Mar 29th 2020

America’s Ideological Infection 

by Christopher R. Hill

 Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is Chief Adviser to the Chancellor for Global Engagement and Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost: A Diplomat at Work. 

 

NEW YORK – Americans may have a well-known love affair with their cars, but it was the South Koreans who first introduced drive-through testing for COVID-19 – a simple measure that drastically minimizes the risk of infection. Americans also have a well-known preference for straight talk, bluntness, and clarity of thought. And yet, it is the South Koreans who have met the coronavirus pandemic head on.

To be sure, South Korea is one of the world’s most advanced countries (though many Koreans would modestly dismiss such accolades). But so, too, is the United States. Why, then, has the US lagged so far behind in its response to the pandemic?

The short answer is that the US has a president who is fundamentally unfit for the job, both intellectually and temperamentally. The majority of Americans already reached this conclusion years ago. If current trends in public opinion continue, Donald Trump is set to lose the election this November, to be replaced by his polar opposite: the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

If that happens, many Americans will celebrate their country’s return to dignity and decency. As Biden so often puts it, “character is on the ballot.” But Trump’s departure would not necessarily cure America’s political malaise. The country is plagued by a pervasive ideological tribalism, and Trump himself is merely a prominent carrier of this disease. As any casual observer of US politics knows, the country is deeply divided by “negative partisanship,” with both parties motivated more by their opposition to the other than by advocacy for their own ideas.

But one of these camps, Trump’s Republican Party, has combined this adversarial approach with a deep suspicion of expertise and of governance generally. And while such anti-establishment attitudes predate Trump, he has eagerly stoked them further for his own political gain. His disturbing appearance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and his press conferences on March 13 and March 14 all demonstrated that the weight of his concern has been on the stock market rather than on people’s health.

As for the administration’s actual response to the crisis, Trump has primarily pushed the theme of “public-private partnership,” relying on US companies to pledge voluntary support. Yet, apart from an offer by Walmart’s CEO to make available his stores’ half-empty parking lots for drive-through testing, the private sector’s commitments have fallen far short of what is needed.

As always with Trump, these corporate pledges were turned into political theater. At a White House press conference, Trump introduced each executive by offering a promotional blurb about their company, and each executive dutifully approached the microphone to offer vague promises of support. This particular episode had all the hallmarks of a campaign fundraising event. But it also clearly had been choreographed to remind Americans that the backbone of the economy is business, not government-employed public-health officials.

Trump wants the country – and the rest of the world – to trust his ability to marshal the private sector. Yet even though supplies of basic hospital equipment are already running out, he has refused to order US companies to produce them, as he is authorized to do under the 1950 Defense Production Act.

As if it wasn’t obvious previously during his administration, Trump is in over his head. He plans for only one thing: assigning blame. For example, he continues to refer to the contagion as the “Chinese virus,” even though “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” have already become the universal parlance around the world. For weeks, while much of the world got to work fighting the pandemic, Trump saw it as an opportunity to reinforce his anti-immigration policies, even claiming – absurdly – that his infamous wall on the Mexican border would keep the virus out.

One of America’s longest-running ideological disputes concerns how to ensure universal health care. Those who fear the specter of “socialism” regularly attack, denigrate, and have ultimately thwarted the Obama administration’s attempt to mandate health insurance for all.

Similarly, Trump and congressional Republicans routinely attack public education on ideological grounds. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and others in the administration have taken to calling public schools “government schools,” and want to expand the scope of so-called charter schools. While these efforts are justified in the name of “school choice,” the ultimate motivation is ideological: namely, to weaken and ultimately abolish the 250-year-old institution of free – and ultimately universal and mandatory – public education.

But this is not to suggest that Trump’s ideological commitments lead to consistency. On the contrary, the ideological right resisted Democrats’ efforts to pursue massive fiscal stimulus during the Great Recession. Now, Trump and his embattled administration are returning to the same playbook to devise a stimulus program for the current crisis.

Character is indeed on the ballot. But so is the prospect of restoring more practical, non-ideological approaches to solving problems. In November, Americans will have a chance to embrace governance that is guided by values and knowledge. Both are among the first things shunted aside when ideology takes center stage. In addition to confronting the coronavirus, America must address this pre-existing condition.


Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is Chief Adviser to the Chancellor for Global Engagement and Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost: A Diplomat at Work. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
www.project-syndicate.o

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "