Revolution as it Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement”.
It is tempting, for obvious reasons, to see Trump as a virus which the American body politic has finally shrugged off, but merely expelling the pathogen might not be enough to return to health. Trumpism could be the long Covid of American politics, weakening it for years to come. Or it could be that what we think is the disease is merely a symptom of another, more insidious condition.
There are plenty of voices pointing out that America is a divided nation. Those such as Vladimir Putin can easily be ignored. Others, such as former Intelligence analyst John Schindler who has pointed out the similarities between his homeland and the former Yugoslavia (where he served during the Balkan War), probably should not.
As suggested by the “deaths of despair” identified by Angus Deaton, America increasingly does not work for a sizeable proportion of its citizens. According to figures from the Urban Institute, a family in the bottom decile has gone from net wealth of about $0 in 1963 to being approximately $1000 dollars in debt in 2016 while those in the top percentile have grown their wealth seven-fold over the same period. The gap between the rich and the middle has widened from 6x to 12x. Income tells a similar story, with the top decile growing their earnings 90% over that timeframe while the bottom 10% have only managed an increase of less than a tenth. Small wonder that, according to a Pew Study in 2017, just 37% of Americans think their children’s lives will be better than their own.
Using such hard data and the idea of “elite overproduction” – a society with too many highly educated members runs out of jobs to give all of them the rewards they desire, so the elite turns on itself, leading to instability – Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut has produced a model which, he told The Atlantic, predicts a sharp increase in disorder for 5-10 years starting in 2020. The type of disturbance America saw in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s is the best case. Civil War is the worst. Turchin’s model was developed before the pandemic, so does not include any impact from it. However, an October 2020 Working Paper from the IMF shows an increase in social unrest in the aftermath of previous disease outbreaks, suggesting that Covid might add fuel to the existing fire.
Turchin claims that, in back testing, his model predicted such events as the French Revolution, the American Civil War and the upheaval of the 1930’s. However, once society resolves the issues he has identified, things will return to normal. As is clear from his historical examples, though, “normal” can have a range of meanings. The Civil War may have led to Reconstruction, but it also resulted in Jim Crow. France has been through 5 Republics, 2 Empires, a Monarchy and a Consulate since the end of its Revolution, while the dislocation of the early ‘30’s gave rise to WWII. A model which predicts outcomes ranging from peace to Total War needs some fine-tuning if it is to be useful.
The first step would be to realise that nations do not live by economics and elite demographics alone. They are comprised of individuals sharing a defined territory, interacting according to the laws, customs and beliefs they have inherited. They have, as it were, both a mythos, a story they tell themselves about their nation, its history and characteristics, and an ethos, a shared understanding about how to live, reflecting a core ethical view of life. Nations do not need to be mono-cultural, but their members need to agree on basic matters such as the legitimacy of authority and the process for the resolution of disputes for them to function. In America, it is not clear today the extent to which these “soft” necessities still exist.
The U.S. spent the 20th century proclaiming itself as the champion of Freedom. From Woodrow Wilson’s campaign for self-determination for the peoples of Europe, through its intervention in WWII, via its refusal to support the Empires of France and Britain in their colonial struggles in Indochina and Suez, to its victory in the Cold War, America could claim to be a propositional nation, dedicated to global liberty. While the details never entirely matched the rhetoric and liberty never quite extended to the freedom to elect an anti-American government (as Chile and Iran discovered), it was, at least, an inspiring story which cast the U.S. as one of history’s good guys.
However, having ended History by winning the Cold War, America set out to rewrite it, focusing not on its foreign policy success, but on its domestic failures. Books such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States have sought to redress the balance of historiography away from the deeds of great men, to the sufferings of others at their hands whether through economic, sexual or racial oppression. The New York Times “1619 Project” has even sought to change the date of the American founding, siting it not at the Declaration of Independence, but at the point when African slaves were first brought to the continent, thereby rendering slavery central to the American Project. Some such as the columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates, have argued American remains so oppressive that current members of minority groups are due reparations for the wrongs suffered both by them and their ancestors. Far from the “propositional nation”, America is now a uniquely sinful purveyor of human misery.
