Thursday, October 23, 2014

America's sunk into a funk and lost it's mojo

The botched response to Ebola. Embarrassing breaches of security at the White House. The mayhem in Ferguson, Missouri. The scandal at a veterans hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, where dozens of former military personnel died while awaiting care. The faulty rollout of Obamacare. For those who fear that American greatness is more a part of the country's past than its future, this has been an especially worrisome phase in national life. Even American football is in crisis, following a string of domestic violence cases involving star players that were handled ineptly by the game's administrators.

That an armed intruder could so easily enter the White House in the same month that an Ebola-infected patient was turned away from a Dallas hospital could in more self-confident times be written off merely as coincidence. In a country that looks tired and broken they seem part of the same downward trend.

The listlessness of Barack Obama, written on his face and audible in his meandering answers to reporters' questions, reflects this sense of national fatigue. Only six years ago, this youthful politician personified a uniquely American capacity to renew itself. Now, with voters about to go to the polls in the midterm congressional elections, candidates from his own party are scrambling to disassociate themselves from him. The Democratic candidate in the Kentucky Senate race, Alison Lundergan Grimes, will not even reveal whether she has ever voted for Obama.

The president and the country both appear to have lost their mojo.

Warnings of US decline are by no means new. Rather, they provide a common thread for much of American history. The national conversation was just as gloomy in the aftermath of Sputnik, Vietnam, the inner-city race riots of the late 1960s, Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis. Yet America has always rebounded. As the wit and commentator Andy Rooney once reflected: "It's amazing how long this country has been going to hell without ever having got there."


This time, however, America's problems are more profound. The sense of decline is more deep-rooted. It is not just the effect of two morale-sapping wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not just the challenge posed by China, which, unlike the Soviet Union and Japan, has both a sizeable enough middle class and a strong enough economic model to challenge America. It is not just the rapidly ageing population – by 2030, a fifth of Americans will be 65 or older, compared to 13 per cent in 2010. Nor is it just because of a malfunctioning education system that has left America languishing at the bottom of OECD league tables on mathematics, science and technology.

More worrying is the loss of faith in the animating idea that has given America the drive, energy and resilience to rally, even at moments of national despondency: that belief in individual and generational advancement that lies at the heart of the American dream. In a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute only 42 per cent of respondents agreed that the American dream still held true, compared to 53 per cent in 2012. In August, a Wall Street Journal poll found that only a fifth of respondents felt confident that life for their children's generation would be better than their own. In short, fewer Americans think their children will enjoy more abundant lives, a massive mental shift.

This Middle Class Funk is explained by an income freeze and also the perception of an opportunity gap. Since 2000, earnings for low and middle-income families have been stagnant. For the first time since the Great Depression, the average US family earns less than it did 15  years ago.

As for opportunity, a recent large-scale study showed that rates of social mobility in America have not changed much since the early 1970s. But that is not how ordinary Americans see it. A Gallup poll this time last year suggested fewer Americans see their country as a land of plenty of economic opportunity – 52 per cent, barely a majority. That compares to 81 per cent in 1998.

For the country as a whole, there is a more positive economic story to tell, and President Obama continually tries to tell it. Unemployment, which stood at 10 per cent in 2009, has dropped to 5.9 per cent. Ten million jobs have been created in less than five years, which is more than Europe, Japan and other advanced countries combined. Healthcare costs are slowing down and high school completion rates are up. But many Americans see only a wage and opportunity slowdown.

To further dampen their spirits, income inequality has increased dramatically. The share of income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1980.

Even in the depths of the 2008 Great Recession, there was a sense that the economic crisis would be fleeting. Six years on, flatlining incomes seem part of the new normal, as do vast disparities of wealth.

Compounding these problems is the poverty of American politics. This era of frenzied partisanship, evident most visibly in the rise of the Tea Party Movement and its "Hell No" caucus on Capitol Hill, has led to stasis and public revulsion. Just 7 per cent of Americans have confidence in Congress according to Gallup, a record low. Confidence in the presidency has also slumped to 29 per cent, a six-year low.

The midterm elections will deliver two more years of divided government, with the Republicans certain to retain control of the House and poised to take a majority in the Senate, where the Democrats currently hold sway.

It would be an act of folly to write off America. It stills boasts powerhouse universities, like MIT and Harvard, the technological smarts of Silicon Valley, the financial acumen of Wall Street and an abundance of creative talent concentrated in Hollywood and New York. The US military spends more than the next 10 highest national defence budgets combined. But the American spirit, something much harder to quantify, no longer seems anywhere as optimistic or indomitable. It is rare these days to meet middle-income Americans who think they are getting ahead.

During this campaign season, the most buoyant speech I have heard came not from a US politician but the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Before a rapturous crowd of Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden, Modi argued that this century would belong to India rather than America, an assertion that only a few years ago would have been met with howls of laughter. In 2014 America, a country that's losing the knack of dreaming, it no longer sounds so outlandish.

Nick Bryant is the BBC's New York correspondent, and the author of The Rise and Fall of Australia: How A Great Nation Lost its Way.

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