A Failing State
In June of 2020, as the pandemic took the first 100,000 American lives, George Packer wrote, “Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state…in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future”. Just days after the November election, with Biden clearly having won millions more votes than Trump but still not declared the winner and control of the Senate still hanging in the balance despite Democrats representing 40 million more Americans in that body, Paul Krugman wrote, “If we were looking at a foreign country with America’s level of political dysfunction, we would probably consider it on the edge of becoming a failed state — that is, a state whose government is no longer able to exert effective control.”
Since then, the argument that America is a failing state has become even stronger. One of our country’s two major political parties, the Republican, has become an openly white Christian nationalist fascist party, complicit in a violent attempt to overthrow the government. Despite the popular narrative that the 1/6 coup failed because Trump was incompetent, increasing evidence indicates that he planned the insurrection for weeks, worked within the government to build a legal justification and military support, and coordinated with his supporters and militia groups to create the political violence to pressure Pence and Congress. As Lindsay Beyerstein writes, “To understand Jan 6, you have to think in terms of an inside game and an outside game. The inside game was to have Pence steal the election procedurally, the outside game was to terrorize potentially recalcitrant GOP reps into going along with the theft”.
The Republican party is now both encouraging and coordinating violence against its “enemies”, while purging and threatening violence against those within the party who deign to ever put country over the party orthodoxy. Party members continually consort with anti-government militia members and neo-Nazis, some of whom have been convicted of plotting political violence against Democrats. The threat of political violence also works to keep GOP party members in line. A number of Republicans voted to not certify the election even after the failed coup and against Trump’s impeachment because they literally feared for their lives. Now every House Republican save two who voted for Trump’s impeachment and/or the bipartisan infrastructure bill, for which most of them received death threats, refused to vote to censure Paul Gosar for his death threats against AOC and Biden. As Olivia Troye said the other night, “Violence. Violence is basically the Republican platform right now”.
As AOC noted in her speech the other day, “When we incite violence with depictions against our colleague, that trickles down into violence in this country”. The violent rhetoric of Republicans leaders motivates and manifests itself in actual violence by its supporters. It results in anti-Semitic riots in Charlottesville and the death of Heather Heyer. It results in plots to bomb Democratic offices and kidnap and execute a Democratic governor. It results in pipe bombs being sent to major Democratic leaders. It results in threats against election officials, school boards, and teachers. It results in Republican supporters sincerely asking “When do we get to use the guns?”
All of these calls to violence are supported by a broad right-wing propaganda machine. One of the most consistently popular cable news show in primetime regularly spouts white nationalist talking points. This propaganda machine can regularly rile up the base and mobilize them over fictions such as a stolen election, voter fraud, death panels, immigrant caravans, what happens in bathrooms, Democrats planning to take away their guns, Democrats running an international pedophile ring, and Critical Race Theory. Most of these issues are quickly forgotten once they have served their immediate, usually electoral, purpose. The power of this propaganda machine is illustrated by the fact that hundreds of people have converged on Dealey Plaza in Dallas to see JFK, Jr. reappear and announce that Trump is still President. Another incredible example is Trump lawyer Sidney Powell actually sending a note to the Pentagon demanding that the Trump administration send a strike force to Germany to free Gina Haspel, the CIA Director, who was being held against her will after going to Germany to destroy the evidence that the election was stolen from Trump. Meanwhile, in the reality-based America, local newspapers are being destroyed at an alarming rate which only means that one of the most important watchdogs against state and local corruption is disappearing just when it is needed most.
Unsurprisingly, as Republican calls for violence increase so do gun sales. A leading expert on gun violence details, “Today, we remain in an unprecedented surge in firearm purchasing that shows no sign of abating and risks becoming part of a new normal for the USA”. In a population of 330 million, Americans now own over 400 million guns. A number of 1/6 insurrectionists were carrying guns as were many more at the rally outside the Capitol. And new laws will make guns even more ubiquitous in American life. A number of states, including Texas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, have vastly expanded permit-less, open, and concealed carry of firearms, often without any training required. The current radical Supreme Court is likely to further restrict attempts to regulate firearms this term, perhaps even declaring a constitutional right to carry concealed weapons virtually anywhere.
