Is America like the Soviet Union in 1990? It sometimes feels that way

America's symptoms of decline are everywhere — and history tells us what happens if we don't change course

Published January 21, 2024 9:00AM (EST)

Abandoned diner that hasn't been used in a long time (Getty Images/AndresCalle)
Abandoned diner that hasn't been used in a long time (Getty Images/AndresCalle)

Question: Who owns the parking meters in Chicago?

Answer: Morgan Stanley and the city of Abu Dhabi. In 2008, in order to offset a budget crisis, the city council leased the parking meter system to a company called Chicago Parking Meters LLC, owned by Morgan Stanley and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. Rates in most areas quadrupled.

In June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Nestlé was allowed to use child slaves in the production of chocolate in Africa. Six individuals from Mali alleged that they were trafficked as children to Ivory Coast to harvest cocoa beans, and that Nestlé aided and abetted in the process. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court found that Nestlé could not be held legally accountable.

In 2022, Human Rights Watch listed the crisis of unaffordable insulin in the U.S. as the fifth-largest human rights crisis in the world, just above migrant deaths between Morocco and Spain.

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The era of certainty is gone. The modern age is defined by heightened confusion and inexplicable world events. Britain's decision to leave the European Union. The election (and possible re-election) of Donald Trump. Attempted coups-d’état in the U.S., Russia and Germany. The first global pandemic in a century.

In the face of all this, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that our current system is dysfunctional. There is mass uncertainty about the future in America and other Western nations, bolstered by a series of alarming trends.

The U.S. is currently the only country in the developed world where life expectancy is declining. This is partly due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the trend actually began a few years earlier. From 2014 to 2017, life expectancy fell for three consecutive years; this hadn't happened in the U.S. since 1918, and is virtually unheard-of in modern societies not facing war or disease. According to data from the Center for Disease Control, U.S. life expectancy is now at its lowest since 1996. COVID erased two full decades of life-expectancy growth in the U.S, whereas average life expectancy in peer countries decreased only marginally, to about the level of 2018.

Why is this happening in the richest country in the world? The reasons are not obscure. It’s largely happening because of an increasing number of what have been called “deaths of despair” (this mostly means suicides and alcohol- or drug-related fatalities), which disproportionately occur among white middle-class or working-class Americans. The term comes from Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who speculate that the phenomenon is related to economic inequality and inadequate health care. In 2017, the number of deaths of despair in the U.S. was estimated at 150,000. The U.S. appears to be facing the worst drug epidemic in its history right now. Overdoses have joined car crashes and gun violence as a leading cause of death, and suicide rates hit an all-time high in 2022.

Last year, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public advisory about loneliness in America, declaring it to be a public health crisis. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected, Murthy reported, was similar to that caused by smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes a day. In 2018, the British government created an unofficial "minister of loneliness" position. Japan did the same in 2021, partly in response to the "Hikikomori phenomenon," a severe form of social isolation in which young men stay in their rooms for periods of six months or more. By some estimates, more than half a million Japanese men have become Hikikomori.

The U.S. is suffering from an inability to provide basic, reliable social services. Although the Biden administration has ramped up infrastructure spending, the American Society of Civil Engineers still grades U.S. infrastructure at C-minus, its second lowest ranking. The U.S. exhibits higher wealth inequality than almost any other developed country, and is the only major developed country that does not guarantee health care to all citizens.

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In other words, these symptoms of decline did not come out of nowhere. We have been following this trajectory for decades. America now ranks as a “developing nation” on a number of international indexes. Our condition is not terminal, but it is moving in the wrong direction. The overall health of our society is backsliding, and it seems conceivable that we could be approaching a major upheaval on the scale of the collapse of communism in the 1990s.

No one can predict the future with certainty. But what is so striking about the current moment is that the most serious threat to America's existing social order is not some better-performing alternative model advocated by our adversaries. It is coming from within. For decades after World War II, anticommunism was the driving force behind our geopolitical strategy. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this antagonism has been directed internally.

In the 1970s, power began to shift away from the manufacturing sector and toward financial institutions, constituting a new economic reality no longer organized around the means of production and distribution. Around the same time, we saw a precipitous decline in union membership and collective bargaining. Financial regulations were dismantled. Wages began to stagnate. Speculation increased. Following the collapse of the Democratic coalition forged by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, political figures from both parties were unable to envision or enact anything approaching major economic reforms, even after the crash of 2008, the worst since the Great Depression.

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In the 1960s and 70s, Republicans capitalized on the backlash to civil rights legislation with the “Southern strategy,” drawing Southern white voters away from Democratic Party. They also mobilized evangelical Christians by championing bans on abortion. This has led directly to today’s partisan split, where the domestic agenda is dominated by culture-war issues involving race, sex and gender. Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, yet have managed to hold power almost half the time — a form of minority sabotage. The ideal of national unity seems increasingly precarious.

