America Has An Existential Credibility Problem

The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, exacerbating a national firestorm and deepening what I think it’s fair to call an existential societal rift.

Thanks to an unprecedented leak, the Court’s decision to do away with the right to abortion came as no surprise, but it nevertheless came as a shock. Last month, it wasn’t official, even if it was a foregone conclusion. Now, it’s real.

I’ll leave it to lawyers, legal scholars and SCOTUS reporters to deliver the kind of exhaustive coverage I couldn’t possibly hope to replicate, but what I do want to mention, however briefly, is the extent to which the Roe decision, and the dubious circumstances under which it was delivered, served to further undermine faith in America’s institutions at a time when public trust in government was already severely lacking.

In this discussion, it’s easy to lose perspective in the pursuit of it. The further one goes back in recent American history, the more examples there are of disastrous policy missteps and egregious breaches of the public trust by officials, elected, appointed and otherwise. Relatedly, framing the discussion by reference to neoliberalism (or any other –ism for that matter) or contextualizing it via the unintended consequences of globalization, risks blundering into the obtuse.

With that in mind, let’s not confuse the slow, cyclical decline of American empire and all its associated secular trends, -isms and structural explanations, with the fast-motion train wreck that began a half-dozen years ago.

In just six years, the threads that bound the polity together went from frayed to totally unraveled. Every last vestige of civic mindedness and community was overwhelmed and supplanted by identity politics, as an acrid, suffocating cloud of vitriol swept across the country, permeating every facet of daily life thanks to social media and a 24-hour propagandized news cycle. Facts became a relic. Efforts to reestablish the boundaries between reality and fiction failed.

From the consequential to the trivial, every issue is contextualized by the story of one man’s four-year foray into politics. Because that foray was itself couched almost exclusively in caustic identity politics, so too is the national discussion, where “discussion” is a polite euphemism for a decidedly impolite, wholly discordant, symphony of meme-fueled derision.

It’s against this backdrop that the House of Representatives includes lawmakers who openly espouse the wildest of conspiracy theories and traffic inarticulately in the basest of tactics as part of a cynical attempt to pander to the most vulnerable voters, for whom demagoguery is pure, unadulterated poison. In the Senate, perpetuating gridlock is a badge of honor, especially when it’s done at the behest of special interests. Senators have two overriding concerns: Staying in the Senate and preventing the opposing party from passing legislation. In both chambers can be found lawmakers who vocally supported an unprecedented plot to override the democratic process.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is now engaged in an overt effort to foist upon the public a vision of society and an interpretation of the country’s founding document that the majority of citizens simply don’t want. It’s not necessary to take sides. The year is 2022, not 1922 and certainly not 1822. Forgetting the individual cases, it’s not obvious that a modern society is one in which a small panel of robed judges, two of whom could easily be mistaken for clerics by someone who knew nothing about the Court other than the individual justices’s personal beliefs, has the final word on anything. Even less obvious is the idea that a modern society is one in which a small panel of robed judges rules from on high by reference to a 200-year-old, semi-religious document written in part by slaveowners who, in another document, unironically asserted the “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal. For many, the setup belongs in antiquity and to the extent the Court’s mystique was the only thing left of its legitimacy, the leak of the Roe decision stripped that away too. It certainly doesn’t help that one justice’s spouse was in contact with parties to an armed insurrection which, had it succeeded, would’ve been tantamount to ripping up the very document to which the Court’s originalists assert cleric-like allegiance.

At the Fed, the technocrats responsible for preserving the purchasing power of the nation’s currency are in damage control mode after presiding over a multi-trillion dollar expansion of what, to an impartial observer, would appear as an absurd circular funding scheme, wherein the central bank buys bonds issued by the Treasury through a network of intermediaries. Regular people didn’t trouble themselves with the mechanics until it became apparent that conjuring new money to buy bonds from ourselves might’ve contributed to the highest domestic inflation in modern history. That state of affairs, voters were assured, would prove “transitory.” But as it turns out, “transitory” means something different to the technocrats than it does to… well, to everyone else in the world, for lack of a more diplomatic way to put it. According to the dictionary, “transitory” usually means “of brief duration,” or “tending to pass away.” Instead of passing away, inflation stuck around and in fact kept rising, calling into question not just the Fed’s commitment to controlling it, but in fact their capacity to do so.

Finally, at the White House, an administration that’s self-evidently more competent than the objectively dysfunctional, avowedly unpredictable and unapologetically abrasive regime that preceded it, has somehow managed to squander hundreds of years of collective experience in government and policymaking on the way to what (and readers will forgive my candor) has so far been an innocently ineffectual, hapless first term. For most voters, the distinction between innocently ineffectual and purposefully ineffectual is irrelevant.

The bottom line: Every critical pillar of the US government, from the legislature to the high court to the executive to the people in charge of the money, is grappling with an existential credibility crisis. That state of affairs risks becoming self-fulfilling. A disaffected, divided public will be inclined to view every incremental misstep as additional evidence of ineptitude. And because the country is no longer capable of conceptualizing of itself as a body politic, united in a common purpose, blame for that perceived ineptitude will be apportioned according to the very same identity politics that left the public so riven in the first place.

Personally, I can’t take it seriously anymore. As I told a friend on Friday, after the Roe decision was handed down, this has descended into something like total farce. It’s not just the old cliché about the system being “broken.” And it’s not about the slow decline of empire. It’s about a real-time, ongoing dissolution of society amid a spiraling and, quite possibly, irreversible, crisis of confidence in the institutions that ordered it over what, in the historical context, was a very short lifespan as empires go.

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26 thoughts on “America Has An Existential Credibility Problem

  1. Bravo H ! One of your best. I just hope this SCOTUS proves to be transitory, especially if it is defined as “tending to pass away.” We may not be able to save ourselves at this point, but maybe age, accidents and disease can at least give us an unexpected hand before it goes full kangaroo.

  2. But what is a viable alternative if the American empire is firmly in decline?
    Europe? They have their problems as well like keeping the heat/lights on.On

    I know !

    As a resident Canuck, you would be most welcome up here in Canada!
    Climate change has dulled our harsh Canadian winter, we have oil and fresh water and we can feed ourselves.
    But yes taxes are high but we DO have public health care!

  3. So an American empire firmly in decline. What to do?
    Europe, Asia….possible destinations? Welll… distant and they have some problems as well.
    As a Canuck, I am suggesting Canada !
    Climate change has made our winters quite a bit milder, we have oil AND a lot of fresh water and we can feed ourselves.
    Yes we do have high taxes but it pays for health care for all, though you may have to wait a while!

    1. I’ve lived and paid taxes in Canada and never found the taxes there particularly high. Our dual income was high middle class at the time. I could see it being draconian if you’re making 500K+ and I wasn’t a homeowner (so couldn’t tell you squat about property taxes), but I felt I was taxed more in California and New York.

      1. Interesting, I really did believe taxes in the Canada were much higher for higher income earners.
        In our case, taxable income over 150K here (Quebec) puts you in a high tax bracket (about 53% or so ). And we have a 15% sales tax that gets added to all services and most goods (except food, rent).

      2. As a French resident from San Francisco, I find the cost of living here to to be much less than in the US. In addition, one actually gets something for their taxes. Healthcare is heavily subsidized and public school education is excellent and free.

  4. As another Canadian, I have to disagree with JGJ. We Canadians have enjoyed being the most privileged vassals of the American empire. If it implodes we will be drawn into the maelstrom with, at best, a small delay. Focussing only on today’s decision, it has re-energized our own extremists who wish for the same end to R. v. Morgentaler. Bitcoin is only a smokescreen for Poliviere.
    While there are there are many days I wish I could stop taking all of this seriously there are 330 million Americans and 35 million Canadians who will have to live with the result, including my children and grandchildren.

    1. Yes Frank, we are the mouse beside the elephant ! And they are our biggest trading partner and so have indeed played a role in our enrichment. We are not alone in feeling the influence of the US.

      But also let’s be clear, our politics are still far from what the US is dealing with.
      We have not yet (though we may) succumbed to the binary black/white (and many times extreme ) positions that Americans take on many issues that prevents meaningful discord and compromise.
      We have gun control laws and streets and schools that are (for the most part) safe.
      We have (almost/somewhat) universal health care, a social safety net and support women requesting abortions.
      But like all countries, issues that we are grappling with.

      So I for one am glad my children and grand children are here, at least for now!

  5. Great post, H. Agreed, things are looking pretty bleak. The Dems continue with business as usual as the GOP tries to burn it all down.

    Biden should have went big with adding 6 judges to the supreme court.

    My millennial friends and I are aghast at the boomers who refuse to retire and move out of the way for some fresh leadership willing to take on actual transformative ideas.

    1. This boomer agrees with you. When the Democrats lose the house, Pelosi and Hoyer need to step down. Biden is also supposed to stand aside unless things pick up. We need some fresh ideas, approaches …..

      1. I’ll take someone, anyone who bring more than a slingshot to a gun fight.

        I actually like Biden, but if he wants to be remembered as someone other than Buchanan, he needs to get a bazooka out and start using it.

