Moments like these require unrelenting truthtelling. We take pride in being reader-funded. If you like our work, support our journalism.
We often tend to think of nations in terms of territories, institutions, cultures, and histories. With the last half-century seeing very few borders redrawn, we seem to have forgotten just how much and how quickly the world can change and refer to countries founded less than 500 years ago as the geopolitical equivalents of children. But in reality, the typical nation today is only a little bit more than 112 years old, with nearly 6 in 10 created in the aftermath of World War 2 and the subsequent decolonization of Africa and Asia.
Nations can also die just as quickly as they’re born and trust me on this one because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Usually, in the past, this was the result of conquests, but today’s mechanics of a country’s death are a bit more complicated. Nations in the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union fell apart, turning their constituent parts into independent states left to their own devices. Many other countries didn’t cease to exist in an official capacity, but for all intents and purposes they’re failed states, a particularly morbid and modern curiosity.
Their institutions no longer reliably function, civil life and common culture have been eroded into combative factionalism, debt is sky high, and politicians focus on self-enrichment and personal pet projects rather than helping the public they ostensibly serve. In the past, they would shatter into autonomous fragments and either join neighboring nations willingly or be incorporated into them by threat of force or an invasion. But with territorial conquest being a faux pas in today’s world, these geopolitical equivalents of zombies are allowed to shamble along in relative peace.
Having lived in Ukraine as the Soviet Union imploded and for the subsequent spiral into open corruption and abject dysfunction, I can tell you it wasn’t fun. While you may think that a failed state looks like a Mad Max movie without an ending, today’s dystopias are short on roaming bands of armed bandits with sex slaves in high-quality bondage gear and very long on boredom and frustration. Everything looks more or less the same and basic functions of local and national governments continue as per usual on the surface, but every time you compare your situation to even the recent past, you can’t help but notice that things just keep getting worse and worse.
A loaf of bread that used to cost maybe five or six units in your currency five years ago now has a six-figure price tag thanks to hyperinflation. Grocery store shelves are filled with all kinds of random stuff that you can’t actually afford, and when you survey the inventory closely, you’ll find a lot of essentials missing. Why? People can’t afford to buy the essentials unless they’re priced too low for the store to make a profit, so the stores don’t bother stocking them.
Instead, they’d rather make a living selling smuggled goods to avoid import taxes and a bribe to an official who had his paycheck delayed six times already keeps the authorities off their back. Rather than plunge you into chaos, failed states slowly bury you alive in corruption, ineptness, debt, and incompetence. Every year, you just accept less and less from those in power, and more and more bullshit and corruption until you stop hoping that things get better and start to wish that they just won’t get worse too quickly. Better seems like an impossible dream.
Eventually, you come home from school or work, sit in your flat in a building falling into disrepair from neglect caused first by budget cuts then by theft, watch pirated, badly dubbed foreign TV shows because the local industry barely has a budget anymore, and look out the window at the other graying, dilapidating buildings around you and the ruins of a playground in what used to be a tidy, open courtyard. At night, the news tells you about the next big looming crisis or a new scandal, usually involving the government losing another billion or trillion, and another corrupt ring stupid enough not to pay off the right people getting turned in to the police for a show trial.
Now, roughly two decades and 6,600 miles removed for that experience, words can’t adequately describe just how infuriating it is to even think I might be going through the same process again. Pundits are openly asking whether I’m living in a failed state, and while others disagree, their far from assuring defense is that the United States hasn’t failed yet, it’s just horribly dysfunctional and still in the process of failing. An implosion of my home country. A failure of the state where I ended up afterwards by circumstance. A once in a lifetime, supposedly, global recession after which my adopted nation is slowly sliding into failed state status out of sheer hatred of its own citizens and meaningful change. Being stuck in this reboot of Groundhog Day sucks.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
Is America A Failing State?
Let’s consider the evidence. According to Gallup polls, the last time more than half of Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction was 2003 and even that was by a rather small margin. Since then, an average of 7 in 10 people have been decidedly unhappy with the nation’s trajectory, an almost mirror reversal of the previous five years’ attitudes. Meanwhile, Congress has been setting records for least productive sessions in decades, income share for all but the top quintile of Americans actually fell, and distribution of wealth is back to its Gilded Age disparities. In other words, we’re back to the days of robber barons who are now openly cannibalizing future growth and profits for immediate returns.
