Is the U.S. a failed state in 2020? Experts' answers range from "maybe" to "hell, yes"

A massive economic collapse, a pandemic and a democratic crisis — on top of massive inequality. It's not great

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 5, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

A collapsed bridge in Mexico Beach, Florida on October 12, 2018, two days after Hurricane Michael struck. (Charlotte Kesl for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A collapsed bridge in Mexico Beach, Florida on October 12, 2018, two days after Hurricane Michael struck. (Charlotte Kesl for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

If the United States isn't a failed state in 2020, it is rapidly on its way toward becoming one. Economists, historians and public health experts I spoke to would generally agree with that sentence, even if they might disagree on some of the details or the severity of the crisis.

Since 2000 we have had two major economic crashes, the related issue of persistent income inequality and an environmental crisis that threatens the future of civilization. In 2020 we are also facing a pandemic and a social uprising against institutional racism, made worse President Trump's incompetence and the apparent threat he poses to democracy. One might say the real question isn't whether the U.S. is a failed state, but how we can pull ourselves out of the muck before it is too late.

When it comes to the economy, the problems are relatively obvious, even if the solutions are not. 

"The American economic system has waltzed itself into a network of problems in large part because it really lived a charmed life," said Dr. Richard D. Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "But the charmed life ended around the 1970s, after which it went on a kind of extended life support." 

Americans have maintained the illusion of prosperity by accruing massive debt, Wolff told Salon, comparing the nation's situation to that of "a patient who has had a really bad cancer or a heart attack, and is now kept alive with tubes and chemicals and all the rest of it. He is not dead, but is in deep trouble. That problem is compounded, Wolff said, "by the fact that this is a society cannot, to this day, face what I just said."

As Wolff explained, one important element of our national dilemma is that the U.S. economy expanded at an extraordinary rate for roughly 150 years, a period of "ascendant capitalism" from about the 1820s through the 1970s. 

"If you look at the numbers, real wages in the United States, the average amount of goods and services a working man or woman could buy with what they got, went up every decade," Wolff said. "It's an amazing story. And it produced in the United States, this euphoria — there is no other way to describe it — this really strange notion that other people don't have." It was, specifically, the belief now called "American exceptionalism," which Wolff described as the conviction "that God likes you and so has put you in this great place where you can start off poor and end up rich. And there was something to it. It wouldn't have burrowed so deeply in the consciousness of the American if there wasn't something to it."

That period, however, is clearly over, for reasons that economists still vigorously debate to this day. The most likely culprits, as Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute wrote in 2015, are the decline of labor unions, the abandonment of full employment as a policymaking priority, globalization and "the superlative growth of compensation of CEOs and other top managers, and excessive salaries in the expanding financial sector" — all which came at the expense of poor and working-class people.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the end of the boom in the late 1970s was also the same period when American policymakers first became aware of the global threat posed by climate change — and could have worked to halt it. As Penn State climatologist Michael E. Mann told Salon last year, our society has failed to address this problem because "in George W. Bush's own words, we are 'addicted to fossil fuels.' Carrying the metaphor one step further, fossil fuel interests and the politicians and front groups who do their bidding are the drug pushers, while we are the victims." 

Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Salon last month that inaction on the climate crisis was inextricably linked to the corrupting influence of money in politics.

"Politicians are supposed to be the ones who assimilate all the information, including the science, and also all the possible consequences in all ways, shapes and forms, including health, economics and society," Trenberth explained. "I don't think most politicians actually recognize their role, and it's much worse in the United States than it is in many other countries. And the reason it's much worse is because of advocacy, because of money in particular, because of Citizens United and the nasty politics that gets involved with using so-called dark money."

This year, of course, has exposed the failures of the American state like none before. Leaving aside political concerns, Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a disastrous failure. The virus is a global phenomenon, but other nations have been far more successful in containing their outbreaks. They have manufactured and distributed coronavirus tests on a large scale, enforced mandatory quarantine on infected or exposed individuals, organized assertive contact-tracing programs, implemented worker protections and made sure that health professionals have adequate supplies of PPE. Perhaps most important, they have injected massive amounts of government funds into the economy, whether through direct payments to individuals, unemployment benefits or subsidies to employers and local government agencies, while the U.S. Congress continues to bicker over a relatively stingy stimulus package.

