Thursday, October 16, 2014

America’s decline is exaggerated


The loss of confidence that Americans have expressed may be rooted in a deeper shift in people’s attitudes towards individualism, which has brought about decreased deference to authority. 


OCTOBER 16, 2014

With the approach of the United States congressional elections, questions about the health of America’s political institutions and the future of its global leadership have become rampant, with some citing partisan gridlock as evidence of America’s decline. But is the situation really that bad?

The ideological divide between America’s two main political parties has not been as large as it is now since the end of the 19th century, said political scientist Sarah Binder.

Despite the current gridlock, however, the 111th Congress managed to pass a major fiscal stimulus, health-care reform, financial regulation, an arms-control treaty, and revision of the military policy on homosexuality. Clearly, the US political system cannot be written off (especially if partisan gridlock is cyclical).

Nonetheless, today’s Congress is plagued by low legislative capacity. Though ideological consistency has more than doubled over the past two decades, from 10 per cent to 21 per cent of the public, most Americans do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views and want their representatives to meet one another halfway. Political parties, however, have become more consistently ideological since the ’70s.

This is not a new problem for the US, whose constitution is based on the 18th-century liberal view that power is best controlled by fragmentation and countervailing checks and balances, with the president and Congress forced to compete for control in areas such as foreign policy. In other words, the US government was designed to be inefficient, in order to ensure that it could not easily threaten the liberty of its citizens.

This inefficiency has probably contributed to the decline in confidence in American institutions. Today, less than one-fifth of the public trusts the federal government to do the right thing most of the time, compared with three-quarters in 1964. Of course, these figures surged occasionally during that period, such as after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the overall decline is considerable.

The federal government is not alone. Over the past several decades, public confidence in many influential institutions has plummeted.

From 1964 to 1997, the share of Americans who trusted universities fell from 61 per cent to 30 per cent, while trust in major companies fell from 55 per cent to 21 per cent. Trust in medical institutions dropped from 73 per cent to 29 per cent, and in journalism from 29 per cent to 14 per cent.

Over the past decade, confidence in educational institutions and the military has recovered, but trust in Wall Street and large corporations has continued to fall.

But these ostensibly alarming figures can be misleading.

In fact, 82 per cent of Americans still consider the US to be the world’s best place to live and 90 per cent like their democratic system of government. Americans may not be entirely satisfied with their leaders, but the country is certainly not on the brink of an Arab Spring-style revolution.


Moreover, though party politics have become more polarised in recent decades, this follows the 1950s and early 1960s, when the escape from the Great Depression and victory in World War II fuelled unusually high confidence in US institutions.

In fact, the sharpest decline in public trust in the government occurred in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Moreover, declining trust in the government has not been accompanied by significant changes in citizens’ behaviour. For example, the Internal Revenue Service is among the government institutions that inspire the least public confidence; yet there has been no major surge in tax evasion.

In terms of controlling corruption, the US still scores in the 90th percentile. And though voting rates in presidential elections declined from 62 per cent to 50 per cent in the second half of the twentieth century, they stabilised in 2000, and rose to 58 per cent in 2012.

The loss of confidence that Americans have expressed may be rooted in a deeper shift in people’s attitudes towards individualism, which has brought about decreased deference to authority. Indeed, similar patterns are characteristic of most post-modern societies.

This social shift probably will not influence US institutions’ effectiveness as much as one might think, given America’s decentralised federal system. In fact, gridlock in the national capital is often accompanied by political cooperation and innovation at the state and municipal levels, leading citizens to view state and local governments, as well as many government agencies, much more favourably than the federal government.

This approach to governance has had a profound impact on the mentality of the American people. A 2002 study indicated that three-quarters of Americans feel connected to their communities and consider their quality of life to be excellent or good, with nearly half of adults participating in a civic group or activity.

That is good news for the US. But it does not mean that America’s leaders can continue to ignore the political system’s shortcomings, such as the gerrymandered “safe seats” in the House of Representatives and obstructive processes in the Senate.

Whether such sources of gridlock can be overcome remains to be seen. And there is legitimate reason to doubt America’s ability to maintain its “hyperpower” status, not least owing to the rise of major emerging economies.

But, as the conservative author David Frum notes, over the past two decades, the US has experienced a swift decline in crime, auto fatalities, alcohol and tobacco consumption, and emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which cause acid rain — all while leading an Internet revolution.

Given this, dire comparisons to, say, the decline of Rome are simply unwarranted.


Joseph Nye, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defence and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author, most recently, of Presidential Leadership And The Creation Of The American Era.

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