Even though the GDP nearly doubled over the past 20 years, debt more than quadrupled and now stands at 110% of the sum total value of all the goods and services the country produces. It’s important to note that large chunks of this debt won’t be due for another half-century so this in itself isn’t catastrophic, but it does mean that Americans will be paying that debt down for generations and our leaders are creating it faster than the economy can expand to help us make payments on it through tax revenue. That’s a real challenge when 8 in 10 people already lived paycheck to paycheck during an economic boom. Now, a global pandemic struck, was ignored until it was too late, and brought the economy to a screeching halt.
Constantly slashing taxes doesn’t help either but because our leaders are convinced that trying the same voodoo economics long-discredited before their adoption — and with a track record of abject failure — for the thousandth time will surely work. As wages stagnate, costs of housing, education, and healthcare keep shooting into the stratosphere so younger generations start their working lives in debt and have little more than stagnant wages that fail to keep pace with inflation as a reward.
And just as a cherry on top of this shit sundae, they have to risk having their jobs automated away completely with nothing else in place because neither companies nor governments at any level think it’s their responsibility to help their citizens be productive and figure out ways to make ends meet. Realizing this quite well, a growing number of people are trying to do anything to just about anything to make ends meet, including, yes, trying to sell their nudes online.
Meanwhile, we can no longer trust the police as videos of brutality, shootings, and even murder by police officers go viral only to end up with crickets from the judicial system, which has more or less given law enforcement a blank check to do whatever they please. Worse yet, in the middle of a pandemic, states have been firing experts responsible for accurate tallies of infections if they refuse to help them fudge the numbers, and reclassifying COVID-19 deaths as pneumonia to make their stats look better. In short, Americans can’t rely on the people whose job is ostensibly to protect them.
So far, not so good. And sadly, we could keep going but the relevant endpoint here is that many Americans now view their government as a sad, inept joke, and their politicians as sociopathic crooks. After accumulating all that debt, wages remained stagnant, aging critical infrastructure was neglected, and two-thirds of all personal bankruptcies are tied to either getting sick or stuck with sky-high medical bills. In fact, compared to its developed peers, we look like laggards in just about every area and keep falling behind.
Remember that slow decay of failing states? This isn’t just a red flag but a blaring klaxon that nothing good awaits us down the road we’re on. Of course tens of millions of Americans greet this news with incensed denial and conspiracy theories about nefarious minorities, Jews, and communists trying to undermine the nation’s greatness while the country suffers from countless self-inflicted wounds. And this conspiracy and fear-mongering is rather ironic since the United States is currently responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that very much echoes the Soviet approach to its agricultural catastrophes, minus the gulags, thankfully.
So as much as it pains me to say this, the similarities between the collapse of Soviet Bloc states and the current trends across America are starting to pile up, although with one key difference. Ex-Soviet nations failed from the top down, when apparatchiks left to fend for themselves found treasuries looted and countless IOUs instead of budgets. The United States is starting to fail thanks to its leaders trying to strip it down for parts while simultaneously fighting dozens of small wars across the globe at tremendous expense, and with terrifyingly vulnerable weapons.
We spent all our money and more just to backslide and pretend that it’s not our problem that millions are being left in the economic dust. According to the current administration and its ideological predecessors, life should be a population-wide economic Hunger Games and the losers, well, who gives a shit about them? For all of Russia’s and Ukraine’s many, many failures and social ills, their citizens didn’t openly loathe each other and dedicate decades of their lives binging media meant to demonize their family, friends, and neighbors with ever more paranoid and histrionic conspiracies.
I would say that the next step on the way to state failure is government officials trying to gloss over their demonstrable failures with elaborate plots blaming insidious foreigners for trying to undermine them, but we’re already there. The step beyond that, protecting their corrupt friends and allies, and investigating political rivals on nonsensical charges? We’re there as well. In the meantime, we’re also working on turning an act meant to help stop terrorist attacks into a blank check for the president’s fixers to spy on critics and protect toadies and allies.
Letting politicians break the law with impunity? What was President Trump’s impeachment but his party faithful swearing their loyalty to him and blocking witnesses and evidence from seeing the light of day while spouting off ridiculous conspiracies? Since this process usually starts at the top, we’re definitely working on that item on the failed state checklist. Next come rigged elections, and not just the Republican favored tactics of brazen voter suppression and abuse of the Electoral College, but outright fraud as the last vestiges of trust in the nation’s institutions vanish and the death spiral begins.
