My parting thoughts on 2020

Is the US a rich failed state?

Hello friends,

Happy new year! I want to wish all of you a happy and healthy 2021.

This edition of the newsletter has a 4 to 5 minute read time, and has one item: some big picture reflections on the past year.

Two quick housekeeping notes:

A) When I sat down to write this, I had the intention of trying to balance some reflections on what worried me with some things that were not so worrying (or were cause for optimism), but my time for the day ran out, and so this is limited to the gloomy stuff. I hope to have some more pleasant 2020 thoughts to come next week.

B) If you didn’t catch my newsletter yesterday, check out the piece I wrote in The Intercept about Biden’s cynical diversity agenda here.

3 thoughts on what we saw in 2020

Did you hear the news? 2020 was not a good year.

Being a congenitally optimistic person, it is not natural for me to look back at a year and catalogue misfortune and discontent. But no retrospective on the year from someone based in the US can really avoid it.

Here are some my thoughts on some of the social phenomena that stuck in my mind this year.

Is this US a rich failed state?

One thesis I kept coming back to but but also couldn’t fully articulate this year was the notion that the US is effectively a rich failed state. By the standards of an extremely affluent liberal democracy, this country’s government has fundamentally failed to project authority, provide basic services, protect its citizens, and circulate reliable information during a crisis that other countries with considerably fewer resources have managed to handle far better or effectively prevented. While the US is not at risk of collapsing, this virus has crippled the country’s ability to function normally in ways that were entirely avoidable, and generated yet another axis along which American exceptionalism is unbecoming for any country that calls itself civilized.

Donald Trump deserves a great deal of blame for how badly things have gone. He was far worse than incompetent — he was a malignant agent of chaos at a time when even well-intentioned leaders have struggled to make judicious decisions. In particular, he operated as the nerve center of the anglophone world’s misinformation pandemic, and he accelerated mistrust in government out of political expediency and some long-untreated tangle of mental health problems. Along the way he dabbled in authoritarian repression to quash a movement for Black liberation and social democracy and has strived on many fronts to tip an election and then overturn its results.

But to blame the ugliness of this year’s governance problems on Trump would be short-sighted. It is the Republican Party, not Trump, who was most bent on starving states and vulnerable households after the CARES Act passed and its aid dried up. And while Democrats have been on the right side of pushes for relief, in states like New York they caused huge amounts of unnecessary suffering and death in their delayed response to the the pandemic and have made questionable decisions on prioritizing the kinds of institutions should remain open during surges in transmission. As I touched on for VICE in April, the pandemic has functioned like an MRI scan, revealing in detail the disfigured organs and systemic afflictions of our politic-economic model, and documented how the intensity of privatization in American life made it uniquely unsuited to tackling a complex public health challenge. And the dysfunction of our political institutions — in particular, the combination of a counter-majoritarian legislative chamber, extreme polarization and a decentralized, federalist model — has robbed local leaders across the nation of their capacity to help their communities while simultaneously diffusing responsibility for the mess. Since at least 2015 I have rejected the post-Reagan conventional wisdom that the US is fundamentally center-right, but I really do think of this as a fundamentally libertarian country.

This is evident not just in government, but in our public culture, from anti-masking sociopathy to people’s rash decision-making about gatherings even at times when caseloads are high. Blue states have been better than red states about developing a public-minded culture, but there’s still all kinds of super-spreader nonsense that goes on in them as well. I had an awkward confrontation with an anti-masker in a grocery store in Maryland in which a man smirked at me as women shoppers veered away from him as if spotting a whirlpool, a rebellion of one as this man insisted on the critical right to make others uncomfortable and possibly ill. Sometimes it was just downright comical: at a street intersection in Brooklyn a maskless jogging couple decided to run in place on either side of me and talk to each other over me (through me?) and then proceeded to jog and talk on either side of me for a good stretch even as I tried to move away from them. A lot of this is the product of our civic socialization — I think we haven’t been raised to think vigorously about what we owe each other outside of inherited social norms, outside of the private sphere.

Formulating what it means to be a rich failed state requires a lot more substantiation than I can muster here at this moment, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to advance the claim that the darker sides of American exceptionalism might render it ineligible for the moniker of “advanced democracy,” or at least that the US’s presence in this category merits an asterisk. The US’s exceptional violence, religiosity, socioeconomic inequality, chronic health problem trends, threadbare worker protections, anemic social services like health care, and many other qualities place it on a unique plane. This crisis is yet another example of it.

How are we going to deal with global warming?

Another major theme I kept returning to over the course of the year was 2020 about the US and the world’s ability to tackle climate change. Journalist Harry Cheadle wrote about how the pandemic is a test for the cooperation required to mitigate global warming — “and we’re failing it.” My layman’s understanding of the science surrounding the virus and the vaccine is that the global scientific community has been extremely collaborative, but outside the laboratory it seems many societies have exhibited antisocial tendencies.

This is what gets me: if doing things like wearing a mask — an extremely low-cost act for a limited period of time to protect one’s loved ones and local community from an immediate threat — can cause such immense pushback, how are we positioned to make difficult and potentially seriously sacrificial decisions on a policy or individual level on behalf of strangers in Bangladesh or people who haven’t been born yet, and in anticipation of events that will happen in future?

Can the left promote a healthy and intelligent internal culture?

The third major issue that concerned me was an abundance of signs that much of the emerging leftist media scene has shown a reluctance or inability to be introspective on levels that are necessary for the left to continue to grow. It is wonderful that burgeoning leftie magazines and voices have formed a real media ecosystem that exists on its own terms and also is very tangibly shifting the parameters of mainstream discourse and publicly debated policy options. I am genuinely excited about it on many levels.

But some of the trends I’ve seen in analysis in the past year have been disappointing, on everything from postmortems of the primaries to the general election to leftist projects in Latin America. There is real blurring of the line between activism and intellectualism, wherein it’s seen as politically important to preserve one’s priors or repeat talking points in a bid to keep a rhetorical upper-hand or hastily frame certain considerations as counter-revolutionary in situations where self-criticism and nuance and reconsideration of certain goals or tactics are warranted. I am also concerned about the way that social media tribes and niche subscriber models appear to be turbo-charging left factionalism and acrimony by incentivizing pundits to play to their base rather than think strategically or carefully. Providing catharsis to your most enraged followers might pay your bills, but it’s no way to build a house for the left.

[Click the embedded tweet above if you want to see the whole thread and the thread of videos I’m referring to]

As I wrote up top, I had hoped to share some thoughts about things that were nice about 2020, but I’ll leave that for next week.


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