The Increasingly Unstable United States

By Immanuel Wallerstein, June 1, 2016

We are used to thinking of instability in states as being located primarily in the global South. It is about those regions that pundits and politicians in the global North speak of “failed states” in which there are “civil wars.” Life is very uncertain for the inhabitants of these regions. There is massive displacement of populations and efforts to flee these regions to “safer” parts of the world. These safer parts are supposed to have more jobs and higher standards of living.

In particular, the United States has been seen as the migratory goal of a very large percentage of the world’s population. This was once largely true. In the period that ran roughly from 1945 to 1970, the United States was the hegemonic power in the world-system in which life was indeed better economically and socially for its inhabitants.

And while the frontiers for immigrants were not exactly open, those migrants who managed to arrive in one way or another were by and large content with what they regarded as their good fortune. And others from the countries of origin of the successful immigrants kept trying to follow in their footsteps. In this period, there was very little emigration from the United States other than on a temporary basis to take very well-paying employment as economic, political, or military mercenaries.

This golden era of U.S. dominance of the world-system began to come undone circa 1970 and has been unraveling ever since, and increasingly. What are the signs of this? There are many, some of them within the United States itself and some of them in changing attitudes of the rest of the world towards the United States.

In the United States, we are now living through a presidential campaign that almost everyone speaks of as unusual and transformational. There are a very large number of voters who have been mobilizing against the “Establishment,” many of them entering the voting process for the first time. In the Republican primary process, Donald J. Trump has built his search for the nomination precisely on riding the wave of such discontent, indeed by fanning the discontent. He seems to have succeeded, despite all the efforts of what might be thought of as “traditional” Republicans.

In the Democratic Party, the story is similar but not identical. A previously obscure Senator, Bernie Sanders, has been able to ride a discontent verbalized on a more left-wing rhetoric and, as of June 2016, has been conducting a very impressive campaign against the one-time supposedly unchallengeable candidature of Hillary Clinton. While it doesn’t seem he will get the nomination, he has forced Clinton (and the Democratic Party) much further left than seemed possible a few short months ago. And Sanders did this without ever having stood for election before as a Democrat.

But, you may think, all this will calm down, once the presidential election is decided, and “normal” centrist political judgments will prevail again. There are many who predict this. But what then will be the reaction of those who very vocally supported their candidates precisely because they were not advocating “normal” centrist policies? What if they are disillusioned with their current champions?

We need to look at another of the changes in the United States. The New York Times ran a long front-page article on May 23 about gun violence, which it called “unending but unheard.” The article was not about the well-reported massive gun shootings that we call massacres and that are considered shocking. Instead, the article pursues shootings that the police tend to call “incidents” and never get into newspapers. It describes one such incident in detail, and calls it “a snapshot of a different source of mass violence – one that erupts with such anesthetic regularity that it is rendered almost invisible, except to the mostly black victims, survivors and attackers.” And the numbers are going up.

As these “unending but unheard” deaths by violence go up, the possibility that they may go beyond the confines of Black ghettos to non-Black zones in which many of the disillusioned are located is not so far-fetched. After all, the disillusioned are right about one thing. Life in the United States is not as good as it once was. Trump has used as his slogan “make America great again.” The “again” refers to the golden era. And Sanders also seems to refer to a previously golden era in which jobs were not exported to the global South. Even Clinton now seems to look back at something lost.

And that is not to forget an even fiercer sort of violence – that propagated by a still very small band of deeply anti-state militias, who call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (CCF). They are the ones that have been defying the government’s closure of some land for their cattle or indeed for their usage. The CCF people say the government has no rights and is acting unconstitutionally.

The problem is that both the federal and local governments are unsure what to do. They “negotiate” for fear that asserting their authority will not be popular. But when the negotiations fail, the government finally uses its force. This more extreme version of action may soon spread. It is not a question of moving to the right but of moving towards more violent protest, towards a civil war.

All this time, the United States has been truly losing its authority in the rest of the world. It is indeed no longer hegemonic. The protestors and their candidates have been noting this but consider it reversible, which it is not. The United States is now considered a weak and unsure global partner.

This is not merely the view of states that have strongly opposed U.S. policies in the past, such as Russia, China, and Iran. It has now become true of presumably close allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, and Canada. On a worldwide scale, the feeling about the “reliability” of the U.S. in the geopolitical arena has moved from nearly 100% during the golden era to somewhere far, far lower. And it increases daily.

As it becomes less “safe” to live in the United States, look for a steady increase in emigration. It is not that other parts of the world are safe – just safer. It is not that the standard of living elsewhere is so high, but it has now become higher in many parts of the global North.

Not everyone can emigrate of course. There is a question of cost and a question of accessibility to other countries. Undoubtedly, the first group that may increase their emigration will be the most privileged sectors. But, as this comes to be noticed, the angers of the more middle-class “disillusioned” will grow. And growing, their reactions may take a more violent turn. And this more violent turn will feed back onto itself, increasing the angers.

Can nothing alleviate the attitudes about the transformation of the United States? If we were to stop trying to make America great again and start trying to make the world a better place for everyone, we could be part of the movement for “another world.” Changing the whole world would in fact transform the United States, but only if we stop longing to go back to a golden era, which was not so golden for most of the world.