The United States Is On A Bleak Trajectory

Will American democracy commit suicide like all others before it?

Natsumi Chikayasu for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

At the end of June in Madrid, America led what was once considered a brain-dead NATO to newfound unity in the defense of democracies against an aggressive Russia and “the challenge of China.” In those very days, back home, the place was coming apart.

Hearings in the U.S. Congress revealed stunning details of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol aimed at overturning Donald Trump’s defeat at the polls, including the former president’s awareness that some of the mob were armed. Then the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed a series of rulings that came down to regulating a person’s private space (women’s bodies) while deregulating public space (guns, climate).

Sooner or later, one will catch up with the other. What crumbles within will, in time, crumble without.

Sanctioning government intrusion where it shouldn’t be in private lives, but disarming state capacity where it matters most, further demotes America from its vanguard perch on a shining hill and dims its already fading beacon. 

Nation-states with strong capacity like China will move into the global breach while the better quality of life will go to those living in the “regulatory superpower” of the European Union. 

Berggruen Institute Governance Index

Even before these recent events, America’s trajectory was on a troubling course, as the Berggruen Institute’s 2022 Governance Index shows. Conducted with the UCLA Luskin School of Public Policy, the Index measures three dimensions across 135 countries: state capacity (the quality of government); public goods provision (the quality of life) and democratic accountability (the quality of democracy). 

The U.S. trajectory in the 2022 Berggruen Governance Index (Berggruen Institute / UCLA)

Over the period from 2000-2019, the U.S. declined significantly in both state capacity and democratic accountability — even as several countries in much-maligned Africa improved impressively, particularly in the provision of public goods.

“The U.S. drop in state capacity and democratic accountability is not unique, but it is rare among advanced economies,” the Index authors Markus Lang and Edward Knudsen told the Washington Post. “In democratic accountability, there has been some stagnation among developed countries,” they went on. “Still, the steepness of the U.S.’s drop is unusual: Its path parallels Brazil, Hungary and Poland much more closely than that of Western Europe or the other wealthy Anglophone countries.”

Change From Bottom Up In The States?

In the face of a terminally riven Congress and a reactionary Supreme Court, is there a path to self-correction for America? 

Historically, change in the U.S. as a whole has come from the bottom up in the states. Indeed, it was during the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century that the kind of independent commissions  and bodies of delegated authority that regulate public space (from food quality to utility rates for electricity), and which the Supreme Court is now seeking to dismantle, were first initiated. In those days as well, the management of cities was handed over to professionals instead of political cronies. Women’s right to vote, child labor laws, anti-trust prohibitions and conservation measures developed at the state level percolated up to national policy. 

At that time, Wisconsin, under the governorship of “Fighting Bob La Follette,” led the Progressive agenda. Its accomplishments prompted Teddy Roosevelt to remark that the state had become “literally a laboratory for wise, experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.”

In our era too, the battle has once again shifted to the states where there is some autonomy. The ideological clash among red and blue constituencies has now consolidated into alternative jurisdictions within one federal system. The United States is becoming a patchwork of differing values, norms and rules not unlike Europe during the Middle Ages.

Texas may ban abortion and embrace open carrying of guns. Florida may sanction discrimination against LGBTQ people. But in California, not only is abortion legal and gay rights guaranteed, but its arms are open to refugees from other states and it has the strictest gun control and carbon emission rules in the nation. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s nullification of Roe v. Wade, both New York and California are aiming to place protection of women’s right to choose in their state constitutions.

While this battle of jurisdictions within rages, it is an open question whether an America more diverse in every sense than any place else on Earth can ever again come together. 

Taking On The Retrograde States

It is not easy to chart a sensible path forward in such crazy times. Talking with a former governor and other seasoned political figures comes up empty since nothing in their experience offers much guidance about how and where to go next. 

The current governor of California, Gavin Newsom, figures the best course is to take on the retrograde states frontally, as he did in this Independence Day video aimed at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. His unadorned message: Freedom is at stake.

In the longer term, some slim hope rests in renovating our democratic institutions through standing up deliberative assemblies where less ideologically rigid citizens that reside within all red and blue states can reach consensus when partisans in elected legislatures cannot. Others in Noema have recently suggested moving to proportional voting with multi-candidate districts. 

As vexing as all else at issue, what is most worrying is that, as the states wrangle each other, the federal government and the Court over how to curb the world’s largest source of carbon emissions, the 10-year window the U.N. sees for avoiding an irreversible path to climate calamity will close. 

In short, the situation is bleak. It is all too easy to imagine that some future John Adams will quote what the Founding Father said of ancient Greece and Rome when contemplating a frame for America’s republican constitution back in the late 18th century: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” If we fail this time around, we may well take the planet with us.