Once government is something done to people instead of serving the public, it’s game over. Sadly, we can see this happening in America on a generational scale. Tens of millions are completely tuned out, drowning in and disgusted by trivialized reports from a 24/7 media machine which only seems capable of presenting important issues as a both sides partisan debate, confident that their voices no longer matter, and that the politicians in office will just do whatever they want no matter that happens. This kind of jaded, detached, and apathetic public is perfect for those ready to run a failing state right into the ground.
What Happens When A Nation Dies?
When those in power no longer care and people no longer expect them to, problems, no matter how critical or major, will continue festering unaddressed. Corruption will be ever more brazen and open, done with obvious contempt. Debts will continue soaring out of control. Connections and bribes will be required to do anything meaningful, including getting state paperwork or a job. Social mobility, already limited and declining for Americans despite their fervent belief otherwise, will grind to a complete halt. Infrastructure will start to fail, and whatever is built to replace it will vary greatly in cost and quality between regions.
Governance will become a disjointed, piecemeal affair, with a messy patchwork of local, state, and federal edicts trying to somehow keep everything afloat for the time being. This would be particularly interesting in the United States, since it already sees states run almost as small, self-contained nations at times, albeit with a fair amount of federal input. If the U.S. keeps going down its current path and fails as a country, the most likely outcome is vast disparities between clusters of states with large, densely populated urban hubs, and more sparse, rural ones.
Some areas may come out of this semi-independent, wealthy, and doing just fine while others fall into complete decay and ruin, running themselves into the ground. Ultimately, however, the rot will reach them as well because their wealth will make them prime targets for leaders whose only priority is stealing everything not nailed down for their friends, patrons, and allies. And it’s at that point when people will begin to leave en masse to try their luck elsewhere in a repeat of what happened across the former Soviet Bloc in the mid-1990s.
It will start with scientists, engineers, and well connected, wealthy entrepreneurs, those with the education and resources to set up shop elsewhere and possessing skills in demand. Then this first wave of immigrants will help their families and friends leave by taking advantage of laws that prioritize skilled labor and family reunification in their new homes. Then, if things get bad enough, humanitarian refugees. After that, the only people remaining will be those trapped with no way out or those directly benefiting from the system, and they’ll either have no power to fix the nation’s problems or no incentive to.
The aftermath will see a hollow, decaying geopolitical cadaver, neglected signs of its former glories growing mold and moss, left as nothing more than nostalgic props for the new leader. He’ll promise to finally fix things but do nothing of the sort because he’ll be unable by design, or unwilling because as a patsy to the constellation of oligarchs and various shady foreign figures, he’ll understand that his job depends on not upsetting them. America’s vaunted and expensive military might would be impossible to maintain and its enormous nuclear aircraft carriers and vast fleets of jets would be auctioned off as what remained is left to mummify in the deserts of the Southwest.
At that point, it would more or less mirror Russia over the past three decades, minus a single strongman. Judging by American history, a loose confederation of charismatic oligarchs and politicians seems far more likely. They would continually prod the nation-state equivalent of a zombie along, but after a few fruitless decades, the world’s political center of gravity would shift to China and maybe a reinvigorated EU, if it ever manages to get its act together and rise to fill the rapidly growing power vacuum.
If we maintain our current trajectory, the next quarter-century would see the world’s dominant superpower reduced to a pale shadow of its former self, its achievements shipped overseas to allies who now find themselves off their geopolitical leashes and launching their own space programs, building sophisticated, AI-driven militaries, and modernizing huge aircraft carriers to project their newfound might across the globe. American emigrants in in-demand fields would follow the technology with knowledge to make all these gadgets work and advance them further.
Of course, the keyword in all this is if. Nothing here is destined. It’s just a worst-case scenario based on what happened to ex-Soviet states and adjusted for American idiosyncrasies. We don’t have to keep going down this path, especially when we consider what waits for us in the end. Being at each other’s throats, surrendering to borderline insane would-be authoritarians and their little armies of eager yes men and grifters won’t give us a new American renaissance. It ends up with all of us being given a shit sandwich, told that it’s Philly cheesesteak, and if we ask why it looks and smells an awful lot like shit, the histrionic simpletons in charge will blame us for putting shit in the sandwiches to make them look bad.
