Commentary

Dire predictions of America’s decline are overrated

With the approach of the U.S. 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?

According to the political scientist Sarah Binder, 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. 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 U.S. 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 last two decades, from 10 percent to 21 percent 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 1970s.

This is not a new problem for the U.S., 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 like foreign policy. In other words, the U.S. government was designed to be inefficient, in order to ensure that it could not easily threaten the liberty of its citizens.

This inefficiency has likely 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 to three-quarters in 1964.

Of course, these figures surged occasionally during that period, such as after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; but the overall decline is considerable.

The federal government is not alone. Over the last several decades, public confidence in many influential institutions has plummeted. From 1964-1997, the share of Americans who trusted universities fell from 61 percent to 30 percent, while trust in major companies fell from 55 percent to 21 percent. Trust in medical institutions dropped from 73 percent to 29 percent, and in journalism from 29 percent to 14 percent. Over the last 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 percent of Americans still consider the U.S. to be the world’s best place to live, and 90 percent 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 polarized in recent decades, this follows the 1950s and early 1960s, when the escape from the Great Depression and victory in World War II fueled unusually high confidence in U.S. institutions. In fact, the sharpest decline in public trust in the government occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Moreover, declining trust in the government has not been accompanied by significant changes in citizens’ behavior. 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 U.S. still scores in the 90th percentile. And though voting rates in presidential elections declined from 62 percent to 50 percent in the latter half of the 20th century, they stabilized in 2000, and rose to 58 percent in 2012.

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

This social shift probably will not influence U.S. institutions’ effectiveness as much as one might think, given America’s decentralized 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 favorably 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 U.S. 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 last two decades, the U.S. has experienced a swift decline in crime, auto fatalities, alcohol and tobacco consumption, and emissions of sulfur 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 S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard and the author of “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.”

THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © www.project-syndicate.org.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 16, 2014, on page 7.

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