America Again ? vs America First? (An outsider’s perspective)

On November 3, 2020 there will be a referendum on democracy in the United states of America and because of its influence and impact one can argue this might also be a referendum for the rest of the world too. One may wonder why such a priority should be given to this one election in the US at this time, by the rest of us around the world. First of all, the USA has evolved to become an established and prosperous democracy improved upon by centuries of iterative processes. Where-as in the overwhelming majority of the world, democracy is still a new kid in the block. As high quality democratic values are sowed all around the world, its growing pains, its expected missteps in the early days and occasional misdirections even in evolved ones are constantly taken advantage of and counter-attacked by the feudal values rooted in autocracy, fundamentalism, cultural absolutisms and the promises of communist utopism. So changemakers from around the world all over are looking into the US particularly for its directions on democracy and prosperity and any missteps here should have quite a domino effect on the rest of the world.

Last summer I had an opportunity to interact in an unique gathering at Stanford University with over two dozen international democracy activists, leaders and changemakers who are doing what they can to preserve the freedom, dignity and an equitable (free and fair) growth for their respective fellow citizens. There were South American democratic leaders (some exiled) to African rights activists sharing ideas and pains with Middle Eastern changemakers while Asian democracy activists and journalists were sharing the good and bad practices in their chaotic neighborhoods with the Europeans, Caucasians and North Americans. Among the realization was that the democracy trendsetter United States and the rest of the world together is at a crossroads today when it comes to the worsening quality of democracy. Will democracy stay relevant to the needs of the 21st century or will we capitulate slowly from high to low quality democracy, populism, fatalism and towards totalitarianism? So I have tried to summarize, what outsiders who believe in high quality democracy may be thinking about the state of affairs in the US and the probable directions this election points to?

1) Freedom (liberty): This is the first thing I believe is at stake in the US election, specially the freedom from “fear”. This election has also become about how best to free from the fear of unnecessary sufferings and diseases by building the best systems to tackle affordable access to basic health care for all citizens. It’s also equally become about the freedom from heavy handed government interventions and from foreign diseases, global disasters and unfair prosperity generating economic models. I believe Americans have painful decisions to make. Are you going to go on a path to build systems and policies based on “fear and paranoia” and go it alone or free yourself and tread on the path of “hope and pragmatism” and go together? Looking from outside-in, we see in the US alarming signs in the barometers of democracy. Policies driven by constant fear of modern science, fear to further diversify in a nation built by diversity, fear of having been born of a different shade of color or tone of voice than your neighbors, majority fearful of the consequences of becoming a minority. I hear loud rhetoric of “America first” but am confused about which america first? Is it going to be a certain class or faith or ideological understanding or a certain sex or lifestyle? Even from a world away, we can understand that there will always be some disagreements on the issue of guns to the woman’s right to choose, from the size of government to that of the taxes. But why is there so much “fear in the air” that Americans do not seem to be caring enough to understand each other enough to have a civil dialogue. Why is there so much fear of coexistence, where they can each pursue their own interpretations of freedom and live in harmony in pursuit of their own happiness? When did “my way or the highway” become the default way the US leadership resolves problems? Fundamental issues like health and education have been made polarizing issues that should have been an automatic uniter across the spectrum. If the coronavirus pandemic has not been able to unite Americans to an acceptable level then a serious question arises on how differently they are being educated/informed on issues of humanity and if they are even going to be healthy or balanced enough to carry the mantle of leadership of the free world in the near future. If having to wear a mask during an airborne pandemic is looked upon as a restriction of fundamental freedom by sizable leadership and a significant size of the population, then what does that signal to the rest of the world?

2) Dignity: Anything too sugary begins to feel somehow bitter. That’s how capitalism of the 20th century seems to be transforming into for the majority of Americans living in the 21st century. For millions of Americans, when you are told you are the citizen of the most powerful country in the world but you struggle to pay your house’s mortgage or pay for your children’s quality education or health, when your voice or even votes matter less than some others, what kind of a role model will you become for the rest of us? When we see many of american’s common sense easily swayed by misinformation, hate and scientific lies to the extent that elections are now won and lost on deceptions, fake news and corporate interest lobbies, what will the rest of us learn from this lowest quality of democracy? 

