Are Americans so angry about politics because the U.S. is declining as a world power?

Yesterday I heard Sasha Abramsky interviewed on All Things Considered regarding an article, “Look Ahead in Anger,” he just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Abramsky’s thesis is that the level of anger we’ve seen in American political discourse the past few years, on all sides but on the right more than the left, is partly due to general frustration at the economy, etc.; and on the RW side, partly due to a factional split between the moderate and radical wings of the conservative movement; but, overall, mainly a reaction to America’s declining position in the world which has parallels in many other countries’ histories.

Is this analysis substantially correct? It seems depressingly persuasive to me – and indicates American politics in general will not be getting any more reasonable or rational any time soon. :frowning:

I daresay if Abramsky’s thesis had been “Americans are pretty calm about politics”, it would not have been published.

I’d hazard a guess that American politics is generally about as reasonable and rational as it’s ever been.

I don’t think Americans really care that much about our position on the world stage. For a long time, we were a very isolationist country. It was only WWII and the Cold War that forced us out of that. Without some threat to keep our attention, we’d prefer to mind our own business.

I think we’re headed back to that. The Tea Party movement seems isolationist and the Democratic party has leaned that way for years. The Neocons managed to tire everyone of interventionist policies. American politics for the next decade is going to be all about how we run American, not what we do with/to others.

Personally, I think it’s stupidly short-sighted to ignore the rest of the world. Americans should be leading the world, both militarily and economically. (Our cultural domination is as complete as ever. :wink: ) The world needs to a superpower to provide some stability against rogue states. We can share that role with someone else, but we can’t shrug it off. And we need to lead the world by example with open trade–strong trade networks make everyone better off.

You will be unsurprised to learn that it smells like completely horseshit to me. When were American politics more calm or reasonable? Has America been declining for it’s entire history? Political turmoil and rantage have been MUCH higher in the past. Look at the 60’s for gods sake! Were we a declining power then too? And why would American’s CARE what our position is on the world stage? We are pretty much internally focused. It’s silly to think that our politics today are angry or loud because of some perception that we are declining (and I don’t even know how valid the PERCEPTION is, from American’s perspectives). We’re angry and loud because we’ve ALWAYS been angry and loud.

Not that I’m buying that the US is on the downhill slope either. That other countries are on the rise doesn’t equate to the US is going down…that’s the thinking of the zero sum crowd, that if one country rises another must fall to make room. Horseshit. China can rise (if it gets past it’s own myriad problems and issues) and America can still be a world power. Europe can rise (again, if they get past their own issues) and America can still be an economic and military power.

To me, this is similar to stuff I remember hearing before Japan took the long drop, about how they were going to take over and the US was on the decline, blah blah blah. The faces have changed, but the US is still THE economic and military power on earth. Even if we are eventually superseded, that will only mean we are number 2 (or maybe just number 1.5), not that we are done for.


I don’t believe this is correct, for the most part. For one thing, I dispute the overarching thesis that the United States is in significant decline. It is true that emerging powers - especially China - have powerful economies and (regionally) powerful militaries, and can rival us in some regards. But this is nothing new - recall that we spent the Cold War locked in a struggle with a rival superpower that came far closer to economic and military parity with the US than China is likely to achieve in the foreseeable future. Even in the midst of a serious recession, the American standard of living remains fairly high, and will likely continue to be fairly high. China is unlikely to match us in this regard in the foreseeable future - at least, outside the coastal cities. And as for military strength - there’s no one even remotely close. The US, by virtue of its naval strength and worldwide system of military bases, can project power on a truly global scale - no one else can do that on any kind of sustained basis.

That being said, one thing we are beginning to learn is that military power doesn’t confer as great a benefit in assympetric warfare as we might wish. We’re constrained (and properly so) by powerful scruples that are not shared by our enemies. We can’t (and shouldn’t) engage in the extraordinarily bloody tactics that might crush the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly. For example, the Russians got a lot of mileage out of dropping fuel-air explosives on Grozny - we won’t do that. And because we won’t, we need to accomplish our goals through the hard work of nation-building. But that doesn’t mean we’re in decline - it means, if anything, that the efficacy of warfare as a policy instrument is in decline, to the extent that it is constrained by our scruples.

Of course, the narrative of America-in-decline may have some real force in our domestic politics whether or not it is true. But I think that gives too credit to our far-right-wingers. The areas that really get them going - bizarre conspiracy theories, homophobia, hatred of immigrants and pro-choice-women and Muslims and Ford knows who else - are too far disconnected from the reality of American life to owe much to that.

The problem is likelier just that, with modern communication tools, it’s easier for nuts to find other nuts. Blogs, evites, meetup, and so on - where once our wretched bigots were safely contained within the ghettoes of their own blighted minds, they now can reach out to their fellows. And they do. It’s not that we’ve got more angry nutjobs - it’s just that, instead of ranting from barstools, they rant online. And once they start doing that, it’s easier to plan mass rants at the National Mall or in a parade or what have you.

