The stakes are low for US politics, and America’s rivals are weak and apathetic

I saw this Noah Smith article A Time of Troubles: The U.S. has fundamental strengths, but politics puts us at a difficult juncture

But despite these strengths, the U.S. is in trouble, because of politics. It would be foolish not to acknowledge this. The recent string of Supreme Court decisions that is upending the political-economic status quo is not (yet) a major cause of the dysfunction, but it is a bellwether of instability, and it has served as a wake-up call for many of those who thought the political conflicts of the last 8 years were just social media hype.

I disagree. As alluded to in earlier posts, in spite of the invidiousness of discourse on Twitter, the stakes for politics are low and probably the lowest they have ever been. Its not like the 30s and 40s, when America faced substantive threats and adversaries, which Russia and China are not. Nor is it like the second-half of 1800s, which saw the Civil War and the almost equally tumultuous reconstruction. Or like the the early 20th century, which had WW1, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Flu compressed into just a few years, and also a few bank runs and financial panics too.

Or like the second half of the 20th century, which witnessed several assassinations of statesmen and other important people, including John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and also the attempted assassinations of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, in addition to the civil rights movement, the South flipping from Blue to Red, and endless crime waves and race riots that continued until the mid 90s, when crime finally began to fall. Regarding Roe v. Wade, unlike the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, there has been close to zero civil disobedience regarding abortion rights. The BLM riots of 2020, as bad as those were, had far far fewer deaths and injuries compared to the Rodney King riots. Jan 6th is not like 911, as much as the left wishes it was. Yeah, there is a lot of societal decay, such as homelessness and drug use, but this is not destabilizing, nor will it lead to unrest. Elites will continue to retreat from everyone else and the decay, forming their own enclaves and close-knit communities.

The fundamental danger to the U.S. right now is internecine conflict. Our external enemies and rivals are formidable, but in recent months they have shown themselves to be less competent than we believed — Russia military, and China economically. The U.S. has managed to stymie Russia’s entire army without a shot fired, simply by supplying a bit of arms and intelligence to Ukraine. And China’s period of rapid catch-up growth appears to be over, thanks to a real estate crash, ill-advised Covid lockdowns, and a rapidly aging population. Abraham Lincoln’s famous words from his Lyceum Address still ring true:

They aren’t formidable though. They are persistent, but not much of a threat. Unlike the Axis powers, neither China nor Russia have imperialistic ambitions. China hasn’t secured any new land since 1997 (the peaceful handoff of Hong Kong), and even after 20+ years, Russia has yet to annex any additional territory either beyond Crimea (which isn’t even recognized as belonging to Russia). The first and second Chechen Wars weren’t under Putin’s directive anyway. I was correct in predicting in March that Russia, being a quasi Communist country, would not act too aggressively. The American, British, French, Portugal, etc. empires acting under so-called colonial capitalism were/are much more expansionary than the USSR and the PRC. The US has toppled way more countries and regimes than Russia has or ever will.

I think the threat of China is overblown. I have long maintained that China is too economically dependent on the US and too culturally similar to pose a threat. That China keeps appropriating American culture and is now the second biggest market for Hollywood blockbusters, second to the US, is not indicative or suggestive of a country that wants to overtake the US but rather wants to copy it (except for its government).

Nor am I losing sleep over China installing hidden chips or sensors on electronics or spying on Americans. China’s spying cannot be worse than what the NSA, FBI are doing already. The Soviets spied on Americans for 40+ years, and also spies leaked tons of info to the Soviets, and little ever came of it. Klaus Fuchs possibly leaked the design of the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets, but it’s also possible the Soviets developed it on their own anyway once it became known that it could be done (it’s not like nuclear tests are easy to conceal, and technology always has a way of leaking even without espionage). I also don’t believe that despite the 1962 crisis that Khrushchev had any intent to declare war on the US. The famous phrase “We will bury you” uttered by Khrushchev at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956, has many interpretations and in the context of later remarks possibly meant that communism would prevail and ‘bury’ capitalism, not a declaration or threat of war.

One can argue that regarding the USSR not being a threat that one has the benefit of hindsight. But overall, without the gift of hindsight, I still posit that Russia and China today are less of a threat than the USSR was in the 50s and 60s. There are no proxy wars, no arms race, no space race. China’s economy has been struggling for years due to endless Covid lockdowns, and is not getting better. Russia has natural gas dominance, but as discussed above, no imperialistic ambitions. Germany is probably threatened much more so by Russia’s natural gas monopoly than the US.

But as serious as the danger from oppressive laws may be, a far bigger danger is the erosion of democracy. 2020 already featured a sitting President denying the result of a free and fair election and attempting to abet a (doomed, incompetent) coup attempt against Congress. (In the interest of fairness

Protesting or voicing disagreement with the outcome of an election is consistent with democracy. Same for protests opposing the overturing of Roe v. Wade. Why is one democratic but the other isn’t?

I think a distinction must be made between the democratic process and the legitimacy of the process. The process itself is still intact: elections are not going anywhere, but people’s faith or confidence in the process itself is possibly eroded. My theory is that presidential elections have gotten too close. Periods of unrest seem to coincide with close elections, such as Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 or Bush vs. Gore. Or 2016 when the the left blamed Russian interference for Hillary losing, or 2020 when the right blamed voter fraud. Both of these elections were quite close at various stages, with Trump at one point on election night possibly overtaking Biden.

Because elections have become so important, both sides invest considerable resources on campaigning, which probably contributes to partisanship and division overall even after the election. Similar to professional sports, campaigns and candidates are increasingly optimized, so you don’t end up with a situation like Dole or Mondale again, in which the campaign is doomed from the start and the outcome overtly lopsided.

Dole, Carter, McCain, Ford, Romney, Mondale, Dukakis , and H. W. Bush were all forgettable and never really connected that well with voters on a national level, so after they lost there was no lingering attachment to them, unlike Trump, whose presence keeps growing. Trump is the probably the first loser who bucked this pattern of fading away. Not only Trump, but DeSantis also exhibits a similar fandom. So what’s happening is that the GOP learned from its past mistakes and and is increasingly pushing candidates who are better able to connect with voters on a more personal level than only on a superficial or issue-level. It’s not about merely being a representative but an avatar or embodiment of the culture wars. I don’t think people realize or appreciate the significance of this shift.

I think also social media has the effect of amplifying the importance of overwise low-stakes issues. Siri Lanka is having a crisis now. Before that it was Lebanon. And ongoing since 2019 are the Chilean protests. Russia defaulted on foreign debt for the first time since 1918. El Salvador also had major political unrest last year. Turkey’s inflation rate is at 74%, a 5x increase from early 2021 (compared to the CPI rising 10% in the US in that same period). A month does not go by without another third or second-world country falling into crisis, having massive protests over corruption, or undergoing hyperinflation (far worse than the 8-9% inflation here).

Meanwhile Americans cannot decide which pronouns to use. When America does have actual unrest, like following the death of George Floyd, it tends to be contained and doesn’t spill over to the overall economy, unlike protests in other countries, which are much more potentially destabilizing. In the days following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, there were some protests, but historically speaking, it was a blip compared to the unrest of the 60s and 70s, and abortion is not in the news that much anymore despite otherwise considerable social media outrage. Also, the US dollar keeps making news highs, reaching parity with the Euro last week for the first time in decades, as evidence of the relative safety and dominance of the US economy, as much as things may otherwise seem dysfunctional politically and societally.