In this fight for America’s future, it seems today that for many citizens their causes might have become bigger than the system they have been born into, raised in, and pledged to be part of. Increasing number of Americans have a very diverging interpretation of what the United States of America, its constitution and its vision stands for. Collapse starts when the zeal to prevail over the other proceeds without a proper civil dialogue and acceptance of common scientific facts and humane values like compassion. And with this, the dignity of many of the participants is hurt to such an extent that each feels their very identity is at stake, stooping to new lows to right any perceived wrongs. So this election is fast becoming all about repairing an american’s dignity either at the expense of another or in acceptance of another.

3) equitable growth: The third value that seems at stake in this election is“equitable growth” which is in short supply in the US as evident from the vast gaps in growth among its citizens. While some Americans have struggled to grow hardly more than their parents’ generation, others have had the opportunity to grow by leaps and bounds. Free competition is good but it has got to be fair too (from the start). The dizzying gaps between the rich and poor have been breeding not just profound resentment but also provoking open mockery of the painful efforts of the nation builders to secure such a freedom for each individual to grow to their fullest potential. This has led also to the United States to be on a brink of becoming the disunited states of Americans. “Equitable growth” – the ability to grow in the manner you want without being constrained by someone else’s growth, or constraining other’s growth. It’s a holistic way to address the issue of equality that seems to be a flashpoint at this age. In this context, merit needs some major redefining in the 21st century. When the opportunity to grow for many Americans has been stunted at the formative stages, it doesn’t matter much however the policies and leadership try to make amends later on. Today those of us with pre-existing political, economic and social capital (and history) constantly seem to underestimate our own inborn entitlements and overestimate the threats posed by policies and favorable investments made to incubate or grow fellow citizens with far less capital and history. We must applaud the ingenuity of the american democracy that has found many effective ways to justly reward innovators, the creatives and the uniters. But one must also not neglect the fact that if the system lags behind in giving “enough” opportunity for those left behind by its shortcomings, help them catch up to a dignified level, all this astounding progress becomes a short lived joy that is soon dragged down by vicious cycles of social disharmony as seen the american society today. History is rife with lessons. Those railing against immigration in the USA plainly forgot that their ancestors were the very undignified “illegals” in this land of native americans decades. When a woman’s growth or growth of someone who doesn’t have a college degree is hindered by legislation or some form of corporate greed, seeds of resentment and disbelief in the state of the nation ripens up. When an innovator’s ability to keep innovating is hindered by lobbies or monopolies, his color or her accent becomes a “growth” issue,  their society will suffer and its overall growth stunted. And when these citizens start feeling left behind or humiliated by their society and by their government of the most powerful and prosperous nation of the world, obviously they will start imagining harsh ways to “feel powerful” to protect their own sanity, identity and dignity. In time a culture of paranoia and a race to the bottom ensues, where deep mistrust between citizens, between policy makers and between different identities only worsens. It seems to define America of today. Dignity stripped. Freedom feared away. Growth stunted and skewed.