Mitch McConnell, of all people, accurately summarized the nation's polarization crisis: “We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities with nothing in common except our hostility toward each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.”

Mitch McConnell, of all people, said this: “We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities, with nothing in common except our hostility toward each other."

The days when the public could debate a set of shared facts are over. The news media in America today has become increasingly fragmented, not unlike the situation in nations divided by civil war, where information must be pieced together from conflicting reports delivered by sources loyal to opposing oligarchies. There was once a sort of monoculture in American news media, where people responded to the same set of basic facts. This had its downsides, of course, but today, there is no longer any consensus reality at all. The internet democratized information, but degraded its quality. Incompatible worldviews have been isolated within bubbles where contradictory points of view or unresolved complications cannot reach.

America is effectively becoming two societies, who agree about almost nothing except blaming the other side. This has contributed to a larger culture of social fragmentation: People of all demographic groups feel more alone than ever before, while public trust in the government has been at record lows for years. This kind of turmoil provides fertile ground for populist demagogues.

In recent years, we’ve seen far-right movements emerge around the globe, and far-right leaders come to power, at least temporarily, in the U.S., the U.K., Brazil, Italy, Hungary, Argentina and the Philippines, among other countries. There has also been a resurgence of left-wing politics, though with less electoral success: Bernie Sanders never became the Democratic presidential nominee; Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the British Labour Party ended in defeat. Meanwhile, the previously dominant political center has all but collapsed in many Western nations, although perhaps Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak offer evidence that it has not become obsolete.

This goes far beyond electoral spectacle; it could be seen as symptomatic of a death-drive. Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic measurement of how close the world is to nuclear annihilation. Midnight marks the theoretical destruction point. Last year, because of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Board placed the clock's hands at 90 seconds to midnight — the closest to Armageddon it has ever been.

Last March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its annual climate change synthesis report, which concluded that uncontrolled greenhouse-gas emissions will lead to “widespread adverse impacts on food and water security, human health and on economies and society and related losses and damages to nature and people.” Last June, smoke from wildfires in Canada drifted hundreds of miles down to the eastern seaboard of the U.S., turning the skies orange over New York City. July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth.

We should consider what Sigmund Freud in "Civilization and its Discontents" called "the fateful question for the human species":

[W]hether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect, precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help, they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unease, their unhappiness and mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two "Heavenly Powers," eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?

In an era when multiple catastrophes are competing for primacy, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that our society is entering a death spiral. We are in a period of what UC Berkeley professor Alexei Yurchak calls "hypernormalisation," a term he coined to describe life in the Soviet Union during the last years of the Communist regime. It describes a moment when everyone knows the system is failing but no one has a viable alternative vision, so the state of decay comes to seem normal. Is this where we are?

Alternative paths are, in fact, possible, and opinion polling suggests that most Americans want them. Majorities favor raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the wealthy, creating national health insurance, enacting the Green New Deal and rebuilding public infrastructure. They oppose cutting or privatizing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In this and many other ways, the gap between what Americans want and what those who supposedly represent them are willing or able to do is stark, even shocking.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that our society is entering a death spiral. But alternative paths are, in fact, possible, and opinion polling tells us that most Americans want them.

History is clear enough: Positive change nearly always begins with mass movements: the civil rights movement, women’s rights, the Vietnam War protests, the anti-apartheid movement, LGBTQ activism and many more. For a variety of reasons, protest movements in the 21st century — from the Iraq war to Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and climate justice — have not succeeded in creating large-scale social and economic change, although they have shifted public consciousness to some degree. What the future will require, I believe, is a level of sustained street activism in conjunction with labor militancy and workplace democracy, the likes of which America had in the 1930s. We can see hints of this in the renewed power of labor unions, although these still represent a small proportion of America's workers.

This kind of unified movement could assert power from outside government by controlling key sectors in the economy, with the goal of improving living standards, increasing wages and providing equal access to health care benefits for everyone. More optimistically, such a movement could, in the longer term, help encourage a return to communal life. People engaged in cooperative efforts for their mutual benefit feel less alone — because they are not alone — and feel a greater sense of purpose and stability in their lives.

In one direction lies a future built on citizen engagement and a shared vision. In the other lies the Soviet Union in 1991, a superpower that no one imagined could collapse — until it did.


By Jackson Diianni

Jackson Diianni is a freelance writer of cultural criticism and prose fiction living in Brookline, Massachusetts. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2020 with a degree in writing for film/TV and has written screenplays, short stories, political essays and music/film criticism.

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