Political Crises and Social Conflicts in American Political System

There are certainly “gaps” in American society: growing gaps between the rich and poor; gaps between the ideal of democracy and its contemporary practice; gaps between the two leading political parties and the parallel political polarization among the citizenry; gaps between science and the respect it deserves. At the same time, one can wonder: when did we go right? When were the better times? One can certainly point to earlier moments in American history when some of the above-mentioned problems were less severe, but in these past moments other problems (for example, racism and sexism) arguably were much worse. So, yes, there are “gaps” today, but American history always has had problems and disappointments—and, to be sure, some real triumphs (when gaps have shrunk) along the way.

The future is notoriously hard to know. If I were to make the case for American decline, I’d point to: the decline of America’s share of global GDP (from approximately 40% a half century ago to, by some measures, less than 25% today); the transition of the US from the world’s biggest creditor nation to the biggest debtor nation (with a national debt now at a worrying $28 trillion); exogenous challenges (terrorism; the environment) that continue to put pressure on Americans’ quality of life, though in many cases these are of course challenges shared by so many other countries as well; recent military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the Trump presidency which possibly portends the weakening of democratic norms throughout the country.

If I were to resist this narrative of decline, however, I’d point to the fact that the US is still perhaps the most powerful nation in the world and that, compared to other large and powerful states with geopolitical ambitions (e.g., Russia and China), it arguably provides (despite all its imperfections) the best leadership and example for achieving the goals of political equality and human freedom. To be sure, there are about 20 countries in the world that rank higher than the US on liberal-democratic criteria, but the US is on the side of liberal democracy in ways that its primary geopolitical competitors are not. And perhaps this circumstance will continue to propel the US in the years ahead.

 Some claim that from the beginning of the twenty-first century, though, the ability of the United States to act as a unipolar was challenged by several factors, including America’s inability to prevail in its large-scale, long-lasting military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and U.S. ineffective response to Russia.  Again, it is hard to predict the future. I’d say that when the US has been at its most effective militarily in the modern era (in the two world wars, in the first Iraq war, in Kosovo, etc.), it usually has been part of a genuine and robust alliance with other like-minded nations.

Taking military action within such deep and wide alliances not only maximizes the prospects of military success, but provides greater assurance that the causes for which the country fights are appropriate ones. Operating in a strictly unipolar fashion, by contrast, can make it harder to prevail within conflicts and harder to be properly confident that one is in the right, to the extent legitimacy can ever fully apply to matters of warfare and violence.  

Some accuse American failures in the international stage as a result of failure in US democracy. Perhaps a more deliberate and inclusive process—in which the American public had more reliable information about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—might have prevented the Second Iraq War or at least improved its strategy and execution. But it is not obvious to me that more democracy in the US would lead to less militarism.

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