What would crash America?
The collapse of American society
October 13, 2020 / Anthony T. Silberfeld
In this guest contribution, Anthony Silberfeld, Director for Transatlantic Relations at the Bertelsmann Foundation North America, takes a critical look at the state of American society shortly before the presidential elections.
The collapse of American society
In a country that has debated the value of human life for decades, the US has now seemingly come to a conclusion: it is worthless. The deaths of more than 200,000 Americans from COVID-19 were accepted with a collective shrug from many. But this ambivalence about the deaths of so many of our compatriots is not new, and it is the result of a fundamentally broken society. Many factors led to this point, but this text focuses on three of them - political decisions, the emergence of social media, and unsuccessful crisis management - as the driving forces behind the dehumanization of America. What happens to a community when its members only look at themselves?
E pluribus unum?When the many no longer become one
The United States once viewed political action as a tool for solving problems facing society as a whole. From President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal", who helped those who suffered most from the Great Depression, to Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," which aimed to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, ending discrimination, governments' primary goal has been to serve the people. However, recent trends indicate that the advances made by a few generations ago are largely lost. Today, the top 0.1 percent earn an average of 196 times as much as the bottom 90 percent (www.inequality.org), creating an imbalance not seen since the 1920s. This is no coincidence, but rather a direct result of political decisions in which, for decades, the interests of individual groups have been placed above the needs of the average citizen. This imbalance is not just about wages; it is also about access to education, housing and health services. Keyword health care: Around 44 million Americans are uninsured, and another 38 million are underinsured. A direct consequence of a healthcare system where profits matter more than the patient is that unpaid medical bills play a role in 60 percent of all personal bankruptcies in the United States. And the immense indebtedness of Americans doesn't stop with healthcare. The average 2018 graduate student entered the world of work after graduating from a public American university with $ 29,000 in debt. So without health and wealth, the implicit social contract between the American people and their government - anchored in the promise of life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness - has been renounced. If a society falls back into a mentality of "everyone for himself", the cohesion of the community breaks and with it the basic rules of civil interaction with one another.
Tête-à-tête on Twitter
When public discontent with the government reaches a certain point, protesters used to take to the streets. Today, social media platforms offer a new way of expressing displeasure and protest, but this time under the protection of relative anonymity. However, this anonymity is often not used for personal protection, but is rather misused to attack people who think differently. 255 million Americans spend 2 hours and 24 minutes a day on social media and interacting in this virtual agora. Taken together with inadequate digital education, this left us with an increase in division and radicalization that went hand in hand with the decline of civilized interaction with one another. It would be easy to blame the current US president for this collapse in basic etiquette, but that would be too easy. The truth is, there has been a failure to properly regulate the internet and social media, creating an ideal environment for distorted information where constructive debate has become impossible. With the help of disinformation campaigns that were specifically used to stir up emotions and create chaos, this rift in society created the conditions in which it became possible for Donald Trump to become president. Some believe that platforms like Twitter and Facebook are a kind of outlet that people can use to ventilate without the displeasure spilling over to the streets. But as we have learned in the past few months, new crises can arise that cannot be confined to our computer screens.
A lack of propriety
Since the shutdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak began in the US in March, two more crises have emerged that would have required clear and competent leadership from the government; but nothing happened. Ignoring the alarm signals from Europe as the novel coronavirus spread across the continent, the White House brushed aside warnings from its own scientists as the scale of the pandemic continued to be downplayed. As a result, an inconsistent approach to the virus developed in the country, with the measures taken depending more on political orientation than on their effectiveness. In the Democratic-controlled parts of the country, the Center for Disease Control and local health authorities followed guidelines calling for closings, masks and distance regulations. The Republicans, on the other hand, began to equate wearing masks with betraying "Trumpism". Therefore, in many states led by loyal Republicans, measures to contain the virus and minimize the risk of its spread were relaxed early on - there they are now paying the price with significantly higher COVID-19 infection levels. The President's reaction to the deaths of 200,000 Americans: “It is the way it is.” He showed the same indifference to human suffering in the context of the second crisis of the summer, triggered by the murder of George Floyd Police officers. But this was not an isolated incident. In the first eight months of 2020 alone, police killed 164 black men and women. The pictures of George Floyd with a police officer pressing his knee back were the drop that broke the barrel. Because the judicial system in the USA has been a powder keg for generations. The government's inability to recognize that black lives matter confirms the popular belief that the value of life in the United States is based on skin color. These two crises have driven the wedge deeper between the Americans: inside on both sides of the political camps, and it is questionable whether this gap can ever be bridged.
At the crossroads
Americans have always romanticized the idea of the melting pot in which all races, religions and ethnicities come together in harmony. Indeed, that vision has always been ambitious, but the US now seems further from achieving this laudable goal than ever before. The first step in turning the tide, as with any healing process, is to admit that there is a problem at all. The second step is to reassess national priorities. Republicans and Democrats alike are involved in driving the price spiral in health and education out of control. They have not adequately addressed the issue of structural racism and have failed to provide basic support for those who need it most. Election day is already in sight, which means that if those in power refuse to change, it is up to the voters to choose a leadership that will address change. The election results will determine the fate of the nation and indicate whether the signs for the residents are for cohesion or for conflict.
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