NEW HAVEN: Quo vadis America? Everyone wants to know, including Americans. Once, not long ago, the world was divided between those who hailed the United States as a leader of the world's forces for human freedom, and those who saw it as an imperialist power, an opponent of what it pretends to defend. Almost all American citizens were in the first camp, as were a large proportion of Europeans, and significant percentages of people in the rest of the world. Conversely, those who had negative feelings about the United States were disproportionately from non-Western countries, though with a certain percentage from Europe. There are no statistics, but symbolically it was a 50-50 division.
During the era of George W. Bush, this lineup has changed radically. An overwhelming majority of the world's population regards the US as a dangerous giant. Some accuse it of malevolence, some of folly fed by ignorance and hubris, but all are worried and wary. And for the first time in my lifetime, a significant number of Americans are also worried and wary of what their own country might do, might be doing. And what no one seems to know is, quo vadis America?
This question is probably the most significant one in world politics, at least for the next decade. Thereafter it may well become irrelevant, or at least of secondary importance. For the United States is at a crossroads of decision, and it is not yet fully aware of this decision's dimensions. There are, of course, the elections in November 2004, which the media are already calling the most important ever. This is a bit of an exaggeration. But it is clear that the electorate is both extremely polarized and almost evenly divided. The Republican Party has perhaps never been so aggressively right wing since 1936 (and they were trounced in that election). And the Democratic Party has never been so passionately in opposition to an incumbent president. The slogan, "anyone but Bush," is heard everywhere.
Domestic support for Bush and his policies has slipped badly in the last year, largely because of events in Iraq – the failure to find the much vaunted weapons of mass destruction, continuing guerilla resistance to the occupation, and the ignominy of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Yet, as every pollster points out, the decline of support for Bush has not been accompanied by a rise in support for the Democratic contender Senator John Kerry. There have been many explanations for this paradox - Kerry's personality being the primary one. I believe the explanation is simpler. At a gut level, many of those who are unhappy with Bush's policies wonder whether Kerry would do differently.
So, question number one is: were Bush's policies reversed, either for moral or political reasons, what alternative policy could the US undertake to restore its moral authority in world opinion? To answer that, we have to look at US domestic developments.
From the end of the Civil War (1865) to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, the US government - the presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court - was basically controlled by Republicans. Then, with the onset of the Great Depression, New Deal Democrats ascended and brought two fundamental changes to US politics: they legitimated the welfare state and took the country from a dominant isolationism to an active interventionist policy in world affairs. Then, in the post-1945 period, the United States became "multicultural." Catholics and Jews ascended the political and social ladder. And behind them came the demand of Blacks, Latinos, and other marginalized groups to do the same (including those marginalized for their sexual dispositions). This second group never achieved the social acceptance of the (White) Catholics and the Jews, but the worst overt discriminations ended, notably in the armed forces.
Faced now with a country dominated by the Democratic Party, there was a "conservative" reaction - to the welfare state, to multiculturalism, and to "internationalism." Those who led this movement saw their salvation in transforming the Republican Party into a non-centrist, fully rightwing party. What these conservatives needed above all was a mass base. And they found it in the group now known as the Christian right, a group composed of persons particularly upset by the liberalization of sexual mores and the end of the guaranteed social dominance of White Protestants.
The Christian right was especially interested in the so-called social issues: notably abortion and homosexuality. They both drew voters from the Democratic Party (the Reagan Democrats) and mobilized previous non-voters. From Nixon to Reagan to George W. Bush, the Republican Party moved steadily rightward on these social issues. But they also moved to pull down the welfare state, and to substitute for "internationalism" what became encrusted with George W. Bush - unilateralism, based on the US right to engage in preemptive war. With the fiasco in Iraq, the erstwhile centrist forces are saying stop, and they want "anyone but Bush."
The biggest question before the United States and the world is, what if Kerry wins? Kerry and those around him seem to be calling for a return to the good old Clinton days. They want to restore the point at which the centrist Democrats had moved furthest to the right. Is this possible? Would this be acceptable to the American voter? Would it appease the erstwhile allies of the United States, now so alienated?
Whatever the outcome of the US election, passions will not have been calmed on the great social divide over abortion and homosexuality. And the attempts to save the US standard of living by dealing with the incredible deficit will make painfully clear that one cannot have both ever-reduced taxes and ever-increased expenditures on health, education, and guarantees for old age. Macho militarism will also be unsustainable without US citizens committing to serious military service, an enormously unpopular idea.
The pressures on the US from elsewhere in the world are likely to increase radically following the election. The almost inevitable US withdrawal from Iraq (probably faster under Bush than under Kerry) will be seen, at home and abroad, as a defeat, and this will lead to terrible internal accusations inside the US. Both Europe and East Asia will probably pay less and less attention to US diplomacy. The dollar will get weaker. And nuclear proliferation will probably become commonplace.
In the midst of such a scenario, can the US rebound? Of course. It depends, however, on the definition of rebound. With the US military stretched to its limits and suffering steady loss and with the national debt reaching record highs, not only are the days of hegemony over but so are the days of "dominance" and even probably of "leadership." A rebound would require an internal US reassessment of its values, social structure, and social compromises. It would require overcoming the increased social, economic, and political polarization of the last thirty years. And this would be very much tied to a reassessment of how the United States engages the rest of the world.
Quo vadis America? It is torn between reconstituting itself as a country that matters (in its own sight and in that of the world) and one which is internally divided and perceived as irrelevant.