BY J.J. MESSNER AND CHARLES FIERTZ
More than any previous year, the 2018 Fragile States Index (FSI) has demonstrated that rich and developed countries can be just as prone as any other to the effects of fragility and instability – and the United States is certainly no exception. A combination of political and social turmoil, coupled with severe natural disasters, gave cause for a deeply challenging year in the United States. All this despite a strong economy, underpinned by a robust stock market and record-low unemployment, demonstrating clearly that a country’s economic performance cannot be taken as a sole indicator of success.
As a result of these recent challenges, the United States is the fourth most-worsened country on the 2018 FSI. But even more worryingly, this appears not to be a one-off aberration — not only was the United States among the 15 most-worsened countries in last year’s FSI, but it is also among the 15 most-worsened countries overall of the past five years. The country has also demonstrated severe long-term worsening trends on specific key indicators. For example, the United States is the most-worsened country in the world for the past five years for the group of three Cohesion Indicators, which includes the Security Apparatus, Factionalized Elites, and Group Grievance Indicators (and is the second-most worsened over the same period specifically for that latter Indicator). In terms of rate-of-change, this puts the United States in the same company as some countries in conflict, and among others (such as Poland and Turkey) that are experiencing increased illiberalism or authoritarianism. As the self-styled “land of the free”, for all Americans this should be the stuff of nightmares.
But how did America get here? With little doubt, 2017 saw an escalation of this trend toward political and social instability. Politically-charged investigations delved into Russian intervention in the country’s democratic process, while Washington was rocked by a series of political scandals and investigations into alleged corruption, criminality, and wrongdoing at the highest levels of government. Meanwhile, Washington (and across the country in cities both large and small) was the scene of nearly-unprecedented mass marches and protests over issues ranging from immigration policy to women’s rights, movements that took on greater energy than ever before.
This polarization, however, is neither unique nor unprecedented in the recent history of the country. Rather, it represents the continuation of a trend that has existed for decades. The causes for this polarization are both numerous and contentious, with little consensus as to which causes are most important, or even valid.
However, there are a number of potential contributing causes to this increasing polarization that can be identified. For example, greater rigidity in adherence to party doctrine have undermined cooperation and compromise in government, exacerbated by open primaries that encourage the selection of more radical, doctrinal, dogmatic, and “uncooperative” candidates on both sides of politics at the expense of constructive centrists. This has been further permitted by widespread gerrymandering – whereby legislators essentially choose their voters – sharply reducing the competitiveness of politics, thereby disincentivizing compromise, and reducing accountability to voters. Further, the increasing cost of elections, coupled with landmark decisions such as Citizens United, have contributed to the influence of special interests in politics. More broadly, the increasing politicization of institutions such as the judiciary and law enforcement, as well as attacks on (and dismantling of) nonpartisan governmental institutions have also eroded faith and trust in government. To a degree, the polarization has reflected growing social inequality gaps, such as in wealth and access to healthcare and education. But perhaps one of the most notable developments in the recent polarization of the country is the rise of cable news, social media, and broader partisan media environments, which have fueled a near-tribalism in politics and have helped to solidify previously more fluid political allegiances, particularly by stirring up racial or ethnic divisions or using wedge issues such as immigration.
Undoubtedly, this list includes consequences of polarization as well as causes, and many are likely some combination of both. Some are superficially contradictory. Disentangling how and why this increased polarization has arisen will likely fascinate scholars for a long time to come, but for now, the United States is faced with a situation in which public opinion is more divided along partisan lines than along race, religion, age, gender, or educational background, according to a report from the Pew Research Center released in late 2017. Attempting to determine when the relatively unpolarized political order dating back to the Great Depression and World War II began to decay is fraught with uncertainty and disagreement. The bottom line according to the FSI trend data is that the intense polarization currently felt by many Americans is both very real and increasing in intensity, with potentially serious future consequences for American society if that trend is not reversed.
Certainly, this trend should be viewed with deep concern – in particular the United States’ worrying long-term declining trend even more so than simply the year-on-year worsening. But though concern is called for, hyperbole is not. In 2017, Professor Peter Temin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made headlines by warning that the United States was “regressing to have the economic and political structure of a developing nation.” There is certainly truth to the critical observations that America’s infrastructure is crumbling and that the inequality gap in the United States is seriously worsening, risking potential social conflict in the future. However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of America’s demise have been exaggerated. Based on the findings of the FSI, there is no suggestion whatsoever that the United States is at risk of becoming a fragile state anytime soon. The reality is that the United States is one of the most resilient nations on Earth and is blessed with relatively strong institutions – indeed, there exists no country with more capacity than the United States. Just as with our analysis of South Africa in 2017, countries with significant resilience and strong institutions demonstrate enormous absorptive capacity to handle challenges and shocks – but that should not let any of us be complacent, either.
As the United States heads into the 2018 Congressional mid-term elections, the risk is high that social and political divisions will continue to deepen, aided and abetted by divisive rhetoric by political leaders, political tribalism reinforced by social media echo chambers, and partisan media coverage. And, as our data has demonstrated, this worsening trend is not a recent development and has instead been years, if not decades, in the making meaning that it will take time and a serious commitment by all sides of politics to right this ship. While the end is definitely not nigh for the United States, these findings should nevertheless be heeded as a warning to political leaders and social influencers that fueling division and tribalism for short-term political gain is unsustainable and potentially catastrophic in the long-term.
1. Pew Research Center, 2017. ”The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider” URL at: http://www.people-press.org/2017/10/05/the-partisan-divide-on-political-values-grows-even-wider/
2. Chloe Farland, 2017. US has regressed to developing nation status, MIT economist warns. The Independent, 21 April. URL at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-developing-nation-regressing-economy-poverty-donald-trump-mit-economist-peter-temin-a7694726.html