#AmericaIsBroken. What will it take to mend it?

Social media hashtag reflects crisis of confidence in a series of memes

By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 6 Jul 2022, 10:41 PM

Another mass shooting in the United States, this time on the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, is a grim reminder of the precipitous fall in the country’s reputation, globally and in the eyes of its own people.

A recent Gallup poll shows a significant decline in confidence in 11 of 16 US institutions tested, including the Presidency, Supreme Court, Congress, police, system, banks, media, and other public institutions. There is diminishing confidence even in the US military, an institution that normally constitutes a bragging point for Americans, as it happens in every country about its military.

The surfeit of debilitating crises -- including the epidemic of mass shootings, a pandemic now receding from public consciousness, soaring inflation, the border crisis, and recent court rulings on guns and abortions, all leading to a furious political fracas -- is generating the first murmurs of whether America is a failing state. Concerns are growing about the future of a country seen as a beacon of stability across the world.

A social media hashtag #AmericaIsBroken – a euphemism for failing state – that trended on Tuesday distilled the crisis of confidence in a series of memes. One showed a 25-year old black youth who “allegedly committed a traffic violation, attempted to flee from a traffic stop, and was shot 60 times and executed by the police,” just days before the Chicago shooter, a white youth, who “allegedly murdered six and shot 30 others, attempted to flee from a traffic stop, and was taken into custody without incident.”

This – the vastly different treatment of blacks and whites – is happening so often in the US that sections of society now have little confidence in law-enforcement and state- and district level executive and legislature. Many Americans have now seceded from the union – at least mentally. A shocking poll after the Jan 6 insurrection found 37 percent of respondents indicating a “willingness to secede.” The numbers among Republicans in the South was as high as 66 per cent.

For the longest time, America and much of the western world used the term Taliban as a pejorative. A Taliban, in American eyes, was an unschooled yahoo, with deeply-held medieval conservative beliefs. Well, by that token, America has now found its own version of Taliban, some of whom look progressive in comparison to conservatives in the deepest red states and districts. As one post reminded people, there are now parts of America where a teenager can legally buy a weapon he then uses to mow down dozens of people, but a 10-year female rape victim is forced to deliver the baby.

Although the term “failed state” has existed in the political science lexicon for many decades, its application in the modern context is credited to two US state department employees, Gerald Helman and Steven Ratner, in a 1992 Foreign Policy article. In the essay, they spoke of a post-Cold War scenario that resulted in a number of countries lacking effective governments and unable to sustain themselves as members of the international community.

Further refinements to the term saw a failed state defined as one where a government loses control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force; and where there is an erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions. America has not reached that stage by any stretch of the imagination. But by some definitions, a country can be deemed as failing even if it is performing its functions properly – if the government loses its legitimacy. In America today, there is a definite crisis of legitimacy – with Trump Republicans believing Biden is an illegitimate Presidency and many Democrats refusing to accept Trump did – or can – win legitimately

Perceptions matter in global politics and international relations. American global supremacy owes it to its reputation as a strong, cohesive, and stable society, governed by institutions of integrity that ensure rule of law. Flowing from this, its nearly century-long primacy also rests on global acceptance of the dollar as reserve currency, and the fact that the rest of the world feeds off American consumption and debt. Any shake-up -- and shake-out -- of this delicate arrangement will result in not just an American debacle, but also a global meltdown.

Yet, that’s where we are headed unless there is a dramatic reconciliation between Republicans and Democrats, between conservatives and liberals, and between mostly white rural and mixed-race urban America. This does not look like happening anytime soon. If anything the fissures are growing by the week, aggravated by court rulings and bills engineered by partisan legislatures and courts, both captured through a broken electoral system that disdains popular vote.

In the 2021 fragile state index, the United States came in only in the 36th position in a list topped by Nordic and European countries. The United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Germany, and Ireland were ranked ahead of the US in terms of stability. The US retrieved some ground in 2022 following the election of Biden, but the year since has been fraught. Unless there is some serious healing, further slide down the fragile state index is on the cards.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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