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It was the land of capitalism, freedom, the melting pot and the American dream: its deep imperfections notwithstanding, I always held it to be a self-evident truth that there was much the USA could teach Britain. On visits during my teenage and student years, I was enthralled by the dynamism, the can-do attitude, the work ethic, the quality of life of the middle classes, the commitment to religious freedom and civil society, the brilliance of the universities, the romance of its great cities, and the lifestyle epitomised by the homes and cars of its suburbs.
Much of what Alexis de Tocqueville described in his brilliant, premonitory Democracy in America in 1835 remained correct: there were crippling caveats, of course, but the US was the greatest ever experiment in building a modern civilisation based around constitutionally limited government, individualism and mass participation in wealth and decision-making. Even America’s awful downsides, the hideous, shocking ways in which it deviated from its founding principles, some of which I witnessed first hand on an exchange programme at a horribly divided school in Baltimore, appeared to be slowly improving. It was still possible to hope that the despicable evil of racism, the appalling legacy of slavery and segregation, were finally on the way out, that progress was being made, that Martin Luther King’s dream of judging people on the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, might one day be reached.
America’s other horrors, not least rampant violence, were also in retreat: the fight against crime was liberating cities such as New York and ushering in an urban renaissance which other countries would eventually copy. There were other problems, of course, not least homelessness and poverty, but lesser versions of these were hardly absent in Europe, including the French banlieues.
A quarter of a century later, I still love America but the tragic reality is that today’s United States is no longer Ronald Reagan’s shining city on a hill. It is, instead, a Republic in decline, plunged into a moral, economic, philosophical and existential crisis that may yet destroy it. Joe Biden’s useless presidency will merely intensify the forces driving the nihilism that is eating away at America’s soul.
So what happened since my student days? Automation, globalisation and the failures of state education slashed the returns to blue-collar, unskilled work. Stagnant wages for such groups, combined with the increased cost of housing (caused by regulatory-imposed scarcity and cheap money) have effected poorer Americans severely, with falling life expectancy among certain demographics even before Covid, as well as a collapse in marriage and fertility and a surge in loneliness and addiction.
This economic crisis has gone hand in hand with the rise of secularism: just 47 per cent of Americans now belong to a house of worship, according to Gallup, the first time in 80 years that this has fallen below half, and down disastrously from 70 per cent in 1999. The result of all this has been to push working-class people towards populism and graduates towards a form of neo-Corbynite Left.
At the same time, returns to Ivy League degrees increased sharply, creating a super-class of married, two-income families that congregate in cities or exclusive suburbs. In the 1950s, the average CEO or lawyer had largely similar tastes to the average worker, almost uniquely in the West; now tastes are radically different depending on class, as has always been the case in the Old World.
Their beliefs have diverged equally drastically: America’s elites, led by younger graduates, have abandoned their post-1960s liberalism and embraced instead what Wesley Yang has described as its “successor ideology”: the sinister “woke” secular religion of so-called “social justice warriors” who see the world through the distorted prism of “intersectionality”, oppression, identity politics and the catch-all of “white supremacy”. These people say they want to fight racism but, in reality, are Balkanising America and have no interest in a truly meritocratic, colour-blind society finally at peace with itself, the original liberal ideal.
In the authoritarian, anti-democratic worldview which now dominates universities, big business, government and cultural institutions, free speech is dismissed as violence, conservatism as fascism and differences of opinion as “micro-aggressions”. Capitalism is loathed, as is free enquiry. The old elite – whether Left-liberal or Reaganite – tried to help the poor: the new elite dislikes the working class and seeks to deploy “cancel culture” to stamp out dissent. It attacks selective state schooling and campaigns to defund the police, moves that have led to an explosion of crime and are hitting minorities especially badly.
The Right, for its part, has also gone mad: too many Republicans have ditched their old principles – be it free markets, limited government or social conservatism – and instead embraced a dumbed-down, populist demagoguery on a long list of issues. Many Republican voters still believe, against all facts and evidence, that the election was rigged; on Covid, conspiracies have been rife. Trumpism could be the death of the Republican party. Left and Right hate each other: they refuse to talk, to live together, and they don’t want their children to marry one another. Race relations are also deteriorating again after years of gradual progress, according to polling.
The economic chaos to date is nothing compared to what might happen. The establishment believes it can borrow with impunity: the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, granting it seigniorage, geopolitical and other privileges. Yet one day this will end, especially if America goes on consuming above its means. The US continues to attract the best and brightest from all around the world, helping to prop up its world-beating tech industry. But how long can this last if hard work is being replaced by identity politics, and with the spectre of extortionate taxes being pushed by neo-Marxists? The tech giants, once disruptive, libertarian ventures that empowered ordinary people, have often become corporatised agents of the woke elites, and will eventually face a global reckoning. China, meanwhile, is powering ahead with its own tech and military investments.
Can America still be saved? I hope so, for the sake of its wonderful people and for what we used to call “the free world”. However, for the first time, I’m no longer sure.
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