What will come after the United States? A book and its sequel

The United States is experiencing regime change.  As in Ancient Rome, the republic is being replaced by a more authoritarian regime, under an emperor sui generis surrounded by generals.  Will this change last or will it be undone by constitutional means?

 

The publication date of my recent book is approaching. Its title is Strategic Impasse.  Social Origins of Geopolitical Disarray[1]. I hope this book is at real and virtual bookstores by the end of this year. I will not do a summary of my theses in the book. I have already published an advance in Opinion Sur (May 9th, 2017). I will just say that in my opinion the book (that will have a life of its own apart from the author) has a tone that some people will characterize as sober pessimism and others as cautious optimism. As the proverbial glass of water, it can be seen as half full or half empty.

What I am thinking about now is its sequel. The course of life will follow the diagnostic I do in the book, and the dynamic I describe will lead to several possible worlds. In geopolitics, it is not advisable to make predictions, but it is indispensable to build possible scenarios, some more likely than others, in terms of our imagination and paying attention to the fact that history always brings surprises.

Thus I intend to write a series of articles under the general rubric of “After the United States.” I understand that many will take it as a provocation, and may be it is. But I want to clarify that I do not believe that the nation that today is called United States of America (name that understandably produces annoyance to Latin Americans) will disappear from the map. Readers do not be alarmed: despite its increasingly fragile ecology and the climatic dangers that are lurking them, these states will not dissipate into thin air. I also do not believe that the growing polarization that characterizes American politics today will fatally lead to a civil war, though this sometimes manifests itself surreptitiously. Neither have I believed that social cleavage and outrageous inequality of income and wealth have definitively killed the so-called (and exaggerated) “American dream.” Eppur si muove:  things are not well in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

At this point, reader, allow me a digression. Lets us go from the particular context of a country to the global context that encompasses all the countries that are today entangled in the globalization web. I will go back to that country at the end of this article.

Extremely well-known are he words with which the great Russian writer Leon Tolstoy starts his famous novel Ana Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The happiness of nations is very hard to measure. Even so, in the more or less enlightened press and in the vulgate of surveys regarding satisfaction with life, three very different countries stand out for the level of satisfaction of their inhabitants. According to the magazine National Geographic, those are: Costa Rica, Denmark, and Singapore. Through different paths, it seems that the three have arrived at a social, economic, and political situation in which nobody feels threatened about losing their basic coverage in terms of health, income, and a roof under which to live. This allows them to work, create, or have fun apparently without emotional distress[2].

The Costa Ricans (“Ticos”) were definitively separated from their less fortunate Central American brothers after the successful revolution of 1947, that ended up in a serious agrarian reform (it reinforced the development of rural middle class), the abolition of  the armed forces, and a democratic system with significant popular participation and alternation. Curiously—and this is not told in American articles that promote ecotourism and the settlement of retirees in Costa Rica—the Costa Rican revolution escaped from American reaction and the fierce repression that the United States, at the height of the Cold War, triggered in countries such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, as an alleged defense of Western “freedom.” The result is at plain sight. Res ipsa loquitur –facts speak for themselves: military coups, corrupted and blooded dictatorships, repression and hundreds of thousands of dead people, with the pretext of fighting, real or alleged, Communism. For reasons that have not been seriously investigated yet, Costa Rica “is safe” and had a much better destiny, which is celebrated today by those who would not have vacillated to crush that small country in the past.

Denmark reached happiness through other means: democracy and a welfare state. The key in that country seems to be the high level of social equity (a low Gini coefficient of 24, compared with 48 for Costa Rica and 46 for Singapore) combined with a competitive capitalism within the framework of solid institutions.

Singapore reached its high level of satisfaction through a spectacular economic growth with an authoritarian social distribution (a model similar to the one that China is emulating today). As we see, these three countries are not as similar as were Tolstoy’s happy families.

Let’s go back to Tolstoy’s second phrase: “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Following Tolstoy, in this article I will deal with just one country—the most powerful one—where democracy has a special motive for feeling unfortunate today. Thus, I return to the beginning of this article: the United States at a crossroad.

