Joseph Biden’s victory has been greeted with the expected exhilaration and apprehension, which every newcomer to the White House experienced before. This time the exhilaration is more striking because it marks the end of a presidency that had trivialised American democracy, and held it up to global ridicule. But the apprehension will surface soon when the hoorahs are over and the changeover in Washington has been completed. The new administration will face the same challenges that its predecessors have faced since the end of the Cold War, and failed to address them.
Three decades after winning the Cold War the American state is facing a crisis that no one could have foreseen when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Instead of bringing peace, these decades have brought incessant war; instead of creating a new global order these wars have created global anarchy and fostered terrorism.
Abandonment of Middle America
In place of prosperity that followed the Allied victories in World War I and World War II, these decades have seen the withering away of blue- and white-collar employment, the end of working class job security, status and affluence. It has also brought to fore an obscene widening of the income gap between rich and poor, and a steady shrinkage of the state’s capacity, or even intention, to safeguard the health, lives and peace of mind of its poor.
Cruelest of all, it has created a world in which young people no longer control their future. Today more and more young Americans cannot plan to marry, cannot take out a mortgage on an apartment, cannot even think of having children, and can only buy a second-hand car, because they do not know when they will find a job, and how long it will last.
Calculated neglect over decades has caused the nation’s infrastructure to run down to a level below that of China, let alone Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. China, for instance, has constructed a high-speed rail network spanning 19,000 km of track in the past 15 years, on which it is running 2,300 bullet trains every day. America has built none.
But none of this compares with the abandonment of middle America to chronic stagnation, hopelessness and despair. This began as far back as the 1980s, and neither the Democrats nor Republicans have considered it necessary to check the region’s slide into poverty. A great deal has been written on economic, social and political consequences of this neglect, but much less on its cause, and how it can be ameliorated.
The roots of today’s Blue-Red schism lie buried in the de-industrialisation of America and northern Europe, which began with the onset of globalisation half a century ago. As manufacturing began to move from the high wage economies of Europe and North America to low-wage, skill-intensive industrialising countries in Asia and Latin America, the share of manufacturing in the US GDP fell, from 26% in 1968 to 12% in 2009. Its place, as the prime mover of economic growth, was taken by business and financial services whose share in the GDP rose from 19% to 35% during the same period.
But while the bulk of the de-industrialisation has occurred in middle America, where job losses have ranged from 8% to 75% of the workforce during the last 40 years, nearly all the increase of employment in business and financial services has been concentrated in the two coastal ‘blue’ fringes, and in the Florida-Texas sunbelt. Middle America has been left to fend for itself.
Tea Party movement
In 2009, after four decades of sustained neglect, middle America found a political sponsor in the Tea Party movement. Liberal America considered the Tea Party an embarrassment – an extremist movement that backed every reactionary cause and wanted to turn the clock back to a vanished past, because it could not connect with the future. What it lost sight of was that the Tea Party was also a protest movement, born of desperation, among people who had been robbed of their future. The Tea Party needed understanding, not condemnation. It got none.
Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 was its first major political success. Since then liberal America has done everything in its power to pretend that this was an accident and to trivialise its significance. It has taken this to the point of portraying it as the product of Russian intervention in the election campaign. But Biden’s relatively narrow win last week has shown that the new, hard-Right is here to stay, and that its rancour will continue to fester and grow so long as the neglect and injustice that gave rise to it remains unaddressed.
Enormous task lies ahead of Biden-Harris
This is the responsibility that American voters have asked Biden and Kamala Harris to shoulder. Judging from his speeches, Biden is fully aware of its weight: in his victory speech he repeated his commitment to be “a president who seeks not to divide but unify…who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States”.
But similar promises were made by his predecessors in their moments of triumph. So, what prevented them from fulfilling such promises when the hoorahs ended and the work began? One, amidst the plethora of explanations put forward over the years, stands out: it is ‘legislative gridlock’.
Intra-party discipline has never been the US Congress’ strong point, for the American system contains no penalties for cross-voting. This has allowed legislators in both houses to become representatives of special interests in their states, instead of representatives of the people of their states. To make matters worse, in only 10 of the 28 years after the Cold war, there has been a president whose party has enjoyed a majority in both houses of Congress. Thus, the American democratic system did not have the capacity for united action in domestic affairs that was needed to cushion the wrenching impact of globalisation and de-industrialisation upon those who stood to lose from it.
