The Empire has no Clothes

Every morning, schoolchildren in the United States are made to stand, place palms to hearts, and recite an allegiance pledge to their country, before beginning the day’s learning.

“One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In the United States in 2020, we are forced to reckon with the hollow meaning of these words, as we stare down an unprecedented era of devastation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed our country to a breaking point. Indeed, as the virus attacks our physical bodies by the millions, it has also attacked our woeful systems of collective wellbeing, giving way to sweeping economic fallout, unemployment, and general hardship. Simultaneously, the recent brutalization and killing of black Americans has sparked a widespread social uprising against police militarization, and climate change continues to throttle vulnerable communities from the coasts to the heartland.

Amidst these and myriad other competing crises, a cartoonishly corrupt administration enriches itself from the sidelines.

In the Twitter-sphere, and even among the opinion columns of mainstay news outlets, there is a narrative unfolding. That America is now a “failed state“, and “the American era is at an end.” I think these are misleading grasps at the truth, at best.

One

Formally defined, a failed state is “an economic and geopolitical classification that denotes when a political body has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly.” 

Now, if you take that definition in a vacuum, and follow it up with George Packer’s argument in the Atlantic article linked above, there seems to be a compelling case:

“Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years. … The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus – like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. … Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state”

None of what Packer says is false…except the very last word. We are indeed citizens living within an abundance of failure – but the failure is that of an off-the-rails administration, not the state itself. We can only speculate, but still say with some confidence that, if any other modern American administration were in power, the effects of COVID-19 would not have been as dire. There was indeed a playbook – systems driven by science, logical response protocols and failsafes crafted to allay the onslaught of such a virus, that were scrapped. We were far from completely prepared, but we were more prepared before this administration took the helm.

Certainly there are other signals of a failed state that are too numerous to mention. Courting foreign actors to intervene in elections, disappearing innocent people off the streets, gutting essential services like the postal service, stepping back from WHO and the world stage…again, I would argue these are acts of an administration unchecked and bolstered by its own party’s corruption, not reflections of a failed state.

No, we are not a failed state in the sense that North Korea is a failed state. No, the failure of this administration in power does not equate to America’s failure in creating a state that could weather multiple crises in tandem. No, it has exposed America as a success state designed to serve and enrich a minority, at the expense of the majority.

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Politics is just a type of ethic, it lays the grounds for how we live together in society. From the moment our forefathers put stakes in the ground, American politics has always begotten power in the hands of a small, elite class of mostly white men. From our genocidal, westward expansion, building industry and nation on the backs of stolen land and labor, to the oppression of women and the racial other, deference to unabashed human hardship and the plights of the worker, to class brutalization at home and abroad…

There was never a “great American era” as it is contemporarily depicted, just one long, amorphous era of power concentration for those who held the muskets and chains in 1619.

The failures of Trump and his cronies are actually just a more overt demonstration of these same constructs that have long bent the American arc.

Systemic racism, astronomical healthcare and living costs, millions without health insurance, stagnant wages untethered to inflation or cost of living, dramatic wealth inequality, declining unionization, voter suppression, market crashes, insider trading, unfettered mega-mergers and acquisitions, corporate socialism, executives putting shareholder earnings above morality…these things are nothing new, they existed long before Trump and COVID-19.

Recent events are just the latest manifestations of a centuries-long trend. Politicians engaging in insider trading upon being informed of COVID’s implications, surging stock prices as millions face eviction, unemployment, and loss of healthcare, the overnight collapse of small businesses giving way to corporate power grabs, billionaires increasing their wealth by hundreds of billions, trillions in public dollars going to corporations as they lay off thousands, billions in public dollars funneled into a secret, discretionary slush fund, all amidst a global health crisis that is killing off hundreds of thousands of disproportionately black and brown Americans…knowing our history, these and countless more reactions and consequences of the pandemic should come as no surprise.

(Seriously, why should any large American company ever act responsibly again? What’s the point of good corporate governance and fiscal responsibility? These huge companies that over-leveraged themselves, spending 90% or more of their free cash flow on stock buybacks to hyper-inflate their share price, enriching shareholders and top-floor executives, while living off of constant debt instead of good balance sheets, paying their workers the bare minimum in wages and benefits…within weeks of the pandemic arriving in earnest, these companies came to the federal government with their hands out and tails between their legs, and were bailed out by Jerome Powell’s never-ending money machine. Rugged, unfettered crony capitalism on the way up, “we’re in this together” crony socialism on the way down.) 

 

Three

The pandemic has exposed our naked oligarchy for what it is. 

Large corporations leveraged on debt, and the nine (plus) figure net-worth plutocrats who run them, cry for public bailouts after perpetuating a record-setting, decades-long rise in debt levied on the poor and middle classes. High interest, crippling medical, housing, student loan debt – these are constructs long designed to enrich big banks that underwrite loans and credit lines, pharmaceutical companies that set staggering prices for life-saving drugs, private equity firms that own large hospital systems, and the like.

Large corporations applaud their essential workers, after spending millions over decades lobbying for the outsourcing of jobs to take advantage of cheap, sweatshop labor abroad, and lobbying against adequate welfare for domestic essential workers, those who directly enabled their growth – the consumers, the poor, sick, downtrodden, excluded, people of color, and generally society’s most vulnerable populations.