It is increasingly evident that the American social structure has lost one of its most attractive characteristics: social mobility. It is also evident that the economic model does not generate enough dignified jobs, workers’ income is stagnant, and, having lost their old jobs, many fall into despair, with enraged signs that can easily turn into suicidal tendencies or are expressed in nativist reactionary movements.

Technological revolution accentuates these tendencies. Robotization and artificial intelligence are displacing human agency at dreadful speed, even in those tasks that require an elevated IQ.

At the same time, the American political regime is experiencing a decisive change. There is no more inter-party consensus. Political debate has been replaced by diatribe and vituperation. The partisan representation crisis is followed by nationalist and populist social movements that would like to rule by decree and referendum. The indirect voting system, designed more than two centuries ago for different motives, makes more backward states have an oversized representation today, to the point of having a minority of voting citizens that can elevate a once unspeakable character to the highest post in the land. Let us be clear: in direct elections (as those that are organized in other democracies around the world) the current American president would have lost by 3 million votes. But in the prevailing system (apart from the suppression of votes of ethnic groups and poor classes) the opposite occurs. The electoral system, instead of making the dog wag its tail, is making the tail wag the dog.

A stirred up minority wants to establish tyranny in the name of a supposed majority. Economically lagged or culturally resentful sectors bring opportunists to power,  through the perverse mechanisms of the system. Once in power, the authoritarian executive devotes himself to the systematic destruction of the institutions that safeguarded the republic, harming in his way the naïve people who voted him. A despotic executive, an abdicating and servile parliamentary majority, and an increasingly politicized judicial system have led to an exercise of power that is at the same time repressive and inefficient.

In my opinion, the political change we are facing in the United States is equivalent to the transition from republic to empire in Ancient Rome. The similarities extend even into the characters. Among old-school senators—defenders of republican virtue—Cicero and Cato (the younger) correspond to today’s senators Corker, Flake, and MacCain. Their eloquent critiques of the emergent populist dictatorship are, today as before, the swansong of the few decent ones that lose hope and raise their voice against the abuse of power before fading from the scene, hopefully with a less cruel destiny than that of Cato and Cicero.

What today prevents a definitive dictatorial advancement over republican institutions by the growing plebiscitary national-populism in the United States is a triple brake: the constitutional structure of the division of powers, an independent judiciary system, especially at the state level, and the inertia or resistance of bureaucratic apparatuses.

Everything depends on the relative autonomy of each of these sectors. However, each of them feels threatened. Congress is in the hands of one party which has been taken over by the executive. Ever more the old Republican Party is now Donald Trump’s party. If the party’s old school confronted the president, it would run the risk of losing its electoral support, that is populist, nativist, and in large part also racist. The judicial power is being purged from opponent elements to the national-populist ideology, taking advantage of the opportunities that open up for renewal of the highest judicial chambers with initiatives from the executive. The media that resists is attacked in an ever more open and violent manner. Civil bureaucracy (even investigation services as the FBI and intelligence agencies like the CIA) can be purged or simply deprived of funds and means to exercise an independent job.

The last bastion that is not willing to succumb to the whims of a poor apprentice of dictator like Mr. Trump is the bastion of the armed forces. From left to right, spokespersons place their hope in the “containment” of this volatile and clumsy chief of state by the generals that surround him. A curious and sad conclusion follows: today, apparently the military would be the last guarantee of the constitutional order.

In Argentina, we have seen this movie plenty of times—some ridiculous others terrible—from 1930 until 1983. I greatly fear that United States has started to draw the first sketch of a praetorian regime, in which the civil population is at the mercy of its guardians. I remember how Caligula and Nero, and another fifteen emperors, ended at the hands of their guardians. I close this article, as it is my custom, with two Roman aphorisms as a warning: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?[3] (Who will guard the guardians?) and Cave canen[4] (Beware of the dog!).

 

[1]https://books.google.com/books/about/Strategic_Impasse.html?id=IOPMjwEACAAJ

[2] . https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/11/worlds-happiest-places/

[3]  It comes from the praetorian soldier, of the Praetorian Guard, military elite of great influence that intervened in the election of Roman emperors proclaiming some and assassinating others.

[4] The phrase appears in the Satires of Juvenal (VI 347-348), famous author of many other satires at the beginning of I century, precisely when the Roman republic dies.

 

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