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The Financial Express

The \'America\' we have lost

| Updated: October 22, 2017 19:53:47


The \'America\' we have lost

Change is ever present: only the extent and depth make some periods ascend over others. Unlike many other septuagenarians, Donald J. Trump turned out to be a significant agent of change, regardless of what the electoral outcome will be in November: few realise how the wind that he rides upon to get all the voters out was once a largely unnoticed breeze; but even fewer make the connection that Trump is but a symptom of a broader but inevitable change, and not just the maverick he turned out to be. On the other hand, Hillary Rodham Clinton's dismissal as the "Secretary of the Status Quo" by Republican Vice President nominee, Mike Pence (in his acceptance speech at the Cleveland convention), cannot ignore the ground reality that too much of the old order has embittered the newer generations to make her, another septuagenarian, a viable leader. Many might have missed the symbolic moment here: how her husband's fingers quivered as he delivered his convention speech in Philadelphia might be a preview of the reality Hillary herself could face with her own fingers in the Oval Office four or eight years down the road.
Yet, "America's change" should not be measured in terms of how "old" one is, rather in terms of moods: how the "old" mindset differs from the "new". Some elements of the "new" have alarmingly been harking back to the "old": bigotry, fanaticism, nationalism, misogyny, protectionism, and racism being the most prominent among them. When institutions change, "new" values struggle to find anchor. Take the family as an example: once there was the traditional nuclear family (consisting of a father, mother, son, and daughter of roughly the same or similar racial/ethnic stock); then the single-parent family came along, in time to soften the barriers for the entrance of the even more drastic changes, like same-sex marriage, mixed-marriage and miscegenation, captured by the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-sexual, queer) rubric. Though Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to recognise and admit them, many of his supporters outrightly use slurs against advocates and practitioners of these lifestyles. As a part of the conservatives, these changes will have enormous ripple-effects within the group, particularly for the evangelic base, and broadly, for redefining family values. Since the traditional "family values" received the pride of place by both parties in both conventions this year, clearly non-traditional lifestyles (and people) find themselves under the gun.
As society adjusts to these changes, other equally profound lateral changes also prey upon the confused citizens. One of them is immigration, the fundamental shift from Lady Liberty's welcoming arms to border-wall construction. To be fair to Trump, walls were being sporadically built along the Mexican border from the 1980s, more concertedly after 9/11; but Trump could afford to dramatise this development because a large swathe of the U.S. population, not just he himself, want nothing less than a wall. Fortress-mindedness against immigrants would only be extended, at least in terms of aspirations, to the security front. Again, Trump dramatised the imperative to withdraw deployed troops, end wars, and partner international groups only if other members share the cost, and only in dire circumstances on top of that. Instead of the Atlantic Alliance, Trump's overtures to autocratic Vladimir Putin may be an egregious extension of a new alignment. Yet, we must remember even Barack Obama's "change we can believe in" slogan also wanted to withdraw stationed troops abroad, and end wars.
A third arena of change relates to trade. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (the country's first), once quipped how "free trade was a policy of the strong." As events transpired after him exposed, it was both a prescient and practical observation: economic fortress-mindedness against the Chinese barrage of low-wage exports finds legitimacy, but also paves the way for the institutionalised protectionism that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had broken with the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act in 1934. Though agriculture was protected as part of that compact, manufacturers spiralled to make the United States the world's single leader for a generation, not just to bring in trade surpluses that ultimately helped (a) defray expenses of post-World War II reconstruction across West Europe and Japan; and (b) establish the very multilateral institutions necessary to thwart another depression, like the one in the 1930s. More subtly, this shift from the farm to the factory reconfigured the social architecture: towns mushroomed, and as the farm population fell from 35 per cent of the total population then to under 5.0 per cent today, an expanding middle-class became the U.S. backbone, together with all the safeguards against unemployment, disability, and old age, while erecting Main Street to combat the excesses of Wall Street.
A similar paradigm change is unfolding before our very eyes today, though we largely remain oblivious to it. This is the shift from the manufacturing fulcrum of U.S. society towards a service-sector future, with the information age as its latest spearhead, and with such instruments as the Internet, artificial intelligence, automated production, robots and drones, and the likes. The shift from a blue-collar tradition (such as in Detroit, Michigan, the storied capital of the automobile industry) to white-collar (exemplified originally by Silicon Valley, but now available in so many gated communities across the world), that is, from physical labour to intellectual, making education a vital national interest at a time when student classroom attention is declining, producing a smaller pool of talent, but most importantly, opening huge spaces for foreign students to fill, and thereby, relocate the epicentres of knowledge and innovation abroad. It faces its greatest threat from an anti-intellectual public: as the ranks of the unemployed educated increases, this "Trump" revolution might look mild in comparison to what could follow. Think-tanks and research institutions (not to mention funds) once kept the U.S. cutting-edge sharp enough to claim world leadership: that is the key threat of a protectionist "America," when it should be the vanguard of another "American Century." Trump's strident advocacy of a protectionist policy approach misses this point entirely, as too Clinton's soft-pedalling of the same sentiment (as evident in her Trans-Pacific Partnership back-tracking).
Although there are many similar and equally profound elements of change, these convey what is at stake. Facilitating them will require strong leadership and vision, since the ride will be bumpy; denying them also requires strong leadership, but without the vision amid an equally bumpy pathway. Clinton has her feet planted in both camps, Trump in only the latter. The point to be made, however, is that, no matter who wins in November, this is the very dividing line between the "America" we once knew, competitive across the world in spite of all its warts, and the forthcoming "America," locked behind physical and mental oceans and walls, grimacing at how the rest of the world still moves on without U.S. engagement with better outcomes.
It is the dividing line between a long epoch of strong leaders and stable institutions against a murky future on both counts: foreign relations will not be the same with home countries of immigrants, nor would the confidence that hitherto came from stable security partners persist in the same way. We must bear in mind that it is not just the United States undergoing a transformation of this proportion: almost all countries world-wide are. In a ferociously competitive setting, aloofness and finger-pointing are not options, especially when the noisiest U.S. group today, that is, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, will no longer remain a demographic majority by mid-century. Negotiating the future order may be more sustainable for the country than sabre-rattling in defence of the evaporating order. Whichever way, the "America" to emerge will still be far different, institutionally, instinctively, sentimentally, and substantively, than what we see today.
The last article of the series draws more conclusions next, but also informs us of some of their implications.   
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University of Bangladesh, Boshundhara.
[email protected]

 

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