Already lax gun laws and expansive “stand your ground” rights have created a culture of vigilantism, perhaps exemplified by the Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery cases, both of which involve armed men assuming the role of police by “patrolling” the streets. As Darrell Miller writes, “As a nation, we’ve blundered into a situation in which an armed mob can converge on an area, escalate tensions, even start shooting — and police can do little to stop it…When private groups go about a city armed, others arm themselves in response, escalating tension — along with the risk of injury and death”, adding that it has become “routine, today, for armed individuals to descend upon places like Kenosha purporting to act as law enforcement, with deadly consequences”. As the Rittenhouse verdict illustrates, Gaige Grosskreutz would probably also have been acquitted based on self-defense if he had killed Rittenhouse before Rittenhouse shot him. With Second Amendment fundamentalism becoming the law of the land, things will only get more violent in general, with increasing “legally kill-or-legally-be-killed” incidents, and create an even greater risk of deadly political violence.
The ubiquity of guns has made police work even more dangerous and the response has been to give police even more power and even more firepower. The post-9/11 militarization of police results in more violent behavior from individual officers and has turned departments in many communities into an occupying force. Increasingly, police departments have become a law unto themselves. Cops simply refuse to do their job when confronted with criticism or potential reform, knowing that terrified mayors will back them. And when mayors finally do crack down, the police openly defy them. Reform from within is impossible as anyone who breaks the blue wall of silence is targeted and threatened by their fellow officers, sometimes with the help of a supportive and compliant legal system. Then there is the “constitutional sheriff” movement, which makes no bones about the fact that they alone are the law of the land. Like the regular police, these sheriffs continually defy orders from their state’s governors and even believe they, not the Supreme Court, are the ultimate arbiters of the Constitution.
Similarly, even as mass shootings became a bi-weekly occurrence, federal funding for research into gun violence basically evaporated for two decades, again primarily because of Republican opposition, only resuming in 2019. Over the years, the death count from the failures of our political and legal systems, primarily due to GOP obstruction, is untold. In 2019 alone, over 38,000 Americans died from gun violence, including both suicide and homicide. In that same year, over 70,000 died of a drug overdose, primarily due to opioids. Tens of thousands have died because red states refused Medicaid expansion. Over 750,000 have died from COVID and the excess death number suggests that number could be as high as 1 million. We now know that Trump blocked a national testing program because he considered COVID a blue state problem. He interfered with CDC guidance that might cast his administration in a bad light and even attempted to manipulate COVID data. A former Trump official estimates that around 130,000 lives could have been saved if the Trump administration had acted responsibly. That number is probably a massive underestimation, more likely something approaching 400,000. Now Republican objections to vaccine and mask mandates are literally killing their own supporters in an effort to damage President Biden. The result is that, even with an effective vaccine widely available, the COVID death toll in 2021 is higher than in 2020.
Our current legal and political systems are stunningly unable and unwilling to effectively deal with any of these violent challenges to authority and order, best exemplified by our two-tier justice system. The Orwellian legal fiction of “qualified immunity” protects abusive and criminal law enforcement unless their behavior is exactly like another case where there was “clear case law”, even as the existence of qualified immunity means there are fewer and fewer cases that result in “clear case law” being established. As noted above, stand-your-ground and citizens arrest laws turn our streets into lawful kill-or-be-killed battlegrounds. Police fatally shoot around a thousand Americans every year. We don’t really know the exact figure because there is no federal requirement to report police use of force, largely because of GOP opposition.
Another extraordinary legal fiction that creates another rarified protected class is the DOJ policy that a sitting President can not be criminally charged while in office. As Kimberly Wehle notes, “this immunity has no grounding in actual law. It’s not in the Constitution or any federal statute, regulation, or judicial decision. It is not law at all”. This legal fiction maintains that such criminal pursuit can be undertaken after the President leaves office. The reality is clearly different, as the Merrick Garland’s DOJ is currently making abundantly clear. Incredibly, as far as we know, there is no current DOJ investigation of the former President’s traitorous efforts to get foreign powers to interfere in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, his multiple attempts to commit election fraud in 2020, and his coordination of a violent coup to remain in power in 2021. Besides a local effort in Georgia focused solely on Trump’s attempted election fraud in that state, the only other investigation appears to be the House’s 1/6 Committee which will effectively end if Democrats lose the House in 2022 and can only issue a report of its findings.
