U.S. President Joe Biden has been busy. Democracy in the U.S. is under assault. The heart of the American nation is broken – again.
On May 14, 2022, 10 people were ruthlessly murdered in a racially motivated shooting in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. On May 17, 2022, President Biden and his wife Jill traveled to Buffalo from Washington, D.C., and met privately with the victim’s families.
On May 20, 2022, Biden landed in South Korea, where he held meetings with his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk-yeol. Then, on to Japan, where he arrived at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, on Sunday, May 22, 2022. The purpose of this visit was to meet with Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday and attend a summit with Kishida and the leaders of India and Australia on Tuesday.
One primary objective of Biden’s 4-day trip to Asia was to impart a “powerful message” to Beijing and others about what the world could look like if democracies “stand together to shape the rules of the road.”
On Wednesday, May 24, 2022, Biden was flying back to Washington D.C. (a 14-hour flight with a refueling stop at Alaska’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson) when his senior staff alerted him to another mass shooting where 19 innocent children and 2 adults had been savagely murdered in a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. After landing at Joint Base Andrews (Andrews AFB) in Camp Springs Maryland, he boarded a helicopter to return to the White House. Two hours later, an obviously emotionally exhausted Biden addressed the nation live on television where he wholeheartedly implored the country to pray for the victims, friends, and families of the Uvalde mass shooting. Finally, he described how he has worked for decades to implement common-sense gun control laws in the U.S. – unsuccessfully. Clearly overwhelmed with emotion, Biden forcefully asked: “As a nation, we have to ask: When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby? When in God’s name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it and stand up to the lobbies? t’s time to turn this pain into action.”
On Thursday, May 25, 2022, mainstream media outlets in the U.S. were solely focused on informing the public about the emerging details of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Anchor persons for U.S. national news broadcasts were unable to maintain their composure. They were clearly overwhelmed with anger, rage, disgust, and horror regarding yet another event in an ongoing seemingly endless series of senseless mass slaughter of innocents in the U.S.
Yet, less than 24 hours after 19 children, two teachers, and the 18-year-old gunman, with an automatic weapon designed for use by the military, had been eviscerated from this life, another reality became vividly apparent. Common sense gun reform legislation in the U.S. directed at reducing the probability of mass murder incidents like these would not be forthcoming. Once again, prior to the funerals of the ruthlessly executed, U.S. politicians began to publicly express their condolences, while whispering in the shadows that no comprehensive gun control legislation would be forthcoming – while the majority of U.S. citizens desire just that.
The gunman in the Robb Elementary school mass shooting legally purchased two automatic rifles (one on his 18th birthday) and a number of magazines of ammunition, within 10 days of unleashing this massacre. In Texas, you must be 21 years old to legally consume alcohol yet - you can purchase a military-style assault weapon on your 18th birthday. Furthermore, current Texas law allows people over the age of 21 to legally carry a handgun without a license or training. Texas does not require universal background checks on all gun sales, and does not have a law restricting the sale of assault weapons. Texas serves as a primary source of a wide array of firearms that Mexican drug cartels purchase in Texas and smuggle into Mexico.
Earlier in the week, during his 5-day trip to Asia, Biden observed:
We're standing at an inflection point in history, where the decisions we make today will have a far-reaching impact on the world we're leaving to our children tomorrow.
Well, in whatever historical epoch or culture you might examine, the statement above by a national leader has been repeated since time immemorial. So what is unique in the case of Biden’s observation in May 2022? This article examines this qu1estion.
I. Turning pain into action
Confucius once said: “By gaining the people, the kingdom is gained; by losing the people, the kingdom is lost.” The Gallup Poll indicates that “Americans' trust in many aspects of government in the U.S. is low. The sharply polarized nation is grappling with weighty issues. Finding common ground is increasingly difficult in the U.S., but without it, trust in government will likely remain low and lopsided.” (2021) At Statista, this polling firm declares the following by virtue of their polling results: “The most recent polling data from April 2022 put the approval rating of the United States Congress at 20 percent. This is slightly lower than the previous month when Congressional approval stood at 21 percent. Congressional approval, particularly over the past few years, has not been high. Americans tend to see Congress as a group of ineffectual politicians who are out of touch with their constituents.”
Such is the state of the kingdom in the U.S. where only one in five citizens has confidence in their democratically elected representatives. The term “common ground” in the U.S. has become a distant memory. The pain of the people is being routinely ignored by those responsible for running the affairs of the kingdom.
Is the United States at a unique, historical inflection point?
