For much of the 20th century, the United States of America was perceived as the pre-eminent symbol of the Western vision of modernity and, after 1945, with the exception of the Soviet Union and its ideological kin, that image was largely unchallenged across the globe. However, the election of the Bush-Cheney administration in 2000, on the cusp of the 21st century, laid bare the failure of the United States to maintain its capacity to withstand increasing concern about the quality of American political life and its claim to international leadership.
The erosion of American legitimacy had already become evident during the decade of the 1960s with the assassinations of four very prominent Americans – President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy – as America grappled with the domestic and international repercussions of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
However, the disputed 2000 presidential election drew increased global attention to the signs of dysfunction in American politics. The resolution of that election in favor of the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, against the sitting Democratic Vice President, Al Gore, by a deeply divided US Supreme Court provided a bird’s eye view of a deeply flawed American electoral system.
With the benefit of hindsight, the 2000 presidential election was an early indicator of the dysfunctional democracy that has become institutionalized in American political life and culture since the 1960s. In 1968, the victory of Richard Nixon came in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, who had become vigorous critics of the failed war in Vietnam pursued by the Johnson administration. The election also revealed the depth of popular antipathy to that war and to Johnson, which Nixon skillfully exploited to win the election. It is arguable that, since 1968, every American president has left office under a cloud of popular doubt – Johnson over Vietnam, Nixon over Watergate, Ford over his controversial pardon of Nixon after the latter’s resignation under the threat of impeachment, Carter over the Iran Hostage crisis, Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal, George H.W. Bush over the Savings and Loan scandal, Clinton over the scandal triggered by his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and George W. Bush over the strategic blunder of pursuing two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Wall Street debacle that triggered the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
For more than four decades, the American political system has been defined by a growing gap between the electorate and the presidency as a symbol of good governance and political legitimacy. It would appear that the serial crises affecting presidents since 1968 have served to entrench a “credibility” gap within American politics. That gap is now a bellwether of the American political system and it is an indicator of the political polarization that has overtaken the American political system. The fissures in American politics have been provoked by and contributed to, the escalating conflicts among the three branches of government – the legislature, the judiciary and the executive – and internecine war within the two major political parties.
The “credibility” gap has also spread from the presidency to the entire political system. The shifting majorities in the Congress over the last two decades – from Democratic to Republican and back again – serve as a barometer of political discontent within the electorate. The lack of stable governing coalitions has been exacerbated by ideological conflict that accompanied the realignment of American politics after 1968 when the Southern states shifted into the ranks of the Republican Party as the region spurned the progressive civil rights policies adopted by the Democratic Party in the 1960s. Thereafter, the Republican Party became the shelter for a wide range of constituencies and groups, which resented and continue to resent the erosion of white supremacist ideas that were the cornerstones of American life and legal systems until the mid-1960s. In 1968, Richard Nixon showed it was possible for the Republicans to build a majority coalition in which Southern conservatives like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms could be key players. Every Republican victory in presidential elections since 1968 has been built upon winning decisively in the South by advocating conservative and religious themes that invoke the white Christian nationalism that has defined much of the South after the American Civil War. It is noteworthy that before Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, the only Democratic candidates who won the presidency between 1968 and 2008, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were both Southern sons of the soil, who were able to compete effectively against the Republicans in the region.
However, since the 2008 presidential election campaign when Barack Obama became the first African-American president, following the failures and excesses of the Bush-Cheney administration, the fissures within American political life have become even worse. The backlash against the Obama administration has spawned the Tea Party movement with roots in the deep currents of xenophobia and racism that have periodically shaken American politics. The Tea Party’s campaign against Obama, its pursuit of a hysterical campaign challenging tax increases on the wealthy and its opposition to the use of Keynesian responses to the current economic crisis have allowed it to redefine political debates in contemporary America. It has been able to mount a serious effort to prevent or circumvent debates about the most effective strategy for dealing with an economic crisis triggered by a mix of greed and recklessness on Wall Street and the simple-minded economic prescriptions that shaped the Bush-Cheney administration’s economic and fiscal policies. American public debates thus reflect an unwillingness to engage in serious reflection about the return to economic policies that have created severe economic disparities across the society and have succeeded in restoring a social order in which populations of color are placed at a serious disadvantage.
The Tea Party’s campaign to fan the flames of hysteria that emerged from the post-2008 backlash against the election of Barack Obama and its mobilization of the populist rhetoric of anti-government sentiment has brought it electoral success and institutional power in the Republican Party. That power was vigorously deployed in the recent debates over raising the debt ceiling to push the negotiations within a hair’s breadth from a default on the American government’s debt. It is striking that the Tea Party has become a symbol of the rising tide of American anti-intellectual tendencies as a frame of reference for shaping American policies. The stunning display of Tea Party influence in the 2011 debate over raising the debt ceiling should give pause to both the American leadership across the major parties and to the international community, which has operated on the assumption that American leadership is a sine qua non in the international system.
The former Secretaries of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, and Timothy Geithner as the secretary for the Obama administration, apparently helped to craft a seamless web of influence by advocates of Wall Street in the early years of the Obama administration. The policies that were adopted created a climate where salvaging the financial houses remained a priority and signaled continuity with the Bush-Cheney administration. It was a message that key players in the financial sector that had lost their sense of accountability to the wider society would be allowed to continue with the illusion that American financial leadership in the global context would not be tarnished. Despite the Obama administration’s protestations about the Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the American debt rating from AAA to AA-plus, in the wake of the debt ceiling debates, it is clear that the US government’s approach to debt management and, ultimately, the central role of the US dollar in international economic affairs, are under increasing question. The long-term costs of the debt ceiling debates are yet to be determined, but the Obama administration’s deference to Wall Street cannot be discounted as a factor in the shift in perceptions of American international leadership.
In addition, it has become evident that the American commitment to military intervention around the world as a cornerstone of its foreign policy has also raised serious questions about the thrust of American foreign policy on the global stage. More important, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been an enormous drain on the American Treasury over the past decade. Inevitably, it is becoming clear that cuts in military budgets and deployments will have to be instituted to introduce corrective economic policies that will promote new investments to prepare the American economy to be competitive with its global partners and rivals into the future. The redefinition of America’s military goals and its role in the international system will also have to be considered in light of the growing military capability of other states, including China.
America’s financial weakness provides no sure guarantee that it can sustain the global role that it played after 1945, and American policymakers will have to address the structural problems that arise from its military ambitions and financial burdens. The killing of Osama bin Laden has not provided an easy solution to dealing with Afghanistan, and the “Arab Spring” provokes memories of the consequences of the fall of the shah of Iran for American policy in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf after 1979. The American dependence upon the stability of oil exports from the region will require a redesign of foreign and military policies to deal with the new realities in a region that is pivotal in the global political economy.
In effect, the crisis of credibility in American politics over both domestic politics and military misadventures since the 1960s and the increasing evidence that fringe tendencies have gained enough traction to shift the terrain of American politics in the contemporary context pose fundamental challenges to American leadership aspirations into the future. Like the perestroika era in Soviet politics when Mikhail Gorbachev sought to promote change in an ossified Soviet system, the Obama administration has been unable to make a decisive break with the past amid signs of political decay, economic crisis and intellectual paralysis. Recent events suggest that America’s 20th-century odyssey as a model of Western modernity has been placed at risk. Is America’s relative decline now irreversible?