Beyond Trump, the political class as a whole seems immune from legal accountability. Not for the first time, we have seen a President abuse the pardon power, pardoning those who protected him and offering pardons for others to commit crimes in his name. The brazen corruption of Trump’s cabinet has gone entirely unpunished. The Office of Special Counsel identified pervasive Hatch Act violations by 13 senior Trump administration officials, including a naturalization ceremony at the GOP convention, but the office has no real enforcement powers. Similarly, there appears to be no enforcement of continual and massive campaign finance violations. The Federal Elections Commission was unable to meet for months since it lacked a quorum and has become largely toothless anyway. Insider trading by members of Congress also goes entirely unpunished. There is no real accountability for those who defy congressional subpoenas, especially as Congress appears to have abandoned its inherent contempt powers. For the few offenders that Congress does pursue, the courts can be relied on to slow-walk their cases until the congressional session ends in two years, thereby nullifying the subpoena. For that even rarer case that does get fully prosecuted, the minimum sentence is 30 days and the maximum is one year. The idea that this kind of sentence is “re-establishing the rule of law” is farcical, as is the idea that censuring Gosar for threatening to kill AOC is any kind of real accountability, especially since McCarthy has already stated his committee assignments will be restored if the Republicans win the House in 2022.
America’s business class also seems to hold a legally unaccountable position similar to the political class. Under Trump, white collar crime enforcement, which was already pathetic, fell to a quarter-century low. Actually holding executives legally responsible for corporate criminal behavior died with Enron and Arthur Andersen, which is why no Wall Street executive was ever prosecuted despite massive fraud that created the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Deferred (DPAs) and non-prosecution agreements (NPAs), combined with paltry fines, now account for over 30% of the “prosecutions” of corporate crime. Under these agreements, corporations usually have to promise to fix their problematic practices and be good corporate citizens for a number of years going forward. Public Citizen reviewed over 500 of these such agreements and found only seven instances where the government has pursued a corporation after it violated its original agreement and only three of those resulted in an actual prosecution. The result is massive corporate recidivism, most of it by multinational, Fortune 500 corporations. United Airlines has 533 prior enforcement actions; Boeing has 84; Wells Fargo 92, Merrill Lynch 97, and Walmart 330. As David Dayen writes, “Too many companies in America are run as transnational crime rings for the benefit of major shareholders and executives”. The Sackler family is perhaps the prime example of this phenomenon, apparently able to walk away with billions while leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from opioid addiction.
While the C-suite executives and rentier class shifted wealth upward, the COVID pandemic exposed the dirty little secret of American capitalism, namely that it relied on permanent underclass of cheap labor, whether that was here in the US or overseas. Suddenly, the lowest paid workers in the country became “essential workers”, which ironically also meant that they faced the greatest danger to exposure from the virus. The pandemic has also highlighted the failures of globalization with its reliance on foreign production, supply chains with single points of failure, and the larger political inability or unwillingness to compensate the losers in a globalized economy. As Robert Kuttner writes, “The supply crunch in turn reflects the interaction of just-in-time production and extreme offshoring with a privatized and deregulated logistics system”. Tellingly, in this roaring, quasi-post-pandemic recovery, the fact that these long-abused workers actually now have a selection of jobs to choose from that will finally pay them a living wage is considered a “problem” that must be rectified.
Our electoral systems are a mere facade of actual democracy. The winner of the popular vote has “lost” the presidency twice in the last two decades. By 2040, it is estimated that 30% of the population will have a supermajority of 70 seats in the Senate. The filibuster further empowers the minority in that body. Partisan gerrymandering, combined with voter suppression efforts, has already established near permanent minority control of state legislatures and state delegations to the US House of Representatives in some states. Republican state legislatures have stripped Democrats who actually win an actually fair election, namely winning the most votes, of certain powers, neutering their ability to govern effectively.
The power of incumbency and permissive campaign finance laws mean that for many offices re-election is almost guaranteed. Combined with partisan gerrymandering, this creates a situation where we get more and more extreme candidates, as is happening with the Republican party, or end up with a gerontocracy, as occurs quite often with Democrats, simply because the primary election is the only real election of consequence.
The anti-democratic biases of our electoral processes infect our courts. A majority of the Supreme Court, five justices in all, have been appointed by presidents who originally lost the popular vote, two by George W. Bush and three by Trump. While that does not explain the Roberts’ Court’s hostility to democracy, it perhaps makes it understandable. The various Republican-controlled Senates, which confirmed those five nominees, hasn’t represented a majority of Americans since 1996. Challenges to partisan gerrymanders deployed by a permanent minority run up against courts largely stacked by that same minority. At the state and local level, Republican-controlled legislatures are now even trying to gerrymander the courts. Finally, the whole concept of “elected judges” seems like an oxymoron and gives us judges like the one in the Rittenhouse case.