The split is not so much left-right as insider-outsider, with those dependent on or supportive of government intervention set against those who resent it. This explains why well-connected corporations like Goldman Sachs can somehow be on the same cultural side as college professors, the SEIU, and the AMA. The fact that the disagreement is expressed in left-right terms is partly due to the Democrats being in power. Under a Republican administration, it’s unlikely that the tea party movement would be left-wing (too many left-wingers, rich and poor, depend on government to actively oppose it), but it might be a bit more like the Ross Perot movement; largely bipartisan but still dismissed by Those In The Know as crazies.

This article is a must-read for why some folks are “angry” about politics (the adjective, by the way, always seems like a way to delegitimize the opposition rather than engage its points. There are folks on both sides who need anger management lessons.)

What pisses me off is not that China is the emerging economic power, but that we made them that way. They did not invent a better mousetrap. They did not figure out how to manufacture things better. They were just willing to allow us to pollute like crazy and take advantage of their workers in pay and working conditions. For the love of short term profits and the bonuses that follow, the corporations were willing to transfer Americas jobs and intellectual properties to a Communist country . They felt no allegiance to America where they got wealthy. They just wanted to make more no matter what damage it did to us.
China does not allow us to have free trade. They tax our products to keep their own cheaper. We are not allowed to do that. The agreements that our industrial giants pushed through wrote them that way.
We are not able to become the arsenal of Democracy anymore. If we had a war we could not build what we need. Most of our plants are leveled or mothballed. We outsource nearly everything. It is sad how corporate , political and financial greed has left us exposed and vulnerable.
China did not have super fast computers a couple decades ago. if you sold a computer there you could be in serious trouble. Now, in order for them to build our products our technology has been exported to them. In the end, we will fall behind. It won’t be the American workers fault though.

Power, unlike economics, strikes me as something that is closer to a zero sum game. I don’t see how you could define power outside of a relative comparison, and then the relative increase in power of other countries does imply a relative decrease of American power. An overwhelmingly powerful United States gets to call the shots in the world. An ascending China or India has enough clout to express a different opinion and have it stick - even if America is overall more powerful the diminishing difference is going to mean often it is in its best interest to go along with what many in the rest of the world wants - pick your battles and all that.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing - and I certainly agree that when it comes to economics this is not a zero sum game. Britain saw its power diminished drastically as the Empire collapsed, but remains a perfectly respectable first world place to live. I see future declines in American power in a similar light - if the rest of the world succeeds in growing their economies they will become relatively more powerful compared to the United States. Personally, I think America will benefit from this - I think free and balanced trade benefits everyone, and that the world would be a lot more stable as a set of prosperous countries powerful enough to look out for their own interests.

“Beginning”?! Jeez, why didn’t we learn that from Vietnam more than 30 years ago?!

That is a large part of Abramsky’s thesis. See also the NPR story linked in the OP:

I think even the tea partiers are frustrated by the economy and anxious about their futures. They may not come right out and admit that, but they’ve voiced their support of government spending programs that benefit them.

In fact, I’m coming around to the view that their opposition to stimulus spending is less motivated by a concern for America’s long-term fiscal health, and more a function of an unwillingness to see more of the nation’s wealth end up in the pockets of a politically-connected elite.

I think what’s changed is not American political anger but rather the communications channels for expressing it. Pre-internet, political media was dominated by a few TV and major newspaper/magazine outlets that constrained public political discourse within relatively narrow bounds, arguably center-left domestically and anti-communist internationalist overseas (until Vietnam). Now, the Internet allows much greater participation in public dialogue from the right and the farther left, and the increased cacophony comes across as anger.

Substitute “politically powerless minorities” for “politically-connected elite” and you’re spot on.

Professional pundits love to worry about the dangers of American political discourse , and the imminent destruction of society.
But very few average American citizens seem to be concerned enough to start the revolution.After all to destroy society, you have to , well , stop talking, and actually DO something. But most Americans don’t even care enough to bother to vote in a presidential election, and virtually nobody votes in the off-year elections.

So, while the academics love to publish warnings about the dangers of political polarization, they never seem to notice that Americans are the least politically polarized society in the Western world.
Compare America with two countries who are so vanilla and bland that they rarely appear on the world stage, or in the pundits’ articles: Canada and Belgium.
Both of those countries are so polarized that they have made very serious attempts to cut themselves in half, with each half using a different language.

In America, I doubt if you’ll see a split into two countries.
(Even if the dreaded tea-party comes to power , after, ya know, winning an election in a free,stable democracy)

Some people just have a need to find bogymen where they don’t exist.
Right wingers do this with the 2nd Ammendment. *
Liberals do this with the First Ammendment.**

.*example 1: Any minor new regulation about assault rifles is the end of our freedoms.
**example 2:Remember how the Pariot Act was going to be the end of our freedoms?
As for the OP’s question about the decline of America’s power—I don’t think people are so upset about the world-wide issues…they are more worried about their personal issues.
It’s becoming clear that the average American’s standard of living will continue to drop, and his future is very, very insecure. Jobs can disappear overnight, and people who used to feel safe,-- whether bankers or factory workers-- now know that they might be evicted from their home tomorrow.
When you have no confidence in your personal life, it is much more scary than any abstract issues about the loss of confidence in America’s power on the world stage.

