The United States has long enjoyed the exorbitant privilege of letting its domestic cultural psychodramas determine the shape of its politics. Foreign policy has projected the fantasies of American elites onto the rest of the world, sometimes violently; at home, politics has transformed into an entertaining pageant of frivolity.
These good times may be coming to an end. Faced with a real rival like China, Americans will have to make some tough choices if their country is to maintain its pre-eminence. They will have to decide what they value, and for what values they want their institutions to be optimised.
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They have four options for deciding how to share power in their country, all in relative competition with each other: loyalty, equity, legitimacy, and ability. How these values are weighted can have serious consequences, as the experience of other societies shows.
During his first decade of rule, the Turkish president, Tayyip Erdogan, relied on competent technocrats, who helped engineer a period of economic growth not seen in decades. Things have changed a lot since those heady days. Turkey’s ruling party has recently ditched its emphasis on ability, prioritising fidelity to Turkish nationalist Islamism and personal loyalty to Erdogan.
Erdogan and those connected to him have come out fine in this bargain, but Turkey has suffered tremendously. The Turkish Lira is in total collapse, continuing a long slide that hasn’t been helped by Erdogan’s recent decision to appoint as finance minister an associate of his son-in-law, a loyal supporter of the ruling party who lacks an educational background in economics. While Erdogan has ceased to deliver economically, he has waged the culture war with a vengeance, turning historic churches into mosques and polarising the public sphere in a manner aimed at distracting conversation from the increasing difficulty of everyday life.
This focus on loyalty and ideology as the most important factors in appointments to powerful positions is common in systems experiencing decline. One can also see it in the United States today, both from the Right and Left.
Americans received a brief taste of what a country optimised for loyalty to its leader might look like during the Trump presidency. Despite the panicked rhetoric of his opponents, Trump did not, indeed, could not, govern the United States as a dictator. He did, however, make an obvious point of basing his political appointments on factors such as family ties and sycophancy, rather than a hard-nosed appreciation of who would be best at running U.S. institutions. His appointment of unqualified sons and son-in-laws to powerful offices gave a taste of what a Right-wing monarchy might look like if it grew on American soil.
The Left, by contrast, is advocating for a system that optimises for ideology. The ideology in question could be called “equity,” and its most influential proponent is the anti-racist author Ibram X Kendi. To remedy the long history of racially-based exclusion in America, Kendi advocates staffing U.S. institutions using reverse discrimination. “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination,” as Kendi puts it, characterising racial disparities in institutions as ipso facto proof of racism and calling for instituting a demographic rebalancing of power in American society.
Kendi’s proposal for a regime of sectarian power-sharing makes sense on its own terms as a response to centuries of racist exclusion that deeply harmed African-Americans. But there is also a certain myopia here. It rests on the assumption that time is unlimited and that there are no peer competitors beyond our borders waiting to eat America’s lunch as it prioritises ideologically correcting the sins of the past for a generation or two. It’s not even clear if giving more positions to African-Americans or other minorities would satisfy these demands, unless the people being appointed also align politically with the rest of the progressive project.
Kendi’s view is also based on a decidedly optimistic view of human nature, in which white Americans will accept overt discrimination on moral grounds over the long-term even if it proves adverse to their real-world interests. The heightening of racial consciousness and doling out of power on those grounds seldom looks good in other countries. The end result of proposals such as Kendi’s seems less likely to look like the Civil Rights Movement, which championed a religiously-influenced, colourblind view of society against racial tribalism, and more like Lebanon, where various sectarian groups fight for their share of the system while society as a whole grinds towards collapse.
What Kendi and Trump have in common is a desire to see power allocated in society on some basis other than ability. This is usually a sign of decadence setting in. The Soviet Union experienced a similar sclerosis after going through waves of purges focused on getting rid of politically inconvenient individuals. The Islamic Republic of Iran today forces many of its brightest minds out of power, or out of the country entirely, for being insufficiently zealous about the country’s post-revolutionary ideology or loyal to its ruling clerics. An expert on water affairs described to me how he was forced to flee Iran after being accused of purposely engineering droughts by political rivals suspicious of his lack of Islamist zeal. Water shortages today are ravaging major Iranian cities while experts like him work at universities abroad.
The United States is not immune to similarly perverse outcomes.
An unsettling truth is that the American democratic system no longer functions as a reliable mechanism for elevating the most competent people to political responsibility. The legitimate, democratic election of a wildly inexperienced and unfit candidate such as Donald Trump, partisan considerations aside, raised uncomfortable questions about whether the their system for choosing leaders by popular acclaim is indeed better for society than the Chinese Communist Party’s consensus-based appointments of capable technocrats. Given the American veneration of their own country’s institutions, it is unlikely that an explicitly anti-democratic tendency is going to take hold anytime soon. But a prolonged failure of democracy to raise the country’s best and brightest to positions of power underlines the shortcomings in prioritising democratic legitimacy as the highest value, even if the trade-off is deemed worthwhile.
What if we did optimise for ability above all else? The people who would stand to benefit the most in the short-term are Asians and other immigrants, who tend to excel academically in U.S. schools and have ironically been among the most harmed by programs seeking to redress historic imbalances between black and white Americans. An America geared for results above all else might actually look less white in the halls of power, particularly if forms of elite affirmative action like legacy enrolment at Ivy League schools were done away with. The problem that arises in a diverse society, however, is the issue of trust. If different groups perceive themselves primarily as racial or ethnic categories rather than as Americans sharing one destiny, they will care less about whether their national leaders are capable than about whether they look like them.
A credible external rival might help smooth over the differences between people at home in the service of a higher calling. During the mid-20th century, faced with enemies such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the U.S. government was able to carry out incredible achievements like the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program. Its accomplishments not only meant real improvements in how Americans lived but also served as advertisements for the success of the American system. The government was justly shamed at the time for its shortcomings in fairness and egalitarianism. But that shaming often took place on the grounds that institutionalised prejudice was excluding competent people from the system, particularly African-Americans and members of religious minorities. No one at the time would have argued that society should accept less competence while trying to fight World War II or win the space race against the Soviet Union. It would make as little sense to argue that ability should be demoted in importance as the U.S. prepares to compete with Chinese Communism.
If the United States is to succeed in the 21st century, and prove that a multiracial, multicultural liberal democracy is capable of delivering a better standard of life than China’s authoritarian one-party state, Americans will need to find a reasonable balance between their desires for equity, political loyalty, and ability. There can be measures other than abolishing testing at top schools to redress historic inequalities, including expanding trade school education as a leg out of the working class and emphasising the social prestige of such jobs. The stakes in the culture wars, though, will have to be reduced to something less than absolute, which is where they are trending at present. People who fall short of constantly shifting ideological standards, but who, crucially, know how to build things, cannot simply be shunned in favour of those who are practically incapable but who know how to chant ideological mantras and root out heretics.
The long period of fantasising and navel gazing enabled by America’s time as the world’s sole superpower is coming to an end, and for that we may have China to thank. George Orwell articulated well how jarring the move from fantasy back to reality can be for a nation faced with an external threat. His words suit Americans in the present day well. “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right,” he wrote. “Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”