II. From a global standpoint
Democracies under seige:
In my last piece, I used the example of Mexico to illustrate the decline of democracies in our world today. I observed: “Today, you can sense the decline of democracy. Honestly, you can smell it. Yet, the issues beyond the sources of the scent require our ongoing examination. In our world, the miasma emanating from far too many nations is due to the decomposition of democracy.”
Other onlookers agree. Yascha Mounk is one of the world's leading experts on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. He is an Associate Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of a new book, 'The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.'
In terms of democracy, Mounk remarks: “We have no choice but to make it work because a brief glance at history will tell you how terrible the alternative it is -- how violent, how unstable, how unjust the future will be if we fail to make diverse democracies work.” (CNN May 21, 2022). Mounk remains an optimist about the future of democracy. I always get nervous when pundits use the phrase “no choice.” My reading of the history of human civilizations suggests that “no choice” pontifications have been routinely disregarded. Yet, the theme remains a consistent headline today. Democracies in decline and authoritarianism, (often veiled in populism), is on the rise.
My view is that fear and insecurity are more endemic amidst the masses today due to the velocity of the transmission of information, the pace of change, the lack of responsiveness of governments to the fundamental needs of most people, the willingness to deceive one another, and the voracious human appetite for certainty to cope with the increasing unpredictability the human life experience today contains.
Currently, the digital shelves of Amazon are filled with new titles about the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism. It would take me an entire year to read all the new writings published on just this subject. Perhaps partly in what is contained in the question, Biden asked above, in another context: “When in God’s name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?” In other words, everyday people need their elected leaders to actually hear their voices and deliver tangible solutions to pervasive challenges. Without this fundamental ability, the integrity of democracy will continue to remain under siege and deteriorate.
Crises and cooperation:
Ian Bremmer is a political scientist who helps business leaders, policymakers, and the public make sense of the world around them. He is the president and founder of Eurasia Group, the world's leading political risk research and consulting firm, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. Bremmer has a new book out, entitled 'The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats – and Our Response – Will Change the World.' His central thesis is that the world needs a crisis. “Because the right kind of threat can help foster the global cooperation, we’ll need to manage future existential crises.”
Needless to say, the world currently has a cauldron of crises. There are the rise of the nuclear capacity of Iran, a burgeoning global food shortage, mass migration, the war in Ukraine, water scarcity, Russia threatening to use nuclear weapons, racism, education, income inequality, North Korea testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Covid 19 lockdown in China and the attendant supply chain interruptions, inflation and the prospects for a global recession.
For Bremmer, crises are the basis for inspiring the cooperation we require to address the world’s most pressing issues. During the late May 2022 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland Bremmer interviewed Microsoft's Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa. Joppa observed: “I think that these crises, what they've done is they've really shown society that we have things that are going to happen to us. And if we know that they are coming, it would behoove us to do something about them now to prepare for it now. The biggest thing that we have coming for us is the impact of a rapidly changing global climate system. It's front and center of our minds. We know we have to get out and do something about it.”
Notice in the quote above that Joppa uses the word “we” four times and the word “us” three times. Joppa and Bremmer appear to concur that “the right kind of threat can help foster the global cooperation” along with the recognition of our interdependence required to deliver comprehensive solutions to the threats to human survival. Basically, these two very bright guys are directing our attention toward the reality that “we must save ourselves.”
I have written extensively on climate change and the need for new forms of creativity, collaboration, and cooperation, and the intersection where our human capacity for cognition, collaboration, creativity, and chronology collide. Do I disagree with Bremmer and Joppa? No. However, their mantra of how crises might awaken mankind to become more aware of both the urgency and necessity to work interdependently to craft solutions to preeminent threats to the survival of our species is not a simple matter to make their vision a practical reality for “us.”
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed to the world, interdependence is a two-sided sword. Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas currently retards the intended effects of sanctions imposed by the international community. Furthermore, the U.S. reliance on products manufactured in China in light of China’s zero Covid policies has impaired the supply chain and delivery of the same to the U.S. Of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has also positively solidified the NATO alliance and inspired other nations to seek membership in NATO and the EU. The point is that interdependence requires measuring the vulnerabilities contained therein - particularly when the unanticipated is bound to occur within existing and future interdependent relationships.
Where do we currently stand on our capacity for crises to spawn new, productive forms of collaboration to confront them today? I remain beholden to a conclusion I arrived at in a previous piece, as illuminated by a quote from another author:
It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time. Today is no different.
(Yuvall Noah Harari, Sapiens– A Brief History of Humankind, p. 239)
Then again, there’s what Joe Biden said on May 24, 2022:
Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it?
