Measuring national and political stability in the United States

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Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book called “The J Curve: A New Way to Understanding Why Nations Rise and Fall”. My aim was to help readers understand why some emerging countries continue to emerge while others face major political turmoil. With all the divisions and dysfunctions in the United States today, now is the time to use this tool to take a close look at what is going on inside the global superpower.

The J-curve describes the relationship between a country’s openness (both the openness of its political processes and the free flow of people, goods and information within and across its borders) and its stability (the capacity of its institutions to absorb shocks). The countries on the left side of the curve are stable because they are closed. There is little or no real competition within their political systems. North Korea, Cuba and the Gulf monarchies offer a few examples. These countries do not achieve the same level of long-term political stability that truly open countries like Germany, Canada, Japan and dozens of other democracies can achieve. These countries are on the right side of the curve.

A country that goes from left to right – from closed to much more open – has to go through a period of instability, the trough of the J-curve. This happened, for example, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to open up the Soviet Union or when South Africa began to ease apartheid. Some countries are making the transition. Others collapse.

But it is also possible to move from right to left. Despite Donald Trump’s refusal to admit defeat in the 2020 election, the failure of the insurgency on Capitol Hill on January 6, and the refusal of many Americans to accept that Joe Biden actually won the election, the United States remains a mature democracy on the right side of the curve. At no time during this period was he on the verge of dictatorship. American institutions have once again proven their ability to absorb shocks. The military chain of command remains politically neutral. US courts settled electoral disputes in accordance with the law.

But the United States has become both less open and less resilient in recent years as the legitimacy of other institutions begins to erode. Confidence in election results, the most basic element of democracy, has taken a heavy hit. Plausible accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Trump’s baseless accusations that 3 million people illegally voted for Hillary Clinton in that election, and the equally false accusation that fraud election deprived him of victory in 2020 – all amplified by news in traditional and social media – did more to undermine confidence in the integrity of national elections than any other event in more than 140 years.

Congress has long been unpopular, but hyper-partisan rhetoric and the party line’s predictable vote on important laws further undermine confidence that Congress can and will act on behalf of the American people as a whole. The same is true of partisan offers within state governments to redraw the borders of Congress in such a way as to over-represent voters of one party at the expense of the other. The need for lawmakers to constantly fundraise and the lack of transparency about where their funding comes from is not helping.

The flow of former lawmakers to corporate lobbyist jobs is stoking public cynicism, and for good reason. Extreme political polarization has cast doubt on the credibility of any effort by Congress to oversee the executive branch of government or its own members. The chronic failure of Congress to enact significant legislation has also ceded power to the executive, with Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden all issuing a historically high number of executive orders.

Finally, there is the growing lack of public respect for the media. In any open society, honest and skillful journalists can hold public figures to account. Unfortunately, the polarization that infects American politics is reflected in the market for ideas. The search for market share divided into ideological segments strips much of its credibility for millions of Americans, who now see them as the informational wings of the parties with whom most of their reporting aligns. Social media then amplifies partisan divisions by spreading disinformation that does not meet mainstream media credibility standards – until the disinformation itself becomes news that mainstream journalists ask public officials to comment on. .

For all of these reasons America’s J curve is different from what it was 30 years ago. On the one hand, not only have American institutions proven their endurance through the Trump turmoil, but the wealth and technological advantages of the United States over most of the rest of the world, including its allies, have increased. These positive points increase American stability at all levels of openness. But the United States is clearly becoming a more polarized society, which creates a greater degree of political paralysis, pushing the country to the right side of the curve.

The United States is hardly the only country plagued by a bitterly divided electorate, public cynicism of politicians, wealth inequality, partisan journalism, and structural racism. But among the rich democracies of the world, these problems are most serious in the United States. And when the most powerful, influential nation on Earth becomes more divided and dysfunctional, it further compounds the lack of global leadership. The United States must quickly reverse its fall on the J-curve or we will all suffer the consequences.


Ian Bremmer is President of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism”. His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.


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