Where is the United States Going?

Joseph E. Stiglitz | 17 January 2021
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The assault by Donald Trump supporters on the United States Capitol, encouraged by Trump himself, was the predictable result of four years of attacks on democratic institutions, with the complicity of many in the Republican Party. And let no one say that Trump did not warn: he never promised to allow a peaceful transition of command. Many who benefited from his corporate and wealthy tax breaks, environmental deregulation, and the appointment of pro-business judges knew they were making a pact with the devil. Either they believed they could control the extremist forces that Trump unleashed, or they didn't care.

How is the United States doing from here? Is Trump an aberration, or a symptom of a deeper national disease? Is the United States Trustworthy? In four years, will the forces that led to Trump's rise, and the party that supported him overwhelmingly, triumph again? What can be done to avoid it?

Trump is the product of various forces. For at least a quarter of a century, the Republican Party understood that it could only represent the interests of business elites by appealing to anti-democratic measures (such as the exclusion of voters and the arbitrary drawing of electoral districts) and by allying itself with anti-democratic forces, including fundamentalism. religion, white supremacism and nationalist populism.

Of course, populism involved policies incompatible with business elites. But many business leaders have been perfecting the art of misleading public opinion for decades. Just as tobacco companies spent millions on lawyers and false science to deny that their products are harmful to health, the oil industry did the same to deny the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change. In Trump they recognized one of their own.

Later, technological advances created a tool for the rapid dissemination of disinformation, and the American political system (where money rules) held emerging mega-tech companies from accountability. It also did something else: it spawned a set of policies (sometimes referred to as neoliberalism) that produced massive increases in income and wealth for the top of the pyramid and almost total stagnation for the rest. Before long, a country that was at the forefront of scientific progress was marked by declining life expectancy and increasing health disparities.

The neoliberal promise that increased income and wealth would spill to the bottom of the pyramid was basically false. While large-scale structural changes de-industrialized large parts of the country, the laggards were effectively left to their own devices. As I noted in my books The Price of Inequality and People, Power, and Profits ,This toxic combination was fertile ground for an aspiring demagogue.

As we have seen more than once, the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans, combined with an absence of moral restraints, generates an abundant supply of potential charlatans, profiteers, and demagogues. Trump, a liar and narcissistic sociopath who understands economics or values democracy, was the man of the moment.

The immediate task is to eliminate the threat that Trump still poses. The House of Representatives has to initiate an impeachment process and the Senate proceed to try him so that he can never again hold a federal office. Republicans should be as interested as Democrats in showing that no one, not even the president, is above the law. Everyone must understand the obligation to honor elections and ensure peaceful transitions of command.

But we cannot relax until we have resolved the underlying problems, which in many cases will be very difficult. We have to reconcile freedom of expression with responsibility for the enormous damage that social media can and has caused, from encouraging violence and racial and religious hatred to allowing political manipulation.

The United States and other countries have always placed restrictions on other forms of speech when necessary to protect a greater public good: Freedom of speech does not include incitement to violence, child pornography, slander, or defamation. It is true that some authoritarian regimes abuse these restrictions and violate basic freedoms, but these regimes will always find excuses to do what they want, no matter what democratic governments do.

In the United States, a reform of the political system is needed that guarantees the basic right to vote and democratic representation. A new electoral rights law is needed. The current one, enacted in 1965, was intended for the South, where the electoral marginalization of African Americans had allowed white elites to remain in power since the end of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. But now there are anti-democratic practices across the country.

We also have to reduce the influence of money in politics: no system of checks and balances can be effective in a society as unequal as the United States. And any system based on "one dollar, one vote" rather than "one person, one vote" will be vulnerable to populist demagoguery. After all, how could it serve the interests of the country as a whole?

Finally, we have to solve the multiple dimensions of inequality. The staggering difference between the treatment received by the white insurgents who invaded the Capitol and the peaceful protesters of the Black Lives Matter movement a few months ago once again shows the world the extent of racial injustice in America.

Added to this is the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted the magnitude of the country's economic and health disparities. As I have said many times, such profound inequalities cannot be corrected with small tweaks to the system.

America's response to the attack on the Capitol will tell a lot about the future direction of the country. If, in addition to holding Trump accountable, we also embark on the difficult path of economic and political reform to solve the underlying problems that made his toxic presidency possible, then there will be hope for a better future. Fortunately, on January 20, Joe Biden will assume the presidency. But it takes much more than one person (and much more than a presidential term) to overcome America's old problems.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, is Chief Economist at the Roosevelt Institute and a former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank. His most recent book is People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent.

This article was originally published on Project Syndicate.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.