III. Back to the USA
I reside in central Mexico. I was in the Los Angeles, California region for March and April 2022 for a number of essential medical appointments and procedures. My immersion back into one of the major arteries inhabited by robust dialog concerning the state of socio-political affairs in the U.S. gave me a superb vantage point to renew my appreciation for the preeminent challenges currently facing the world’s foremost democracy experiment.
The U.S. is experiencing inflation to a degree that has not been seen in 40 years. According to Mark Zandi - Chief Economist at Moody’s Analytics – “there is a 1 in 3 chance of a recession in the U.S. - an uncomfortably high risk – during the next 12 months.” Fuel prices are at an all-time high. Consumer confidence has been shaken. Housing prices, rent increases, and escalating mortgage rates are all new realities. Rates on existing U.S. mortgages are up 42% over the last 12 months. The cost to rent an apartment in the USA is up over 20% in the past 12 months. The U.S. stock market is manic depressive; mind-numbing losses followed by dramatic gains. The cost of borrowing for businesses and consumers is on the rise. There is a horrific shortage of essential formula for babies and infants. There was a leak of a draft U.S. Supreme court opinion that threatens to roll back current abortion rights laws and restrict a woman’s right to choose. Supply chain disruptions from China and elsewhere continue to impair the delivery and production of goods and services.
Covid-19 is resurging. New York City has, once again, garnered a "high" Covid-19 alert level, reflecting a high level of spread in the community and mounting pressure on the health care system. At the present time, an estimated one-third of people in the US live in areas with medium or high Covid-19 community levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The political landscape remains acutely polarized. Legislative paralysis at the national level remains captive to unyielding partisan polarization. Recent mid-term elections for the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate fully illuminate the state of polarization between the Republican and Democratic parties. Conspiracy theories and election lies born in the 2020 election cycle remain alive and well in public discourse.
Racial tensions remain a reality. Recent and ongoing narratives concerning what is referred to as white replacement theory - the belief that Democrats will become a permanent political majority in the near future as people of color and non-white immigrants outnumber white Americans - inhabit the airwaves of mainstream media outlets.
Republican political bodies at the state and local levels continue to populate elected and appointed positions that oversee U.S. elections with candidates and administrators who express allegiance to the falsehood that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen. Furthermore, Republican-controlled state legislatures have been successful in enacting new right to vote restrictions aimed at reducing the ability of Democratic voters, the elderly and ethnic minorities to cast a legal ballot in U.S. elections.
The great democracy experiment in the U.S. is currently being fundamentally challenged from every imaginable source. These include the legitimacy of representation provided by elected leaders, voting rights restrictions, public health, income inequality, national security, global leadership, national debt, legislative paralysis, bitter partisan polarization, ongoing nonsensical, disproven, deceptive narratives, an escalating cost of living, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, racism, gun violence, internet security, homelessness, hunger, poverty, and the ongoing deterioration of utility systems, bridges, roads, and airports.
As Biden presciently asked during his Asia trip in May 2022: “What might the world look like “if democracies stand together to shape the rules of the road”? Well, before one can stand, you must be confident that what you stand upon has the strength and integrity to support your standing. To stand together to shape the rules of the road ahead requires one to repair the existing damage to the integrity of the infrastructure you currently stand upon…as you invite others to stand together with you.
Yes, our world is a boiling cauldron of crises at the moment. Democracy in the U.S. is also a visible ingredient currently boiling in the bowl. Yet, The question remains: will this be the basis for inspiring the cooperation we require to address the world’s most pressing issues?
On August 19, 2019, my wife and I arrived in El Paso, Texas to pay our respects at a memorial – next to the Wal-Mart - where a gunman had executed 23 people, injuring 23 others - on August 3, 2019. It was 103 degrees F (39.4 Celsius) as the thousands of flowers wilted under an unforgiving Texas summer sun. I wrote about that experience. The gunman in El Paso published a manifesto online that included white nationalist, anti-immigrant, and the great replacement theory themes as inspiration for his insane actions. That was 881 days ago (on 5-31-2022). During this timeframe, no, nada, none, zero, zip tangible gun control legislation has been implemented by the United States Congress – the elected representatives of the citizens of the U.S.
America - land of the free? Home of the brave?
U.S. President Joe Biden’s questions on May 24, 2022, reverberate beyond the urgent need for bold and comprehensive action for essential gun control legislation. His questions reflect the essence of the current state of the American democratic experiment:
“When in God’s name are we going to stand up? When in God’s name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it? It’s time to turn this pain into action.”
This is the Americonundrum…Democracy in decline.