Why has America become so nasty? As seen from abroad, we resemble backbiting, seething children who take to the streets when it does not go our way. Hyperbole, personal attacks, and misrepresentation are the norm. The truth is massacred by politicians and mainstream media alike. Our political arena has taken its behavioral cue from the 1934 musical title by Cole Porter, “Anything Goes.” It is a long way from the halcyon days of Ozzie and Harriet, Dobie Gillis, and the Mickey Mouse Club. So why the mess and what is going on, we must ask ourselves.
First, the country no longer perceives the existence of a mortal enemy. The lessons and national bonding after 9/11 have come and gone. As I wrote several years ago in the Chicago Tribune, there is no Soviet Union with thousands of battle tanks and artillery pieces ready to pour into Western Europe. With no gargantuan enemy to see and define, we have fallen back into indulgence and narcissism, rapidly spending the so-called peace dividend that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For decades, the possibility of nuclear conflict with the Soviet behemoth brought Democrats and Republicans together with an unrelenting sense of purpose that was ultimately enhanced and realized on President Reagan’s watch.
The enemy now is fragmented “over there,” shadowy, and hard to define. There is the Shiite — Sunni battle for the soul of Islam that also targets Western-leaning Arab governments. There is the rise of Shiite Iran, now emboldened with new found legitimacy given to it by the West. There are the proxy forces in the Middle East — Hezbollah, Hamas, and Houthis — doing the dirty work of their sponsors. There is Al-Qaeda reasserting itself in Afghanistan and entrenched on the Arabian Peninsula — and while it is predominantly Sunni, it is quite capable of collaborating with a Shiite regime such as Iran. There is ISIS, a Sunni reactionary force that has arisen with remarkable speed with the objective of not only an Islamic caliphate but also to directly threaten Europe and the U.S. There is the civil war in mainly Sunni but Shiite (Alawite) led Syria between the Assad government and opposing forces. And there is chaos in Libya which like Somalia and Yemen has become an ungoverned space.
There is no single persona to vilify such as Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev. It is hard to name an ISIS or Al-Qaeda leader. Instead, we have images of RPG toting young men in dusty turbans riding around in Toyota trucks. It is also quite hard to tell who the “good guys” are. Today’s good guys, once armed by the United States, could be tomorrow’s blow back against us. And some of today’s allies such as Saudi Arabia are viewed as sponsoring the Wahhabi austere form of Islam by directing money to jihadists — like the analogy of the appeaser, characterized by Winston Churchill as someone who feeds the crocodile, wishfully thinking that it will gobble him up last.
Besides not perceiving a mortal threat to unite us, we have amazingly divisive politics, with capitalism and technology as the accelerants. Some places in industrial America are hurting badly. Unfortunately, this is in part the work of the unseen hand of the 18th century Scotsman, Adam Smith: in a world of free movement of goods, services, and capital, huge wage disparities will result in shifts of wealth. This is exactly what has happened with the ascent of China, which can out-compete the U.S. in basic manufacturing and has amassed several trillion in reserve assets, putting companies and towns here out of work.
Technology is also a factor. While some politicians are quick to blame China for the loss of jobs, they rarely speak about what electronic technology and the Internet have also done. Allowing a greater span of control for managers, technology has enabled one person to manage far more subordinates, especially if they all do the same tasks. And not only that, the Internet has flattened supply chains by eliminating parties that do not add sufficient value, either through lower cost, assumption of risk, or information value. Access to technology, moreover, breeds comparisons and envy — this is a global phenomenon and is by no means limited to the U.S. If a hard-working person making $50,000 with a family of five gets it in his or her face that Wall Street Yuppies are making big bonuses, or 28-year-olds are driving Lamborghinis in California, there is bound to be class warfare — especially in the aftermath of a terrible recession.
Technology also allows TV journalists to embed themselves in imbroglios, refracting and fomenting argument. And instead of just thinking or discussing negative thoughts, anyone can now immortalize them in writing by letting them go viral on the web.
America is not the only nasty place right now. Europe is affected by the same economic and technology forces and is taking a disagreeable turn. The politics of immigration are viciously confronting its democratic principles. Economic imbalances in the Euro Zone have similarly challenged collectivism and threatened its survival.
It may be too much to hope for, but a dialogue by the political class about the lack of a perceived mortal adversary, and the roles of capitalism and technology would be more productive than innuendo about the size of someone’s hands, punching each other in the nose, and boycotting Starbucks. Unfortunately, rather than holding politicians accountable, the nation just wants to be entertained by them. And it’s going to get nastier.
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