The United States: Not a Failed State, but a Failing Society

29 June 2020, 1134 EDT

Note: This post began life as an op-ed; I have amended it slightly from the version shared on Facebook to add more social scientific perspective.

The United States set new single-day record for new COVID cases on June 24th through 26th, surpassing what had been hoped would the highest point of the curve on April 24. The United States is now in a two-horse race with Brazil to be the epicenter of the COVID pandemic. The economic and social sacrifices made to attempt to flatten the curve—sacrifices that include the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression and school closures that will have lifelong consequences for student outcomes—from March to May have essentially been rendered completely moot.

This has many observers saying the United States is a failed state. George Packer argued this in the Atlantic. Chinese state media has leveled similar claims. 

The United States is not a failed state. It is something much more disturbing: it is a society that has the means but has decided not to try.

Failed states lack the resources, equipment, and government capacity to provide public safety and public services. States like Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen fit this description. The governments of these countries can often barely project authority beyond the walls of their government buildings.

This is not the case in the United States. By any objective measure, the United States is the wealthiest, most powerful country on Earth. It is home to more Nobel laureates than any country, and its universities are the envy of the world. Its technology sector is the world’s most dynamic. Most public services work reasonably well, and expert assessments of its government effectiveness still put it above the 90th percentile worldwide. The demand for the H1B high skilled worker visas recently halted by President Trump vastly outstrips their supply. Failed states see mass out-migration. Even at its most xenophobic, the United States is still a preferred destination for migrants the world over. It has the talent and the resources.

So no, the United States is not a failed state. Rather, the United States is a country that has lost the political will to do anything with that vast capacity. If it had the will, we could be implementing the same kinds of procedures that helped countries from New Zealand to South Korea and Japan, many of which lack the United States’ economic and military might, to flatten their curves. The same is true of the armed protests that shut down the Michigan state legislature. The Michigan National Guard, to say nothing of the 82ndor 101stAirborne, could make short work of dispersing or neutralizing these “armed protesters”, which is an interesting euphemism for insurrectionists seeking to stop the activities of a duly elected democratic government. Instead, the United States’ vast military might has been used to quell unarmed, largely nonviolent protests in its capital.

In this way, the United States is a creature without modern precedent. One has to go all the way back to the disastrous reigns of Nero in Rome (first century CE) or Czar Nicholas of Russia in the early 20th century to find such fecklessness in the face of huge threats. And while it’s tempting to say Trump is fiddling while the nation burns, this is not just about presidential leadership. It is about a society that has forgotten that our well-earned freedoms come with responsibilities, chief among which is the responsibility to make personal sacrifices for the good of the community. Its individualism has mutated into selfishness at a time when selflessness—the recognition that we are indeed all in this together—is necessary. The United States is a highly capable state whose politics and cavalier attitude about small, individual contributions to the public good have rendered it incapable of mobilizing that capacity to address the worst threat to public safety of the 21th century.

If we take these observations as valid (or at least arguably so), my next question as a social scientist becomes “why?” That’s a question perhaps better left for my colleagues whose work is more explicitly comparative, but I think there may be some hints in the outlier status both the United States and Brazil have achieved. Both are massively unequal, highly regionalized, and malapportioned in ways that overrepresent the interests of rural, landed elites and the smattering of urbanites who live in otherwise highly rural states. Both are former plantation economies, and as a result their inequality is both vertical but also horizontal—between racial groups—in ways that stymie investment in public goods, which helps to explain the disproportionately negative effects of COVID on communities of color. But these are all SWAGs (Scientifically-literate Wild Ass Guesses). I’m sure careful work on this subject is already underway. If you know of a project, please leave a link or a description in the comments.

The United States is not a failed state. It is a capable state that is choosing not to use its vast capacity to address the COVID crisis. And that is something far, far more distressing—and perplexing.