Divided States of America: Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation
The United States is frittering away its role as a model for the rest of the world. The political system is plagued by an absurd level of hatred, the economy is stagnating and the infrastructure is falling into a miserable state of disrepair. On this election eve, many Americans are losing faith in their country's future.
The monumental National Mall in Washington, DC, 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) long and around 1,586 feet wide at its broadest point, is a place that showcases the United States of America is in its full glory as a world power. A walk along the magnificent swath of green space, between the white dome of the Capitol to the east and the Lincoln Memorial, a temple erected to honor former president Abraham Lincoln, at its western end, leads past men in bronze and stone, memorials for soldiers and conquerors, and the nearby White House. It's a walk that still creates an imperial impression today.
The Mall is lined with museums and landscaped gardens, in which America is on display as the kind of civil empire that promotes the arts and sciences. There are historic sites, and there are the famous steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke of his dream, and of the dreams of a country to be a historic force, one that would serve the wellbeing of all of mankind. Put differently, the National Mall is an open-air museum for an America that, in 2012, is mostly a pleasant memory.
After a brilliant century and a terrible decade, the United States, in this important election year, has reached a point in its history when the obvious can no longer be denied: The reality of life in America so greatly contradicts the claim -- albeit one that has always been exaggerated -- to be the "greatest nation on earth," that even the most ardent patriots must be overcome with doubt.
This realization became only too apparent during and after Hurricane Sandy, the monster storm that ravaged America's East Coast last week, its effects made all the more devastating by the fact that its winds were whipping across an already weakened country. The infrastructure in New York, New Jersey and New England was already in trouble long before the storm made landfall near Atlantic City. The power lines in Brooklyn and Queens, on Long Island and in New Jersey, in one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, are not underground, but are still installed along a fragile and confusing above-ground network supported by utility poles, the way they are in developing countries.
No System to Protect Against Storm Surges
Although parts of New York City, especially the island of Manhattan, are only a few meters above sea level, the city still has no extensive system to protect itself against storm surges, despite the fact that the sea level has been rising for years and the number of storms is increasing. In the case of Sandy, the weather forecasts were relatively reliable three or four days prior to its arrival, so that the time could have been used to at least make improvised preparations, which did not happen. The only effective walls of sandbags that were built in the city on a larger scale did not appear around power plants, hospitals or tunnel entrances, but around the skyscraper of the prescient investment bank Goldman Sachs.
Large parts of America's biggest city and millions of people along the East Coast could now be forced to survive for days, possibly even weeks, without electricity, water and heat. Many of the backup generators intended for such emergencies didn't work, so that large hospitals had to be evacuated. On the one hand, these consequences of the storm point to the uncontrollability of nature. On the other hand, they are signs that America is no longer the great, robust global power it once was.
Europeans who make such claims have always been accused of anti-Americanism. But now Americans themselves are joining the chorus of those declaring the country's decline. "I had to catch a train in Washington last week," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose columns are read worldwide, wrote last April. "The paved street in the traffic circle around Union Station was in such poor condition that I felt as though I was on a roller coaster. I traveled on the Amtrak Acela, our sorry excuse for a fast train, on which I had so many dropped calls on my cellphone that you'd have thought I was on a remote desert island, not traveling from Washington to New York City. When I got back to Union Station, the escalator in the parking garage was broken. Maybe you've gotten used to all this and have stopped noticing. I haven't. Our country needs a renewal."
Such everyday observations are coalescing into a new, tarnished image of America. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the creator of many legendary television series, has come up with a new, brutal look at America. The 10-part drama, "The Newsroom," tells the story of a cynical news anchor who reinvents himself and vows to do everything right in the future. In the show's brilliant premiere, he is asked at a panel discussion to describe why America is the greatest country in the world. After a few tired jokes, the truth comes gushing out of him. "There's absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world," he ways. "We're seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined."
A Land of Limited Opportunities
In the show, the audience reacts with shock, just as a real-life American audience would. But the truth is that America has transformed itself into a land of limited opportunities. In fact, that was the way SPIEGEL referred to the United States in a 1979 cover story, when the US economy had been hard-hit by the oil crisis.
But today's crisis is far more comprehensive, extending to the social, political and spiritual realms. The worst thing about it is that the country still refuses to engage in any debate over the reasons for its decline. It seems as if many Americans today no longer want to talk about how they can strengthen their union. Criticism is seen as a betrayal of America's greatness.
But that notion of greatness leaves much to be desired. Other numbers can be readily added to those rattled off by the protagonist in Sorkin's "The Newsroom," and the results are sobering. For instance, the United States is no longer among the world's top 10 countries when it comes to the state of its infrastructure. In fact, it spends less than Europe to maintain its roads and bridges, tunnels, train stations and airports.
According to the US Federal Highway Administration, one in four of the more than 600,000 bridges in the world's richest country are either "inadequate" or outdated. According to some studies, the United States would have to invest some $225 billion a year between now and 2050 to regain an adequate, modern infrastructure. That's 60 percent more than it invests today.
A Lack of Strength
It isn't hard to predict that this won't happen. The hatred of big government has reached a level in the United States that threatens the country's very existence. Americans everywhere may vow allegiance to the nation and its proud Stars and Stripes, but when it comes time to pay the bills and distribute costs, and when solidarity is needed, all sense of community evaporates.
Then the divides open up between Washington and the rest of the country, between the North and the South, between the East and the West, between cities and rural areas, and between states whose governors often sound as if the country were still embroiled in a civil war.
The country has forgotten the days when former President Franklin D. Roosevelt courageously told his fellow Americans that a collectively supported social welfare system didn't translate into socialism but freedom, a "New Deal" that would strengthen America in the long term. Gone are the days when former President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched bold government programs to cover a country 27 times the size of Germany with a network of interstate highways. Gone are the years when former President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty and enacted federal laws declaring that there could be no second- or third-class citizens, regardless of skin color. And gone is the spirit of renewal after former President John F. Kennedy's visionary promise to send Americans to the moon within a decade, a program that would cost taxpayers billions.
Today America lacks the financial strength, political courage and social will to embark on such large-scale, government-directed programs. The United States has long been drawing down its savings, writes Fareed Zakaria, another American critic of his own country and a respected columnist with Time. "What we see today is an American economy that has boomed because of policies and developments of the 1950s and '60s: the interstate-highway system, massive funding for science and technology, a public-education system that was the envy of the world and generous immigration policies."
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