Republican state legislatures routinely neuter any efforts to reform the existing systems through ballot initiatives. Florida instituted what is essentially a poll tax to derail felony re-enfranchisement. Missouri refused to fund Medicaid expansion and made it harder to pass ballot initiatives. Wisconsin’s Republican legislature, egged on by its Republican Senator, wants to disband the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and even charge its members with felonies for allowing mail-in voting and drop boxes during the pandemic, as well as refusing to run an Arizona-style “audit” of the 2020 election. This is just the first step in asserting state legislatures’ control of federal elections which will probably culminate in at least one Republican-controlled state rejecting the will of the voters in the 2024 election should a Democrat win and appointing its own slate of Electors for the Electoral College. That approach, floated by Trump lawyer John Eastman, failed in 2020 only because those Electors had already been certified and Vice President Pence followed the meaning of the Electoral Count Act.
The Republican assault on democracy has been years in the making. Its climate change denialism has been going on for decades. As we reach a final tipping point in the climate crisis, the next step will be a merging of the two into essentially a right-wing ecofascism which blames environmental degradation on overpopulation and immigration and which will demand, as Dave Roberts writes, “higher walls, lower immigration, & isolationism”. This is exemplified by Patrick Crusius, the man who killed 23 people in the mass murder in El Paso, who wrote, “The environment is getting worse by the year…So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable”. The ongoing and accelerating climate crisis, which is already fueling mass migration that will only get worse with time, will be met with more extreme xenophobia and even greater demands to sacrifice our rights and those of others to protect “our way of life”, while making it easier for our country to ignore its responsibility for the majority of the cumulative climate emissions.
As the midnight hour approaches for both American democracy and our global environment, the attempts to save them appear to be increasingly futile. Democrats do not appear to show the urgency required to confront the Republican onslaught against our democracy, much of which is embedded in the structural racism of our institutions. Even if they manage to overcome the filibuster and enact some pro-democracy legislation, it is unclear whether that will not only be too late to prevent radical gerrymanders from still being in place for the 2022 elections but also survive challenges in a judicial system largely indifferent to voting rights and supportive of state control of elections. Similarly, as we miss one global carbon emissions target after another, there is an increasing sense that the point of no return has already been passed. That fact, combined with the limited power of any one individual to affect real change to a global phenomenon, has created a sense of both helplessness and hopelessness about the future.
This sense of hopelessness may also be infecting American democracy. While some may believe it is a good thing, the ratings of cable news shows are cratering, down 53% at Fox, 56% at MSNBC, and 73% at CNN. Similar, less precipitous declines have occurred in print and digital media. While this might be hardly surprising after four years of Trump’s relentless narcissistic quest for attention and perhaps even worth celebrating, Lili Loofbourow worries that many of those deserting the news have simply given up, writing, “This is what happens when the ‘news’ is that a nation’s entire system of accountability is broken: Even the consequences that do get meted out start to feel weightless…People stuck in the doldrums sense now that no wind is coming. Voting rights will not be protected. The gerrymandered maps are recipes for permanent disenfranchisement and the party that could do something about it is paralyzed by idiotic infighting. Who would want to keep up with this vision of the present? What story are they getting that inspires or rewards political engagement?”. Michelle Goldberg echoes this despair, writing, “I look at the future and I see rule without recourse by people who either approve of terrorizing liberals or welcome those who do. Such an outcome isn’t inevitable; unforeseen events can reshape political coalitions. Something could happen to forestall the catastrophe bearing down on us. How much comfort you take from this depends on your disposition. Given the bleak trajectory of American politics, I worry about progressives retreating into private life to preserve their sanity, a retreat that will only hasten democracy’s decay”.
Historical precedents are often illustrative but incomplete. The end of Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow created a century where the majority of Black Americans lived in essentially fascist states. For most of that century, the majority of those Black Americans, terrorized and intimidated, tried to make the best life they could under the circumstances, building what became a separate but unequal society. That story is much the same for Native Americans. I fear that the days ahead may lead us down a similar path, trying to build the best life we can under a fascist state that seems almost impossible and almost suicidal to fight, though many will. And, in response to the existential threat of climate change, America as whole will do the same, building a separate society, a fascist Fortress America, while ignoring the plight of those uprooted and made destitute by a world we are mostly responsible for destroying.
One final, almost editorial, note (for those of you who’ve read this far). By necessity, this was a broad overview of the myriad of ways American civil society is swiftly collapsing and the inordinate number of links (which, again, I hardly expect every reader to follow) are there to provide examples and/or more detailed explications of the more general point I’m trying to make. Almost all of these examples come from media sources but our current fetishization of specialization even in the journalistic world makes it difficult to see all these elements of the collapse of American civic society, each of which is worth detailing on its own in one overarching story, which was my goal here. Happy Thanksgiving.