There is also the looming possibility that Trump will provoke a constitutional crisis by making good on his veiled threats to attempt to remain in power if he loses the presidential election. The last time a contested election appeared to endanger the democratic order was the 1860 race in which Abraham Lincoln defeated Democrat Stephen Douglas, setting the nation on the path to the worst conflict in our history.

"The run-up to the Civil War had similar characteristics minus the virus," Columbia University historian Eric Foner told Salon by email. "I hope that is not an omen. We were certainly a failed state in 1860." As Foner explained, "the 1850s witnessed not only intense partisan and ideological division but also the collapse of one party and rise of another; stalemate and violence in Congress; hostility to immigrants (the Know-Nothing party); federal officials battling in the streets with people resisting the Fugitive Slave law; and ultimately civil war. Even more of a failed state than now."

American University political scientist Allan Lichtman expressed similar thoughts, comparing the current period to the chaotic era from the 1830s through the outbreak of civil war after the 1860 election. He mentioned the cholera pandemic, widespread civil unrest over slavery, the censuring of President Andrew Jackson, the collapse of the Whig Party — and the brief rise of the xenophobic Know Nothing Party — and the economic panic in 1857, all of which led to the election of Lincoln and the national implosion that followed. 

Lichtman added, however, that he does not believe things are quite that bad now. "Despite Trump's unrelenting assaults on our democracy, our institutions are still stronger than in the 1850s, I don't think we will have another Civil War in the era of modern weaponry. I don't think Trump will be able to sustain any challenge to the election and will be escorted out of the White House, especially if the election is not close. The much greater worries are posed by voter suppression — and perhaps even the dispatch of unidentified federal troops to Democratic cities on Election Day — and Russian interference, which Trump will again welcome and exploit."

Admitting that the period of endless American expansion has ended, and that much of this was the result of poor economic and political decision-making, is the first step. How do we begin to repair these failures?

For one thing, said American University economist Gabriel Mathy, the U.S. should implementing either true universal health care "or a good public option that rapidly becomes universal." He also argued that some form of universal basic income, even on a modest scale, is needed to alleviate poverty, and that "unemployment insurance should be federalized and the system modernized, and benefits should be made more generous and extended to more workers."

More radical measures may be necessary to address climate change. Speaking to Salon last month, ecological economist Julia K. Steinberger of the University of Leeds argued that we need am "all hands on deck" approach "that allows our economies to be completely transformed in order to literally allow human survival. That's what's at stake in terms of the gravity of the situation and the rapidity with which the climate crisis is unfolding."

Steinberger says she favors "a full Green New Deal that focuses entirely on renewable and low carbon energy— which does not include natural gas [or] any fossil fuels going forward — and makes a clear signal that all fossil fuels will be ramped down to nothing within the scope of the next 10 years." By tying this into creating high-paying jobs, one could create an economic future for many people and begin to reverse the catastrophic effects of climate change at the same time.

Joe Biden, who may well become president in January, has advocated creating a Pandemic Testing Board comparable to Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous War Production Board, establishing a 100,000-plus worker Public Health Jobs Corps and passing stimulus legislation "a hell of a lot bigger" than the $2 trillion Congress has already spent to support struggling families. These are common sense measures that at the very least will help America survive the current crisis. Other Biden proposals, such as requiring businesses to provide paid emergency sick leave, increasing the size of family relief payments (aka "welfare") increasing Social Security checks by up to $200 and adding a public option to Obamacare seem like modest but constructive steps.

Whether democracy itself can be saved lies outside the scope of this article, although it's obviously a troubling question. Lichtman may be right that our system can resist Donald Trump's chicanery, but even the fact that our national condition in 2020 bears comparison with the pre-Civil War era bespeaks a grave problem. If Americans lose faith in our government and our political system entirely, then solutions proposed by economists, scientists and public health experts are not likely to work.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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