Costly wars and the detrimental effects on the American economy
The only area in which the gridlock has not paralysed policymaking is foreign policy. Achieving a consensus in this area has been made easier by the heady sense of entitlement imparted by victory in the Cold War. This has created a brand of liberal imperialism which is shared by both Democrats and Republicans, whose goal has been the creation of unipolar world order under the leadership of the US.
This was a democratic party goal long before President George W. Bush adopted it formally in the wake of 9/11. In February 1999, after bombing Iraq daily for 11 months till there was not even a milk plant left to destroy, and on the eve of doing the same in Kosovo, Clinton justified unilateral intervention in the following words:
“It’s easy … to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.”
The significance of his declaration lay hidden in what he did not say. The right to intervene was already a part of the UN Charter. But it had to be exercised collectively through the Security Council. Clinton’s declaration did away with the need for creating an international consensus, and therefore ruled out the creation of a multipolar, democratic, world order.
The wars that followed have bankrupted America. In December 2014, the Congressional Research Service of the US estimated that the wars the US had waged in the 13 years since 9/11 had cost the treasury 1.6 trillion dollars. ‘Continued funding’ to maintain military preparedness in the occupied added $95.5 billion in 2014, and no doubt continue to add similar sums till today. Add Operation Desert Shield in Iraq (1998), and the war on Serbia (1999), and the figure probably exceeds $2.2 trillion.
But that is only the military part of the expenditure that the US has incurred. A 2016 study by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the total military and economic cost of America’s wars was well over 3 trillion dollars. Had this money been used to modernise the country’s dilapidated infrastructure and encourage the shift of service sector businesses to the middle of the country, the blow dealt by globalisation to middle America could have been softened, and the ‘Red-Blue rift’ might not have reached the crisis level that it is at today.
‘Leveraging’ climate change
Biden is fully aware that healing this rift is the obligation, beyond all others, that his victory has thrust upon him. And he has made it clear that he intends to meet it. Fortunately, he has a new ally in this venture, the threat of climate change.
Technologies that can harness the energy of sun, wind, and biomass have now matured to a point where they can supplant fossil-based energy at a competitive price. Unlike fossil fuels, these technologies need vast amounts of land, sunshine and wind. These are precisely what the states of the Midwest and the Great Plains have in abundance. Harnessing these have already begun: In 2016, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas were meeting 20% to 35% of their electricity demand from wind. Other states like Texas and Minnesota were joining them.
The change that renewable energy is making to the lives of the people affected by it cannot be captured in aseptic data on energy generation, costs and returns. A recent, heart-warming article by Elizabeth Wiese in USA Today that describes the impact of wind farms on the farmers of Cloud County, Kansas, is worth quoting:
“In an increasingly precarious time for farmers and ranchers, some who live in the nation’s wind belt have a new commodity to sell – access to their wind. Wind turbine leases, generally 30 to 40 years long, provide the landowners with yearly income that, although small, helps make up for economic dips brought by drought, floods, tariffs and the ever-fluctuating price of the crops and livestock they produce.
Each of the landowners whose fields either host turbines or who are near enough to receive a “good neighbor” payment, can earn $3,000 to $7,000 yearly for the small area – about the size of a two-car garage – each turbine takes up.
The median income in Cloud County is about $44,000, according to the 2018 U.S. Census. For Tom Cunningham, who has been farming between Glasco and Concordia, Kansas for 40 years, the Meridian Way Wind Farm income has made an enormous difference. Cunningham’s lease payments allowed him to pay off his farm equipment and other loans.
Before the wind turbines, things were rough, he recalled. Depending on the national and international economy, some years he broke even, some years he made money and, for more years than he cares to think about, he was on the edge. He had to take a job in town to make ends meet and for a time was what he calls “functionally bankrupt.”
“This isn’t money that other people would think is very much,” he said. “But it made an enormous difference to us.”
What wind is doing in the Great Plains states is what solar energy can do in arid and semi-arid states like Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska, and parts of Texas and California. Straw and other crop residues in the wheat-growing states can be converted into the transport fuel of choice through the exciting, relatively new, technology of plasma-assisted gasification in far larger quantities than it can be converted into cellulosic ethanol through fermentation.
America’s way out of the increasingly poisonous partisan politics in which it has been trapped, therefore, lies in precisely the same technologies that it needs to harness, in order to fight climate change.
To many, it might come as an unsettling thought that the way out of the relentless militarism in which America is trapped may also lie in rejuvenating middle America by enlisting it in the battle against climate change. But it is a thought that is worth pursuing.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.