Large corporations and the elite class cry out for black lives, while throwing their weight around in Washington to enact policy that keeps those same lives under the weight of oppression – overworked, underpaid, under-resourced, debt-ridden, food- and health-insecure, too burdened by the day-to-day struggle of getting by in an economic system that has never valued them to develop class consciousness and take to the streets. And when they do? The muscle of the ruling class, the police state, is marshaled to beat them back into submission.

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Enduring socio-economic fault lines have never been more on display, and many Americans are just now waking up to how incredibly vast they are.

We are shocked that 50+ million have no access to healthcare (or sick leave) during a pandemic, that the people who prepare our food or clean our spaces might be avoiding a doctor’s visit due to cost and/or in effort to not miss a paycheck.  How could we as a society choose to let our most vulnerable countrymen die or go bankrupt rather than treating healthcare as a human right? But in fact, this is a choice that we have been making again and again for decades, letting 45,000 Americans die from lack of health insurance and many hundreds of thousands more go into severe medical debt, every single year. This life and death triage by wealth is nothing new.

The prospect of paying for an eventual COVID vaccination, while hopeful producers of such a vaccine, large pharmaceutical companies, take tens of millions in taxpayer funding, has many Americans up in arms. But in fact, life-saving vaccinations, drugs, and medical procedures have long hit American wallets harder (by many multiples) than citizens of any other developed country. For decades, big pharma has lobbied successfully in favor of tax subsidies and against measures to curb price-gouging. Sick Americans and the public at-large have long footed the bill as large pharmaceutical corporations post record profits, and play a material role in the aforementioned 45,000 yearly deaths of uninsured Americans.

Can you imagine 45,000 Americans dying in an act of war or terror? Such an event would be grounds for a complete multi-trillion dollar mobilization of the military machine. Defense contractors have long had a lobbying vicegrip over immense political and cultural capital – there is no such labor movement to make the righteous case for similar mobilization to eliminate lack-of-healthcare deaths. Americans are baffled that, as 180,000 and counting die from COVID-19, Congress overwhelmingly voted to increase defense spending. But in fact, this continued bloating of the military industrial complex is just more of the same.

We deplore the starvation wages, lack of hazard pay, sick leave, and affordable childcare for essential workers, while a couple hundred billionaires increase their wealth by hundreds of billions, amidst a pandemic. In fact, this is just the very latest in an upward transfer of wealth. American workers have not seen a meaningful increase in wages, purchasing power parity, and union representation, in nearly half a century. Over the same time period, billionaires and top-floor executives have seen their wealth increase tenfold, while seeing their tax obligation decrease by 80%.

Teachers, parents, and students in America are overwhelmed by the dumpster fire of schooling amidst a pandemic, but in fact, schooling in America has long been operating on the edge. School spending has been stagnant for decades despite a growing economy, teachers are woefully underpaid, overworked, under-resourced, and face high attrition rates. American students are falling behind in the world in cornerstone academic disciplines. Violence and drug abuse in school, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the digital divide, have long prevailed, especially in underfunded, underserved areas. College tuition is more inaccessible, costly, and critical than ever, and millions of students are entering the workforce anchored with massive, high interest debt, fueling the big banks that back it. Our meagerly-resourced education system was woefully unprepared for the pandemic, but indeed, it has been unprepared in adequately educating our youth for decades.

We are aghast by the recent shocks to our democratic order and slide into fascism, but in fact, America’s democracy has never been a full fledged liberal democracy. Since the founding of our nation, a minority of wealthy white men has always ruled, using legal and extralegal strategies to deny representation to women, people of color, immigrants, poor people and indigenous Americans. Minorities weren’t given full voting rights until the 1960’s, and since then, gerrymandering, voter ID restrictions, purging of voter registrations, shutting down of polling places in minority communities, felony sentences that keep said minorities from voting, and the like, have all contributed to rampant voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Coupled with the over-representation of dark money and corporate influence in policymaking, ours has always been a democracy for the rich white man at the top.

Sign-toting Americans of all colors and creeds are taking to the streets like never before to protest the recent brutalization and murder of black lives. In fact, black lives have never truly mattered in America, and police brutality is just the tip of the iceberg. Every single longterm class struggle described above – access to healthcare, education, wealth, justice, voting rights, and so much more – has produced massively disproportionate effects on black communities. Systemic, state-sanctioned racism has been normalized and unnamed for centuries (if you’re a person of privilege as I am, and have been looking inward recently as I have, I highly recommend Color of Law).

 

Two

Trump is just a symptom of the disease that has long been festering behind the veil of American exceptionalism.

America in 2020 is not a failed state, it is the endgame of a success state designed to enrich a small minority while leaving the overwhelming majority in desolation. It is a success state in perpetuating ever-tilted class warfare in which one side never really has a shot, in which those with money, power, and the right skin color, always win.

The state we’ve created is one that was always going to erode into itself. The pandemic has just fast-tracked that process. That some could look at the orange man in the White House and believe that ousting him, along with some incremental change, would cure all of our ills, and that those of his ilk would just go away, is maddening. We need(ed) sweeping, systemic change. Until we get there (if we ever do), we might rethink what we have our children say as they sit in front of the glow of their laptops before beginning school in 2020:

“Two nations…divisible, with liberty and justice for the few.” 

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