    2. Not to be a pain but, looking at polling data etc, Dems keep losing because of millennials and wokes. The American median voter is ‘moderate’ but still pretty conservative (small c).

      1. There’s no such thing as “wokes.” To say that’s an overused catch all would be to materially understate the case. Nobody even knows what that means anymore. If you recycle a plastic water bottle instead of throwing it into a pristine creek, that makes you “woke” now. In order to prove you aren’t “woke,” you have to drive to a nuclear waste plant, steal a barrel of toxic sludge and dump it into an estuary.

      2. With all due respect to you H, I rise in support of fredm421. According to Definitions from Oxford Languages the woke term means “alert to injustice in society, especially racism”. Those that throw trash in pristine creeks are foolish slobs and those that dump radioactive waste in an estuary are most likely entrepreneurs privatizing profits and socializing losses. Although both acts may seem unjust to a woke person, they should also be recognized as wrong by any sentient being. The problems referred to by you ( woke is a nonsense word ) and fredm421 arise from the right wing media’s weaponization by misrepresentation of millennial and woke issues. The only way to start fixing those problems is for the FCC to re-impose the fairness doctrine that it abolished in 1987 to clear the way for fake news.

  6. A bureaucrats job is to do everything possible to keep his/her job. “The right thing” is not part of that description.

  7. I agree with your points, H. We’re tripping along is so many ways. In truth, the surprises arising from disagreements and/or agreements in the working relationships between branches of the US Government have always provided surprises to our allies. But the impact is magnified in today’s crippled US Government. The slow diminution of the American polity and credibility began with the self-serving, us-against-them destructiveness of Newt Gingrich and the “Less Freedom Caucus” representatives. Then, earlier this century, the very existence of a black man in the White House made the hair stand on end for those same “Less Freedom Caucus” people.

    Over the years during the presidency of President Obama, the “Less Freedom Caucus” began to blatantly, verbally spew hatred. In doing so, they actually won prejudiced American hearts and minds. The Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, ironically, relished gaining the attention from “certain aspects” of the American electorate, many of whom had not have voted for years. They pushed on in the 2016 election and embraced a racist, self-serving autocrat. Trump was the result of this combination of people, attitudes, and circumstances. He was elected by the skin of his teeth. But he was a product of a deliberate shift by the Republican Party, who lacked imagination about how to win the affections of the broader electorate.

    It may well be a foreshadowing of the future that events like Roe v Wade and the entire Trump presidency are signs that our best days are behind us.
    What’s interesting to me is how the so-called “weak” democrats may not all be dominating communicators, nor do they have dynamic presence of a raging, self-serving autocrat. But they exhibit the strength of substantial, quiet conviction. At the same time, republicans cower behind Trump, who’s a has-been at this point, and he very well may find that the legal hazards during the coming months give him reason to consider living in Moscow and becoming a Russian citizen.

    Because gentle men and gentle women of the Democratic Party respected the honorable traditions of the Senate that called for the President to choose justices on the Supreme Court in a timely manner, whatever the vague wording is, Mitch McConnel, the majority leader in the Senate for the Republican Party (the same party that now cowers behind Trump) decided to appropriate valuable seats on the Supreme Court for political advantage. As a result, we now seem to need a law that prescribes the timing of Supreme Court nominations. What a nearsighted, demeaning state of affairs for our country!

    These so-called Republicans will sow the seeds of their deceit. None of us can tell the future. We may indeed become an autocracy. But the people of the United States will vote in November this year and in 2024. Recall the record volume of voters in 2020. Midterm elections tend to gain the attention of smaller proportions of American voters. I wonder to what extent that may change in the midterms this year. I have to speculate further that the volume of voters in 2024 will surpass the record of 85 million in 2020. There’s just too much on the line. The predominant question in the minds of the abundance of voters, whether democrat or republican, will be “Who are we?” Our very democracy today is even more at stake than it was in 2020.

    I’m certainly curious also to see how our justice system will be working during the balance of 2022. Might be some things happening that hold sway.

  8. H-Man, nice post. The Dobbs decision in overturning Roe did a tremendous disservice by, once again, polarizing the right from the left. In Congress there are no Pro-Choice Republicans and there are no Pro-Life Democrats which will be cemented in the electorate and further populate the divide between constituents on a host of other issues. When we have no common ground in this country, anarchy lurches in the shadows.

    The solution was not to eviscerate Roe but to respect the right of states to responsibly regulate abortions under the guidelines of Roe. This would be common ground and a win for both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. By not finding that common ground, we are left with sh*t storm.