No. Abramsky’s theory (and that stuff athelas quoted) is just speculation, and largely silly speculation, at that. Hell, Americans were a lot angrier from 1960 to 1980, and we weren’t the sole dominant player then, either.

I think politics has always been devisive. It’s just that now we get to see more of it. Go back thirty years and how much time did you spend thinking about what was happening in Washington? You read the newspaper over breakfast and watched the evening news. Maybe you read Time once a week. Nowadays you hear about politics twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

I believe that the shift towards anger (and things have been much worse in the past) is due to a couple things and has nothing to do with America actually declining in the world. As far as I can tell, with the exception of China (and there are a whole lot of caveats about China) the rest of the world is in decline compared to the U.S. though it seems we are racing to catch up.

The overspending by government in Europe has caused a huge problem for the whole area. The fact that a couple countries (Hey, Greece, I am talking about you) in Europe are heading for a huge fall that is going to affect the whole region. They bailed out Greece but I believe that the Greeks are too tied up by entitlements to fix the underlying problem, spending more than they have. That goes for more than just Greece. While it looks like the problem has mellowed for the time being, I expect it to come roaring back in the not too distant future. The measures taken so far seem to be easing the crisis but as far as I can tell have done nothing about the underlying problems.

I believe that a large amount of the anger is based on some political and social issues. First, due to the nature of the internet and cable news shows, it is much easier for people to follow those that they agree with and ignore other sources of information. That goes both ways, right and left. Instead of having discussions with both sides it seems that a whole heck of a lot of people only listen to those they agree with and demonize the opposition. They re-enforce the negatives about the other side. The other side become evil, not people who just have a different point of view about issues. Heck, I see that on the dope. There have been some huge pile ons of conservative posters here that are just amazingly silly. (Note, that is not to say that there aren’t some conservative idiots on this board. There are, however, there are also some smart ones who get nailed because they are conservative, not because of their arguments). I used to watch MSNBC for news and commentary. I stopped because it became the ‘Bush Is Evil. Conservatives Are Evil And It Is All Their Fault’ channel sometime in the past couple years. I don’t watch Fox because they are the same way in regards to liberals.

The second reason I think the anger is there is that some of the changes that the present congress and Obama want to put through are rather large changes. The whole health care thing is a big step. That can scare people, and scared people often get angry. I also think that tied into this is the debt problem that every politician (R&D) has been ignoring for a long time. While working on the health care issue, many people were saying things like "We are the only western country to not have socialized medicine’. What those people didn’t seem to realize is that for a lot of people the answer to that response is ‘Yeah, and those countries are all going to shit due to debt.’. The debt is a big issue for a lot of people. Both sides have done a horrid job at reducing it. People see that the future is looking bleak due to debt yet the politicians on both side keep spending like mad. Throw in the last downturn and the bailouts and it gets ugly fast. Another thing that seems to bother people is the bailouts which seem to go only to the irresponsible. The lenders and borrowers played a big game and caused a huge problem only to be bailed out. The people paying for that bailout don’t like it because, while everyone else was running around spending like mad, they were responsible with their money. Not all of them, but a lot. They did the right thing and feel punished for doing it. Their stocks got hammered and the economy tanked due to those who are now getting help from the government.

And last, throw in a fundamental disagreement about the role of government and it can get really ugly. Those who oppose, for example, UHC or government run health programs are called evil and uncaring when the fact is that for a lot of people the issue is they do not believe it is going to work as designed. They believe it is going to make things worse, yet their concerns have been shrugged off as complaints from selfish, evil people.


That’s a good point, but I’d nitpick it to say “you can hear about politics 24 hours day”. Many people choose not to. And while there’s a lot of polarization in the political arena, the bigger division is between those who are engaged politically and those who are not.

Pretty much everything bad in the US probably stems from the incredibly huge income gaps. Lack of social mobility, lack of social cohesion, lack of trust, corruption, crime, violence, poor health…

Interestingly, the US society has also managed to paint the cure as evil. The phrase “redistribution of wealth” is a dirty phrase. Which is weird. How can you have democracy or politics or an economy without it? I dunno. But as long as you keep claiming that the cure is in fact poison, you’re not going to get any better.

How does redistribution of wealth improve social mobility? To have social mobility, there must be social differences–which is what redistribution tries to eliminate.

And what does redistribution of wealth have to do with democracy? Democracy means respecting the wishes of the people. If the people don’t want redistribution then it is undemocratic to foist it onto the people.

You can not not redistribute wealth.