How To Actually Make America Great Again
When Ronald Reagan adopted Born In The U.S.A. as a campaign anthem of sorts, he and his supporters either deliberately or unwittingly overlooked that past the very enthusiastic chorus is an unsettling story about the country using up and throwing away its people. At its heart was a Vietnam veteran who returns from a war his country is ready to forget and finds that while the politicians call him a hero and praise his service, they do not care one bit about what happens to him now that he has to return to civilian life. In a nutshell, it’s the plot of Rambo: First Blood just without the torture and PTSD.
Despite decades of very loud hints that the subject of the song isn’t singing that he was born in the U.S.A. because he was overflowing with joy at his birthplace, it’s still pitched at a patriotic anthem about how amazing America is. And that attitude cuts to the very core of the problem the country faces today. Used to being number one at everything, Americans seem to have forgotten that being first isn’t a birthright, but something for which you constantly work. Just like gold medalists have to keep training to stay on top, nations must keep investing, innovating, and adapting, looking at their problems with an unflinching eye and actually solving them.
Now, faced with being either middle of the pack or lagging their peers, Americans are stunned, if not in denial, and demand to know what evil foreigners or treasonous political opponents dared to conspire against them to undermine their spot on top of the world. Even seeing an obvious and rapid decline, they refuse to consider that maybe something went horribly wrong and finding a younger, browner, or foreign-sounding scapegoat isn’t going to fix it. As those problems keep piling up and the situation keeps getting worse, a certain subset of voters turn to fear-mongering and downright indecent conspiracy theories as a salve.
Once again, this is very similar to Russia’s elaborate conspiracies that instead of helping the country transition from their Soviet stupor, foreign advisers and consultants who claimed their knowledge could help, robbed the Russians blind and set them up for failure, fearful of the superpower’s resurgence and sensing an opportunity to kick their former enemies when they were down. Of course no such thing happened. Russians and other ex-Soviet party officials and their friends robbed their own nations, shipping trillions in assets and cash overseas. It was just their luck they had foreigners to point to while they did it.
But we can avoid the same fate by refusing to repeat the same mistakes. First and foremost, we have to recognize that American greatness has been diminished not because some bigoted and xenophobic conspiracy theory was right on the money, but because the nation stopped investing in its own people, describing basic services every other civilized nation offers its citizens and eligible residents as immoral, evil, and “the end of our great nation as we know it.” You can’t be great at anything if your people are drowning in debt, begging internet strangers to help cover their medical bills, your infrastructure crumbles, and social mobility screeches to a halt.
Second, we have to recognize that we haven’t lived in the golden age of manufacturing for half a century now. We live in a post-industrial, globalized economy and trying to solve early 21st century problems with late 19th century ideas is really, really goddamn stupid. We have to find new industries, new careers, and new ideas in which to invest instead of wasting trillions so dinosaurs and laggards can limp along, whining about how much tax they pay and how unfair it is that so many administrations aren’t letting them poison the water and pollute the air to their cold, black, fossilized hearts’ content.
And third, we have to stop giving in to toxic, ridiculous nostalgia and hate-thy-neighbor screeds sold to us by grifters who know they’re exploiting our worst impulses for financial and political gain along with the rabid lunatics who overdosed on their own kool-aid. Because the U.S. now lacks a single, clear, identifiable ideological enemy with which to scare us, they’re pitting us against each other for fun and profit. For that, they deserve swift and loud condemnation instead of a national platform. Yes, it’s sadly true that awful, horrible people walk among us. But why keep playing the stupid games they want us to play to win ever dumber prizes?
Americans will never agree on everything. There will always be policy debates about the fine details of even the most popular plans. But not only is that fine, it’s exactly what a thriving modern society needs: healthy, good-faith debates to ground and refine ideas. Instead, what we have today is a majority desperate to fix problems and move forward while a retrograde, paranoid minority with a tenuous grasp on reality argues in constant bad faith while hijacking the ballot box, ready to burn it all down because they’re infuriated by change and anyone different. Consider this essay a warning for what will happen if they manage to get their way. Though not because that’s what they actually want, but because they hate you more than they love their country.