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After several days of uncertainty and thrill, the world now finally knows who will lead America in the next four years. While cheerful crowds across the US celebrated Joe Biden’s victory, observers and lawmakers around the world took a big breath highlighting the enormous significance of avoiding further difficulties that might have aroused from a continuation of Donald Trump’s approach to internal as well as external dossiers. At the same time, many journalists and pundits have (correctly) pointed out that the challenges America is presently facing at home will neither simply disappear nor be swept away by President Biden´s first executive orders. In fact, as the divisions within American society run deep, the causes of the most pressing domestic issues, from polarization to public health and the economy, will require an immeasurable amount of dedication, assiduousness and bipartisan cooperation in order to be eradicated.
However, it certainly isn’t my place to formulate economic plans or dispense advice on how the US Government should handle the current COVID-19 crisis. Nor is it my goal to predict the future of America as a whole, as many have done and will surely keep doing. It also goes without saying that the following considerations should by no means be considered an attempt to emulate de Tocqueville´s illustrious and incomparable work on American democracy. Nevertheless, having had the chance to collect a fair amount of first-hand impressions of political and socio-economic issues across America and being a citizen of Italy and Germany, thus bringing a certain degree of detachment and distance, I´d like to share an external perspective on certain aspects related to American politics and society, which have emerged from the recent Presidential campaign and which I deem crucial to understanding the profound challenges the new Administration will have to face over the coming years.
What immediately catches one´s attention when covering US elections and especially this year´s campaign is the inflationary use of terms like “socialism” and “communism” by candidates of both parties, although prominently amongst Republican politicians. America´s troubled relationship with socialism has a long tradition and in one way or the other has always defined political culture in the US. From the early days of McCarthyism to Fox News´s and Donald Trump´s crusade against the “radical left” and “socialism,” the “red scare” has played and still plays a major role in shaping political factions and electoral strategies. Although these categories certainly aren’t foreign to other countries around the world, in the US they have become massive limitations on policy making and constitute a venomous force within public political discourse, often shifting attention away from crucial issues. A recent example is the Affordable Care Act, which has been labeled as “socialist” several times by Republicans opposing or trying to repeal it based on concerns over the “individual mandate” and too much government oversight in people’s health care. This widespread fear of potential government “meddling” into private citizens´ lives is popular not only amongst conservative lawmakers and pundits, since it still enjoys broad but fading support amongst the American population. In this regard, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 51% of Americans consider socialism a “bad thing” while 43% see it more favorably. Interestingly the percentage of Americans welcoming it has almost doubled in comparison to the numbers emerged from a 1942 poll by the Roper Center for Public Research.
By closely looking at the various definitions commentators and politicians give of “socialism” it’s possible to almost immediately detect several semantic fallacies. In line with the current trend in US politics for example, many have labeled parts of Joe Biden´s agenda as “socialist,” quickly comparing some of his proposals to those brought forward by autocratic leaders in countries like Venezuela and Cuba. This very common parallel political candidates in the US draw hoping to discredit the opponent in the eyes of the voters is not only a simplification of political theory, but also a misleading strategy that distracts citizens from the substance of political proposals.
The recent Presidential debates for instance, have once again demonstrated exactly this. While Donald Trump focused on accusing Joe Biden of giving in to the more radical voices within the Democratic Party, the former Vice President struggled to dive deeper into explaining his policies to the general public with moderators often unable to discipline the two candidates. The same has been the case in many Congressional races, such as in South Carolina where incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham claimed that his opponent Jaime Harrison as well as Joe Biden were just “Trojan horses” serving as a facade for the more radical ideas in the Party. But most importantly, what is usually considered “socialist” by conservatives in the US is merely a much more moderate form of a social-democratic agenda, which by no means diminishes the role of free enterprise and enjoys large support in many countries around the globe. Europe is the example par excellence for the successful implementation of these policies. Contrariwise, this connotation hasn’t made it at all into the American political debate and as former President Harry Truman once put it in 1952:
“Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance that people have made in the last twenty years. Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm-price supports. Socialism is what they called bank-deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor. Socialism is their name for almost everything that helps all of the people.”
This ever present fear of invasive public regulations among Americans reveals an underlying feature defining political culture in the US, according to which government action always represents a threat to individual liberty. Emblematic was Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address in which he claimed that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Although history has shown time and again that uncontrolled and unrestrained political power ultimately leads to depriving citizens´ of their own freedoms and rights, the potential negative consequences of state-led intervention are certainly not reason enough to reduce the government’s role to an absolute minimum, thus denying any form of social contract and sacrificing rational and efficient government action in the name of “self-reliance” at all costs. And this is even more true with regard to measures aimed at lowering inequality and fostering inclusiveness, where the private sector is not always able to play a decisive role.
However, with the high probability of a divided Congress in the next years, a continuation of this traditional divide over the role of the state will only make voters and lawmakers drift further apart and sabotage any concrete policies proposed by the future Biden Administration. As a result, American political culture in general will heavily suffer from further polarization and manichean parameters, since at that point almost any issue in the political arena will be seen and understood through the lenses of narrow and often incorrect political categories. But political discourse in the US won´t certainly be the only realm affected by the exasperation of this divide. As previously pointed out, this will also hinder legislation and the advancement of concrete policies directed at fighting inequality and poverty, which is highly needed at the moment. In fact, according to various indicators recently provided by the Pew Research Center, America’s current image is less that of a “shining city on the hill” than of a divided and profoundly unequal country.
With the US being the G7 nation with the highest income inequality, the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families has more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, while middle class incomes have been growing at an extremely slow rate. Additionally, the recent pandemic has inferred another hard blow to the American economy and the less-privileged across the country. Moreover, shrinking trust in the Federal Government will massively impact the reconciliation process the US needs to undergo in order to overcome the extreme polarization and division the country is currently experiencing.
Expecting the future Presidency to be effective on all these fronts would be utterly unrealistic. But whereas the next Administration might not be able to pass all the wished legislation, it should dedicate its attention to a much broader plan to foster inclusiveness and increase trust amongst Americans as well as in the country’s institutions by trying to launch a “New Covenant” with the American people. This expression is certainly not new to US politics, since it was used by former President Bill Clinton during his two terms as a slogan overarching the Administration´s various reform plans and more broadly his vision for America. And in a time of crisis and disenfranchisement as we´re experiencing it today, providing economic relief and immediate support to businesses and families could not suffice to sew large parts of society back together and present an ambitious vision for the future. Therefore, it will be the next Administration´s task to design a much grander project which will not only fulfill the more material needs of the moment but also restore a healthy relationship between Americans and their institutions. Enormous challenges lie ahead, but I believe that revitalizing American political culture and working on nuancing political categories as well as improving Americans´ relationship with their institutions will be of crucial importance in allowing the country to get back to being an example of strength, stability, and unity.