The Decline of the State in Europe and the US, a big but invisible theme of current news

Events in Europe and the US play out as an almost mathematical proof of Martin van Creveld’s forecast that the 21st century would see the decline of the nation-state.  In Europe’s it’s  plain to see, if invisible to its elites.  Ditto in the US.  Here’s one example of the State’s decline, an excerpt from “The Tea Party Jacobins“, Mark Lilla, New York Review of Books, 27 May 2010:

Ever since the Seventies, social scientists have puzzled over the fact that, despite greater affluence and relative peace, Americans have far less trust in their government than they had up until the mid-Sixties. Just before the last election, only a tenth of Americans said that they were “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States,” a record low.  They express some confidence in the presidency and the courts, but when asked in the abstract about “the government” and whether they expect it to do the right thing or whether it is run for our benefit, a relatively consistent majority says “no.”  It’s important to remember that the confidence they express in free markets and deregulation is only relative to their sense that government no longer functions as it should.

And they are not alone. Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively. This is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame. Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing.

In Western Europe, the collapse is ideological. For two centuries after the French Revolution there was a rough but evident distinction between Europeans who accepted its legacy and those who, in small ways or large, rejected it. Each side had its parties, its newspapers, its heroes, its enemies, its own account of history. That ideological distinction began to fade in the postwar years as Western Europe’s new consumer societies became more atomized and hedonistic, and with the collapse of communism it became meaningless.

At the same time, European political elites were busy blurring national identities in order to construct a faceless “Europe,” whose eerily blank currency is a powerful symbol of the crisis of representation there. It would occur to no one to lay siege to Brussels or build barricades to defend it. Xenophobic, anti-immigrant parties have cropped up instead, giving cruel expression to genuine mourning for a lost sense of belonging.

The new American populism is not, by and large, directed against immigrants. Its political target is an abstract noun, “the government,” which has been a source of disenchantment since the late Sixties. In Why Trust Matters, Marc Hetherington uncovers the astonishing fact that in 1965 nearly half of Americans believed that the War on Poverty would “help wipe out poverty”—a vote of confidence in our political institutions unimaginable today. The failure of the Great Society programs to meet the high expectations invested in them was a major source of disappointment and loss of confidence.

The disappointment only grew in subsequent decades, as Congress seemed less and less able to act decisively and legislate coherently. There are many reasons for this, some of them perverse consequences of reforms meant to make government more open and responsive to the public. New committees and subcommittees were established to focus on narrower issues, but this had the unintended effect of making them more susceptible to lobbyists and the whims of powerful chairmen. Congressional hearings began to be televised and campaign finances were made public, but as a result individual congressmen and senators became more self-sufficient and could ignore party dictates. Coalitions broke apart, large initiatives stalled, special interest legislation and court orders piled up, government grew more complex and less effective.

And Americans noticed. Not recognizing themselves in the garbled noises coming out of Washington, unsure what the major parties stood for, they drew the conclusion that their voices were being ignored. Which was not exactly true. It’s just that, paradoxically, more voice has meant less echo.

Yet until now we’ve somehow muddled along. Since the Seventies, distrust of politics has been the underlying theme of our politics, and every presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter has been obliged to run against Washington, knowing full well that the large forces making the government less effective and less representative were beyond his control. Voters pretend to rebel and politicians pretend to listen: this is our political theater. What’s happening behind the scenes is something quite different. As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.

… We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing — though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations.

Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have—and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children. We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them.

Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still — free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules—and, who knows, they may succeed. This is America, where wishes come true. And where no one remembers the adage “Beware what you wish for.”

Note the echos of The Matrix, an entertaining movie advocating fetal politics.

“A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”

Posts about decline of the State

  1. The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2005
  2. The Rioting in France and the Decline of the State, 8 November 2005
  3. The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld, 12 November 2007
  4. Is Mexico unraveling?, 28 April 2008
  5. “High Stakes South of the Border”, 13 May 2008
  6. “Mexico: On the Road to a Failed State?”, 14 May 2008
  7. Stratfor: the Mexican cartels strike at Phoenix, AZ, 6 July 2008
  8. “Drug cartels ‘threaten’ Mexican democracy”, 24 July 2008
  9. Stratfor reports on Mexico, news ignored by our mainstream media, 19 August 2008
  10. What’s Going On in Greece? What does it mean?, 26 December 2008
  11. US Army – the antidote to US civil disorder, 3 January 2009
  12. Does this economic crisis make the State stronger – or is it another step in the decline of the state?, 16 January 2009


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