In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the journal of the American foreign policy establishment, Fareed Zakaria asks: “Can America Be Fixed?”
Zakaria, the prominent author and broadcaster, addresses what he calls “the new crisis of democracy” facing the United States. He wonders whether it can overcome its social, economic and financial challenges to succeed in the 21st century.
He isn’t joining the chorus of Cassandras predicting the end of America. But he questions the capacity of the country’s political system to renew society. He worries whether “this time, the pessimists might be right.”
Pessimism, in this context, means a diminished America; Zakaria suggests that the danger for the United States isn’t death but sclerosis. He fears a long recessional to “the margins of the world” rather than a quick, climactic collapse.
His evidence is alarming: public trust in government (“to do what is right just about always or most of the time,”) has fallen from 76 per cent in 1964 to 19 per cent in 2010. Debt has accumulated dangerously (from 42 per cent of total GDP in 1982 to 107 per cent). The bureaucracy has grown substantially (the tax code is 73,000 pages). Infrastructure is eroding (the U.S. has fallen from fifth in the world a decade ago to 25th). Entitlement programs are growing (from less than one-third of the federal budget in 1960 to two-thirds in 2010).
If you think it cannot happen to America, he warns, consider Japan, which many predicted in the 1980s would unseat America as the world’s biggest economy. Japan has been in free fall for two decades.
But you don’t need Zakaria’s Everest of evidence to ponder what ails America in 2013. Just look around.
In Washington, the dance of the deaf goes on. Having lost the presidency and seen their strength eroded in both chambers, the Republicans mutter old nostrums, as if unhinged. It isn’t enough for them to make almost all the Bush tax cuts permanent, an ideological victory they would have celebrated five years ago. As commentator Howard Fineman says, many of them are in Congress not “to legislate but to remonstrate.” They are the new Jacobins.
The ultra-conservatives are in the catbird seat because of a broken electoral system that has put only some 40 of 435 seats in the House in play at election time, meaning incumbents of both parties face challenges only from their own party, in the primaries.
Meanwhile, the newly re-elected president is unable or unwilling to bring the moral weight of his office to address the coming financial calamity. The reason may be that there is no consensus on debt, as there was in Canada in the 1990s. Better to avoid the topic — like that alcoholic uncle —than have an adult conversation.
A fight in Congress over returning tax rates to where they were in the prosperous 1990s? A fight over returning gun controls to where they were in the 1990s? Can this be real?
In California, the country’s most populous state, the challenges of infrastructure are everywhere. Freeways choked with congestion. Inadequate urban public transit in cities and poor rail service between them.Yet, sooner than later, as Winston Churchill observed, it does the right thing — after it has exhausted all the other possibilities.
It does the right thing more than the wrong thing, and it has this unfathomable, enduring capacity to reinvent itself when everyone believes it can’t. It is why, dear skeptics, America is not going to be Japan.
Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.