Being raised as an American in the last quarter of the 20th-century gives one an interesting perspective. The period between 1975 and 1995 was characterized by worries about decline. From the tail end of the post-1965 crime wave to the psychological trauma of the oil shocks, the rise of Japan, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, it wasn’t an era without angst clearly. Nevertheless, by the early 1990s, we had turned a corner, even if we were not aware of it. The crime wave was abating, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Japan was entering its “Lost Decade.”
By the year 2000, the United States of America was the “hyperpower”. The period between 1995 and 2015 was defined by our unipolar moment. In the late 1990s, it looked as if wage growth had finally come back to the broad middle and lower classes, and the American model, and more broadly the neoliberal “Washington Consensus”, was here to stay.
Obviously things have changed. Though 9/11 is arguably one of the most important cultural events in the early 21st-century for Americans, with hindsight I think this exogenous shock really only had an impact on the margins in relation to the long term trends, which are driven by endogenous forces. The 2008 financial crisis didn’t come out of a vacuum but reflected serious and deep structural problems in the way capitalism was organized. And, more or less, the vast majority of economists didn’t predict it. It left many of us highly skeptical of “expertise”, as well as the ability of the market to self-correct and not be captured by corrupt parties gorging on rents.
The 2010s have been a mixed affair. Internally there has been recovery from economic distress, and the news for the middle and lower classes is not all bad (full employment is good for those with few skills!). That being said, high levels of inequality and the manifest reality that globalization benefits the very top of the income and wealth distribution seems hard to deny. The second great modern era of globalization is now facing critiques from both the Left and the Right.
Externally, the hyperpower/unipolar moment is fading, if not totally faded. Though on a per unit basis China is less productive and powerful than the USA, in the year 2000 it was 4% of the world’s GDP, and in 2017 it was 15%. In the year 2000, the USA was 31% of the world’s GDP, and in 2017 it is 25%. The 1990s expectation, shared by many Americans, that China would become more liberal and democratic as it became wealthier has not been validated by the facts on the ground.
Internally there are high levels of polarization and low levels of trust in institutions and leaders in the USA. Various positional races (e.g., university educations for everyone!) combined with a relatively stagnant pie (e.g., more legal degrees than lawyers) leave even the aspiring upper-middle class suspicious of their prospects. The overhang of personal and public debt and the possibility of government debt crises and problems funding entitlements loom over the horizon for the working-age population.
We are not doing badly as a nation, exactly. But rising morbidity in broad swaths of the population reflects uncertainty at the robustness of the prosperity we do have (as well as economic marginalization of those with fewer skills).
Those of us who came to maturity in the late 20th-century was proudly told about the reality that we were the Eternal Republic. Our Constitution was the oldest still in use. Our republic may not have been perfect, but it was as good as it gets. The idea that the Eternal Republic might have an ending to its story seemed absurd barring nuclear conflict, at least in our time, and across the generations alive at the end of the 20th-century.
More broadly, as Steven Pinker has highlighted, there has been broad growth in prosperity and wealth across the world. The American story is not the only story. But if someone told you that other citizens were doing well when you struggled, would that make you happier? Americans are not struggling, but we get a sense it is no longer “morning in America.” Rather, it is closer to dusk.
Foundational to the idea of the Eternal Republic is that our society, our culture, our nation-state, is so beholden to the values of liberty and democratic governance that it could be no other way. First, let us admit that this perfect republic has had its drawbacks and black-marks, most especially in the domain of racial slavery and racial segregation. With that being said, a broad commitment to the idea of liberty, autonomy, and the value of each citizen, has allowed for the circle of fellow-feeling to expand.
But the question is this: are the commitments to liberty and democratic governance due to individual principle, or institutional scaffold and contingency? If the citizens themselves do not have a deep commitment to the principles, the abstractions which undergird governance, then if the institutions begin to lack legitimacy, and the contingencies of history shift just a bit, one can foresee a scenario where liberal democratic citizens sing a very different tune very soon.
My view of human nature and social cognition is that people will believe and do what their ingroup leaders demand of them. For various reasons, American elites have generally taken an extremely liberal attitude toward freedom of expression. This, despite public surveys which suggest broad popular skepticism of offensive speech. If the consensus among American elites for freedom of speech erodes at all, I believe that the extreme policy position would quickly retreat in the face of populist disquiet and factional elite manipulation of government organs to silence their rivals.
The confidence in the Eternal Republic was rooted in the reality of American economic ascendency in the 20th-century. The reality that wage gains and prosperity were both broad-based. The expansion of rights and dignity to racial minorities was consonant with the broader elements of the foundational principles. America had always been the most powerful. America had always been the richest. And of course, America would always be the freest and the most democratic.
Over the last five years, I have come to be more and more skeptical of the robustness of the Eternal Republic. My rationale is straightforward. The cultural preconditions of the Eternal Republic were rooted in deep foundations. Shocks to the vigor of the Eternal Republic failed to topple it because of the accumulated capital of generations. But capital can eventually deplete with both shocks and gradual erosion. Once the system is no longer robust, novel contingencies can transform cultural expectations rather quickly. Cultural change is nonlinear because most people conform, and quickly bend before the cold new winds. Americans have a conceit that we love liberty. And I think we’re sincere in this. But the philo-Semitic Germans of the 1920s became something quite different in the 1930s, and atheistic Leftist Soviet men and women of the 1970s and 1980s have shape-shifted at least twice since the 1990s.
Is America and are Americans special because of something deep with us, or were we lucky? To be frank I fear the latter may hit close to the mark. If that is so, then eventually luck runs out…