SPIEGEL ONLINE

SPIEGEL ONLINE

08/04/2011 04:24 PM

Opinion

Once Upon a Time in the West

A Commentary by

This week, the United States nearly allowed itself to succumb to economic disaster. Increasingly, the divided country has more in common with a failed state than a democracy. In the face of America's apparent political insanity, Europe must learn to take care of itself.

The word "West" used to have a meaning. It described common goals and values, the dignity of democracy and justice over tyranny and despotism. Now it seems to be a thing of the past. There is no longer a West, and those who would like to use the word -- along with Europe and the United States in the same sentence -- should just hold their breath. By any definition, America is no longer a Western nation.

The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite. An unruly and aggressive militarism set in motion two costly wars in the past 10 years. Society is not only divided socially and politically -- in its ideological blindness the nation is moving even farther away from the core of democracy. It is losing its ability to compromise.

America has changed. It has drifted away from the West.

The country's social disintegration is breathtaking. Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz recently described the phenomenon. The richest 1 percent of Americans claim one-quarter of the country's total income for themselves -- 25 years ago that figure was 12 percent. It also possesses 40 percent of total wealth, up from 33 percent 25 years ago. Stiglitz claims that in many countries in the so-called Third World, the income gap between the poor and rich has been reduced. In the United States, it has grown.

Economist Paul Krugman, also a Nobel laureate, has written that America's path is leading it down the road to "banana-republic status." The social cynicism and societal indifference once associated primarily with the Third World has now become an American hallmark. This accelerates social decay because the greater the disparity grows, the less likely the rich will be willing to contribute to the common good. When a company like Apple, which with €76 billion in the bank has greater reserves at its disposal than the government in Washington, a European can only shake his head over the Republican resistance to tax increases. We see it as self-destructive.

The same applies to America's broken political culture. The name "United States" seems increasingly less appropriate. Something has become routine in American political culture that has been absent in Germany since Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik policies of rapprochement with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc (in the 1960s and '70s): hate. At the same time, reason has been replaced by delusion. The notion of tax cuts has taken on a cult-like status, and the limited role of the state a leading ideology. In this new American civil war, respect for the country's highest office was sacrificed long ago. The fact that Barack Obama is the country's first African-American president may have played a role there, too.

The West, C'est nous

There's no deliverance in sight. One can no longer depend on politics in America. The reliance of Congress members on donations from the rich has become too great. Nor will there be any revolutionary storming of the Bastille in America. Popular anger may boil over, but the elites have succeeded in both controlling the masses and channeling their passions. Take the Tea Party, which has enjoyed godfather-like bankrolling from brothers and billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch and found a mouthpiece in Rupert Murdoch's populist, hatred-stirring Fox News.

From a European perspective, it all looks very strange: it's a different political culture. There are other rules at play, different standards. More and more we view America with the clear notion that we are different.

Still, America's fate should serve as a warning: We must protect our political culture, our institutions and our state. The success of Thilo Sarrazin, with his anti-Muslim message, shows that even Germany isn't free of the kind of cultural coldness that can eventually ossify the vital functions of the political system. Our society has already made significant and deplorable steps on the path towards growing inequality and de-democratization.

Nevertheless, at least one good opportunity springs from America's fate: The further the United States distances itself from us, the more we will (have to) think for ourselves, as Europeans. The West? That's us.

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