international analysis and commentary

The great American malaise

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Imagine a country that sits on the world’s fourth-largest territory, safely tucked away from the threat of invasion, and endowed with abundant natural resources, a somewhat predictable climate, and a comfortably spread-out population of some 340 million. Now give it robust transport, financial, and legal infrastructure, the most powerful armed forces on the planet, and its biggest economy.

If it sounds like a fairy land that is all smiles and confetti, it is not. This country, of course, exists. It is the United States of America. Yet, its people – once indeed known for uber confidence and optimism – are turning bitter by the day, consumed by economic and social anxiety, and mounting political divisiveness.

American superheros

 

Their discontent flies in the face of hard data: the US economy keeps growing, unemployment remains low, wages are rising while poverty is declining, and even inflation is now receding.

Nevertheless, across all corners of America one sees nothing but angry and disruptive air travelers, rowdy school-board culture wars, brawls over basic health measures during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, and hateful neighborhood spats over affordable housing.

For a distillation of America’s dark hour look no further than the most fear-ridden and frightful presidential campaign in recent memory.

Ahead of the Iowa caucuses of January 15th – which ex-president and fearmonger-in-chief Donald Trump swept without even trying – the New York Times described the mood through an apocalyptic scene of voters that, in blizzard-like conditions, “casually talk of the prospect of World War III, civil unrest and a nation coming apart at the seams.”

How does one square the circle of such a fortunate people feeling so much resentment and hopelessness? Alas, this puzzle has no simple, straightforward solution. One must suss out how several, disparate elements have combined in a maelstrom of insecurity, animal-like fight for resources and angst – a vicious cycle of sort.

There is the deeply rooted economic inequality, which often, though not always, runs along racial lines. That is nothing new nor unique to the US, but it is especially acute there in comparison to similarly wealthy and developed countries, and continues to grow.

There is also more widespread awareness among the larger American public of such huge disparities in income.

 

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That heightened awareness has not produced some new form of class consciousness. Exploited by activists on both sides of the political aisle for short-term political gain, it has instead fomented a paradoxical antagonism between constituencies that, in fact, share more than they think. Minorities, in particular Blacks and Latinos, against whites, but also poor, rural whites against professional urban dwellers of any race.

Galloping inflation after the pandemic aggravated economic pressures on nearly all Americans, except the very rich, making life unbearably expensive, especially in cities.

The perception of a diminished purchasing power has persisted even after inflation peaked. That is perhaps because of stubbornly high food prices in particular, which American consumers encounter on a day-to-day basis but are excluded from economists’ “core” inflation calculations due to their high volatility.

More anecdotally, the quality of services has declined. Perceptions may play a part here too. Maybe Americans have come to expect too much relative to what they are willing to pay?

It is indisputable that access to flying, dining out, vacationing at hotels or house rentals, entertainment, and telecommunications, has drastically increased over the past few decades. Technology-driven economies of scale slashed prices, popularizing what used to be activities attainable only by the few.

To do so, however, the private sector’s focus on cost control and the bottom line collapsed the individual customer experience across the board.

Traveling via air or rail in the US these days is reminiscent of rickety provincial bus rides of yore, the journeys full of discomfort and delays. Restaurants, however extravagant, have figured out how to get diners in and out in 45 minutes or less, making the ordeal feel more like a washer machine’s spinning cycle than a relaxed time away from one own’s kitchen. And don’t even bother trying to get a human customer service representative on the phone if you have a question or need to complain. The examples go on and on.

To top it all off, the tight labor market and supply chain disruptions stemming from the pandemic made it harder for companies to adequately staff their operations and pushed the cost of what at least had become cheaper activities back up. So now you have a perfect storm of high prices and poor service, and everything feels a bit like a scam.

Meanwhile, a uniquely American aversion to taxation and redistribution is plundering what once used to be best-in-class public resources, such as schools, roads and social security.

In practice, this means that the larger American community is dumping more and more responsibilities onto the individual alone, be it figuring out what stocks or bonds to buy with retirement savings or how to go to work while caring for small children in the nearly complete absence of decent, affordable childcare.

Increasingly, Americans must do it all by themselves. It’s no wonder that they are so stressed out.

Sea changes in the demographic and political composition of the United States, rightly or not, compound the widespread sense of insecurity.

The country has become drastically more diverse over the past few decades, capable of accommodating and cultivating a much vaster range of voices and opinions. This transformation has on one hand empowered the previously disenfranchised. On the other, it has eaten away at the established national compact, however prejudiced and unjust it might have been, resulting in a fracturing of the polity and citizens’ sense of belonging in it.

 

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These parallel shifts in how people perceive their relative economic, social and political place in the big American project — what they contribute and what they expect out of it — make the larger discourse more divisive.

By weakening national solidarity, they undercut the country’s ability to fix long-running and ever-worsening problems. Think of gun violence and a health care system that manages to be the most expensive and most frustrating in the world while also producing some of the worst outcomes, at least among developed peers.

In a nearly inexplicable twist of fate, Americans’ life expectancy has been decreasing, at all income levels and for all races.

A nation that does not in fact feel united is also poorly equipped to overhaul its outdated governing institutions through sensible political debate and compromise. The American democracy just keeps muddling through antiquated mechanisms like the electoral college, a distribution of Senate seats that highly favors sparsely populated, rural states, the debt ceiling, and something as simple as holding elections on a Tuesday, a workday.

Almost every issue in America one can think of has somehow become intractable, whether it is policing or abortion or immigration.

All combined, these factors end up drilling a sense of perennial uncertainty into the lives of ordinary Americans, worried about whether the next school shooting, healthcare coverage exception or stock market crash will finally do them in.

So, they hoard resources (regardless of political stripes) – education, housing, finances — to desperately hedge against life’s many hazards.

Something else is happening that is perhaps more subtle but no less important: Americans might still have felt dissatisfied with the quality of their lives decades ago. But they could always console themselves by looking over their country’s immense borders at the dismal conditions in which most people outside of them lived.

While the US remains one of the world’s wealthiest countries, enjoying some of the highest standards of living out there, the gap with other nations has greatly shrunk. More and more people across the world, including in its developing regions, live better lives today that poor Americans.

That sense of American exceptionalism – which for decades, sometimes irrationally, boosted the national spirit regardless of factual circumstances – is, if still alive in rhetoric, far wobblier in practice.

 

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That the political right has seized on these developments to instill a sense of utter panic into voters is no surprise – it is conservatives’ traditional playbook. But the American left is not helping either. If everything good or bad about the United States was born with the original sin of slavery and bound to burn in the frying pan of climate change, what is one to do but despair?

None of this is meant as a death knell.

The US remains uniquely positioned to continue succeeding. Here is a country that fosters innovation, and nurtures risks and talent, more and better than nearly everyone else; it has an unparalleled ability to welcome and lift people from all walks of life; and regularly makes impossible things possible. Plus, it is endowed with such enviable territory, population, resources, and infrastructure. And for all these reasons it continues to attract great numbers of immigrants who dream of making a home and a better life for themselves in the land of opportunities.

There are already signs that the “vibecession” – or the massive disconnect between a healthy US economy and the negative perception Americans have of it – might be on the way out.

In the long term, America is quite likely to be just fine.

The challenge is in the interim. Americans have been put to an existential test, dramatically reflected in the current election cycle. At this complex and tense time, they must find a new national compact – a common understanding of who they are and what they stand for – and a revamped pride in that shared identity. They must do so even in the face of greater socio-economic, religious, and racial diversity, and a somewhat reduced role as a global power.