  9. Hello, H – Looks like there are some issues with my post above. It did not recognize me when I posted. It’s calling me Anonymous. Mine is the long-winded among the anonymous posts above.

    I know there are some typos in there. And I’m a smart aleck. And it’s political. But I’d rather own it than be anonymous.

    Thanks for all you do, Walt. It’s fun to practice my craft here and not write about technology. Indeed, I do enjoy letting the voice speak.

  10. How long you phantom we have as a funcional nation before we descend into civil war or some form of violent internal conflict? Seems like an insane question to ask about the US, but I bet many are having similar thoughts, insane but less impossible than just a few months ago. Unlike a recession, civil war might not be inevitable, yet.

  11. Recent polls have disclosed that 95% of Republicans believe in God but only 30% of Democrats believe in God (primarily atheists). The country and politicians need to find a way to acknowledge and bridge this difference in beliefs.
    It probably won’t ever happen, but Jared Pollis would be a fantastic choice for the next Democratic party presidential candidate. Smart, socially liberal and financially responsible – combined with great communication and leadership skills.

    1. I actually wish those poll results were true, but the most recent Gallup poll in 2022 has about 70% of Democrats believing in God:

      “The groups with the largest declines [from 2013-2017 to 2022] are also the groups that are currently least likely to believe in God, including liberals (62%), young adults (68%) and Democrats (72%). Belief in God is highest among political conservatives (94%) and Republicans (92%), reflecting that religiosity is a major determinant of political divisions in the U.S.”

      The way to bridge this difference is to remove religion from politics and law. It isn’t the atheists and agnostics who insist on inserting their beliefs into law, it is the religious right.

  12. Thanks for another insightful post. This week the America I was born in pretty much disappeared. We have arrived at the Handmaid’s Tale. Women watch out. The men want to run your body and if they could, take back your right to vote.

    Two thoughts. Many years ago the Atlantic Monthly published a very scary story about a US where the only crime was to NOT own a gun. It seemed to be a future both scary and silly. Well, fast forward fifty years and here we are. Our own supreme court (now all small letters) has overtly urged citizens to get guns and carry them around openly to shoot people, whenever. Wow! I foolishly thought Wyatt Earp and his fellow marshals had put an end to that nonsense back in the 19th Century. Well it turns out that the 19th Century is where our leaders want to take us.

    Along with erasing our safety and letting the safety of our children be ignored, the court took away a major woman’s right, and according to Big Daddy Clarence, that’s just the beginning. What has happened this week is that the SCOTUS has formally changed from a judicial body to a combination legislative and Executive body that will now be unilaterally making all of our important laws as they see fit, with Clarence and Joseph as its co-rulers. The coup we thought we stopped on Jan 6 just happened while we weren’t watching. I don’t know about you folks, but I am thoroughly frightened.

    My father’s parent emigrated from Quebec more than a hundred years ago. I’d be tempted to go back to my roots but, those folks are looking to get rid of plastic. I do love their clothes. Great tailors up there.

  13. This whole thing became a farce for me the day republicans made Trump their candidate for President. I realized that half the population could listen to him talking and not realize he is a) not intelligent, b) has the maturity of a 13 years old, and c) isn’t really good at anything other than somehow energizing some people.
    And then I totally lost it as I have now seen democrats take over the liberal ideas and make them morals to distinguish good vs bad people. Combined with a mandatory vaccine wish, and a foly of mandating wearing masks for a mildly dangerous virus (all the covid mandates would have been warranted for me at about 7-12% death rate under 70 years old.
    So now I find myself grateful to republicans for having the same ideas as I on covid, but hate them for their ideas on race, religion, the environment. I also have lost all respect for the pro-choice movement, because it’s pro-choice when they like it, and not pro-choice if it’s about their fears (covid).
    All of this shows, democracy is a doomed system. The biggest majority chooses their hero, some person that in most cases, is really good at marketing and presents well but has no idea how people organize themselves, does not understand much about the economy, technology, and finances.
    So you have the average that decides who will lead, and they’ll of course vote for the person that will give them what they want. A backward crazy-making type of leadership. Tell me when in the history of men, the masses, or any large group of human beings, have done something that was important and good for the human race and our planet ? You’ll find such individualities, but the masses, they are bad news. We just behave poorly when in large groups.
    Don’t come at me with : oh, dude, you think communism is better ? To not name a problem because we don’t have a solution, is the problem my friend, and so you are the problem. We will only see real change when we stop criticizing people and groups of people, and begin naming the problem : we do not know how to behave and organize ourselves in groups to do good things.

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