There are signs that these views are bleeding out from academia and the media to the wider community. The Pew Research Centre runs an annual survey asking Americans, inter alia, whether there are countries which are “better than the United States”. The proportion answering in the affirmative in 2011 was 8%. In 2020, it was 21%, rising to 36% of 18-29 year-olds.
If Americans no longer like their country so much, do they, at least, still like each other? Here too, the evidence is concerning. An Axios poll in November 2018 found that 61% of Democrats thought Republicans “Racist/Bigoted/Sexist”, 54% “Ignorant” and 44% “Spiteful”. The corresponding numbers were 31%, 49% and 54%. It was probably not purely for convenience that almost a quarter of Democrats and Republicans chose to describe their opponents simply as “Evil”.
Making such a judgement requires a moral framework, and for most of America’s history, this has been derived from Christianity – in 2007, 78% of Americans described themselves as Christian to Pew Research. However, by 2019, that had fallen to 65% while the proportion of the “religiously unaffiliated” had risen from 16% to 26% (40% among Millennials).
The decline in Christianity has been paralleled by the rise of Intersectionality and Identity Politics. Similar to the turn in historiography, it divides people into categories based on their immutable characteristics such as sex, race and orientation. Deploying the concept of “Privilege”, it constructs a hierarchy of oppression whereby a poor straight white man with a high school diploma will always be seen to be more privileged than a wealthy Ivy League educated African American woman due to his race and gender alone.
It also, however, derives moral principles from this analysis of society. “Privilege” bears a similarity to Original Sin, an indelible mark, with the important difference that only white people can bear it. Instead of a community in which everyone is fallen and relies on the grace of God for salvation, in Intersectionality, only whites can bear Privilege, and more importantly, they can never be redeemed for it. Activities such as “confessing your privilege” may serve to elevate those who do so over their recusant peers, but it is never enough to expunge their Original Sin.
Whether Intersectionality is a new religion (as might be suggested by rituals such as taking the knee and the appearance of flagellants at last summer’s BLM protests) or merely an expansion pack for secular morality as I have argued elsewhere, it provides an alternative source for moral judgements and this creates problems for the American political order.
Political systems rest on a body of wider assumptions about the nature of the world, humanity, and the “good life”. Societies which make different judgements about these questions will evolve different forms of political organization – a deeply religious group will probably develop laws hewing closely to the dictates of their holy text, a view that humans are closely intertwined will lead to a focus more on the benefit of the community than the rights of the individual, for example.
Liberal democracy relies on the assumption that all citizens have the same moral worth and are therefore to be treated equally, a separation between the political realm and other spheres of activity, and losers’ consent. Given the time and place of its development, these derive from the Christian beliefs that all are equal before God, that He is the ultimate source of Justice, and that the goal of life is to live well and gain entry to Heaven.
Intersectionality shares none of these, and it is not, therefore, obvious that it can support liberal democracy. As we have seen, the notion of “Privilege” functions as a denial that all are equal and Joe Biden’s recent announcement that his priority will be “Black, Latino, Asian and Native American owned businesses [and] women owned businesses” may hint at how that will impact the policy sphere. Probably more important, however, is the effect on the practice of politics.
As Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has argued, the key virtue for liberal democracy is restraint – winners do not seek to push beyond the boundaries and losers accept their defeat. Christianity encourages this in two specific ways. Firstly, God is the ultimate source of justice and can be relied on to right wrongs. Secondly, since it is one’s behaviour which is ultimately judged, the most important thing is how one plays the game, not the result one achieves. “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.” as CS Lewis put it. These beliefs together serve to reduce the importance of politics, and lower the temperature of the public square.
Intersectionality, by contrast, posits no God, so there can be no guarantee that the arc of history will bend towards justice, and it has no afterlife, so the only measure of success can be results in the real world.
More broadly, like other major moral systems, Christianity displays concern for all of the major Moral Foundations identified by Jonathan Haidt, and the rules found in Morality as Co-operation. Intersectionality considers only two of them – Care and Fairness. Lacking the concern for Authority and Liberty shown by its rival, it sees no moral benefit in respecting the traditional boundaries of the state, or tolerating the views of others. The only way to be good is to take continual action until no wrongs on the Care and Fairness axes exist. To do anything else is to be complicit in the existence of injustice. As Eugene Debs put it a century ago, “While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
It is not that liberal democracy cannot survive without Christianity (as India and Japan attest), merely that it needs an external source to promote restraint and Intersectionality does the opposite. A belief system which forces its adherents to fight and to win to see themselves as good people is not a system which will easily accept the compromises inherent in liberal democracy. It will, rather, enter an escalatory cycle with its opponents as each of their victories represents a new, greater injustice to be overcome. It is forced to live by the “Chicago Way” from The Untouchables – “they send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of their to the morgue.”
If Americans increasingly dislike their country, dislike each other and are seeing the rise of a moral worldview which does not support their political system, it would be reasonable to expect the country’s future to tend towards the worse end of Turchin’s forecast. Is there anything which might mitigate this?
The “Contact Hypothesis” in psychology holds that the best way to reduce tension between groups is for their members to spend time with each other. Inspired by an improvement in race relations following desegregation in the military, it holds that mixing with others allows people to see them as individuals, not just stereotypes, serving to accentuate what they hold in common – “We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” as JFK put it.
Unfortunately, the “Big Sort” -the name given to the phenomenon spotted by Bill Bishop whereby Americans increasingly live in homogenous neighbourhoods – makes this difficult to achieve. In 1976, 26% of voters lived in counties won in a landslide (defined as a margin of 20% or more). By 2020, that had reached 58%. A poll before the election showed that 39% of Trump voters and 42% of Biden supporters had no friends who supported the other candidate. The rate of decline in religious belief noted above is not happening evenly – the North East has seen Christian belief decline from 76% to 59% over the period, while in the South, it has fallen from 83% to 70% – so regions are becoming relatively more or less religious. Even when Americans are not “Bowling Alone”, they are increasingly only bowling (and living) with people they agree with.
If the “Contact Hypothesis” is difficult to use in practice, America (or more accurately) America’s elite might turn to the philosopher Leo Strauss. Although reviled as the intellectual godfather of neo-conservatism, his focus on the importance of national myth to a community might have relevance to the present moment. If America’s traditional mythos is tarnished by the times in which it was developed, replacing it with another might give the nation back its shared sense of purpose. It has been suggested by Adam Curtis that it was this desire to find new dragons to slay in the aftermath of the Cold War which made the neoconservatives such assiduous prosecutors of the War on Terror.
It is not clear, however, what such a national project could be. China is America’s only peer, but does not seem keen to change its role from competitor to enemy and it is not obvious that many Americans actually see it as such. The silence of business over China’s human rights abuses suggests a substantial body of elite opinion keen to preserve the status quo. Action on Climate Change might be another option, but a large proportion of the Right is, at least, sceptical of the concept and it is a global rather than national concern so it is not clear how it could be a specifically American project. The U.S. does not currently have a unique threat of sufficient severity to force the nation to bind together.
It may be that America is just no longer able to sustain its current form of government. The Roman Republic, which Turchin cites as one of his examples, may be the best analogy for the present moment. It fell after a prolonged period of unrest which had seen a traditionally austere people tempted by the blandishments of wealth and the doctrines of new gods. The constitution was bent in the pursuit of power. Insurrection, riots and show-trials gripped the city as victory became all important.
The Roman solution to the loss of financial and political restraint was to replace the Republic with the Principate. If the elite could not be trusted to share out the spoils of Empire, one man would do it for them. While the Senate might occasionally grumble about the loss of liberty, for the “Roman in the street”, life carried on much as before, but with welcome stability. To Edward Gibbon, the reign of the Five Good Emperors in the second century A.D. was “the period in the history of the world in which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” The Romans were able to change their political system to account for the change in their mores, inventing a form of government which would last four centuries. America may need to do the same.
John Adams, America’s second President wrote, “Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Unless it rediscovers a shared story and conducive values, America may prove another of his dicta: “There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He has been published by Areo and Spiked, and writes (when he can think of something to say) on Medium as Stewartslateruk