Unfortunately the solutions and proposals towards solving this are increasingly unhelpful and points to mostly zero sum games. It’s startling for outsiders to contemplate that the sitting president Donald Trump represents the republican party of of the exemplary Abraham Lincoln who took a bold stand to instill the values of a high quality democracy one hundred and sixty years ago against the scourge of slavery. President Trump seems to be most popular among racists, xenophobic and conspiracy theorists. He and his enablers seem to have an unique ability to bring out the deep fear and paranoia in many of their fellow citizens and turn it into a weapon against the very democracy that protects them. It’s unnerving that his team has not been able to come up with a better Affordable health care act alternative even when he and his party had a majority but continues to pack in judges to try to destroy an existing act. Solving illegal immigration by walling up your country or punishing children for the actions of their immigrant to be parents desperate to reach safe haven is hardly a model example of a nation built and still being built by persecuted and disfranchised immigrants. Where is the civil dialogue needed between Americans and the leadership to build humane filters to enhance immigration whereby the US still remains a safe haven for the persecuted and the disfranchised who in turn can contribute directly towards preserving the power and the prosperity of the USA. Similarly in the name of the free market, one must question, why is pursuit of greed constantly overriding pursuit of happiness? Where is the fiscal discipline needed to ensure a free and fair economy. In fact warning bells have been raised for some time now, about the current state of the US economy where the leadership seems content printing and pumping trillions of dollars risking to make America not first, but poorer. Similarly, why do many of the leadership not understand that the alternative to today’s science is not “NO science” but “better science”. You don’t walk out of climate science treaties, crying, “America first” and hope that the hurricanes won’t strike your coasts or coastal cities will stop submerging in the decades ahead. Just look at the coronavirus as a pre-warning. Trying to out-speed nature has not turned out very well for ‘America first’ has it? Today, what starts in one part of the world will soon find a way to impact the rest of the world. In essence to solve any problems one has to find and build better values or systems to amplify or replace the ones that exist. In Trump’s America first, we seem to see none of these. What we see from the outside are major treaties (collaborations) gutted, policies (that try to protect americans) rolled back or challenged and a vacuum created and with the current leadership relishing in this vacuum. This seems to be the hallmark of many “America first” tactics. But the entire world has been much endangered much by this, as America every day extracts far more from the world than it contributes towards. And if this is a type of isolationist, entitled, extractive democracy it wants to be identified as, then that’s the low quality democracy the rest of the world will most likely be going to avoid or some may copy them to their peril. It seems in the fight to build America first, Americans might be the first ones to lose. How can you improve America’s freedom, dignity and growth by subverting an american citizen’s freedom, by restricting his or her dignity and by unfairly constricting their ability to grow to the fullest. This is what we have come to see in America of today as evident by examples such as Black Lives Matter, opioid epidemics, gun violence, skewed bubbles of an economy, environmental disasters, and with the largest number of incarcerations anywhere around the world.

And then there is this fear mongering misinformation spread about America having to choose between capitalism and socialism in the 21st century when both these ideologies have deliberately wrongly defined through the antiquated lens of the 19th and the 20th century only. In this “radical centrist” era, where capitalism and socialism have evolved to come closer and closer together taking the best values of both under the umbrella of liberal democracy. On one hand education, health care and protection of its citizens is becoming the top priority of the state and on the other hand markets are encouraged to freely and fairly harness citizen’s innovation, for them to be entrepreneurial with the governments only intervening when it stops being free and fair or is in a danger to become so. In the 21st century, balance, cooperation and co-existence between freedom, dignity and equitable growth is a mechanism we cannot afford to neglect. The fight for America’s heart is not against socialism or capitalism but rather against an evolving new concept of state captured (centered) capitalism these days resurrected from the failed ideologies of communism and currently championed from the likes of China on one side and being emulated by many populist and authoritarian biased regimes. Basically this model intends to protect a majoritarian monolithic system with a strong state backed capital and economy that shies away from pluralism, seeing minorities and diversity of expressions and power as a direct threat to the sovereignty and prosperity of their nation. To regain America’s leadership again, any new US leadership has to learn how to adeptly deal with both extremes, i.e scarcity and excess in its system. Just like malnutrition needs to be dealt with, we need to now deal equally with obesity (over nutrition). If poverty is a problem, uncontrolled greed is also. While we should beware of an all powerful “guardian” state that the state centered capitalism craves for, America need to figure out a sustainable way to avoid that and build a “friendly” state that is efficient, fiscally disciplined, science friendly and socially progressive, economically  free and fair which walks behind its citizens, not its front and will help only when citizens need their help. And while creating policies and values to strengthen a “friendly” government, equal impetus is given towards building judicious citizens.

The original American dream was dreamt and achieved by many american families in the 20th century creating much happiness there and envy for the rest of the world. In hindsight it had also created many problems for the descendents in the 21st century to solve. So now more than ever, perhaps an updated, a sustainable American dream 2.0 needs to be dreamt. This election will come to decide not just on the quality of leadership, but also on the content of its dreams. In essence it will decide if it is going to be “America first” or “America again”, a clash of fundamental values. Unfortunately if the past few years is any hint, with America first, we see the US may be the only one remaining in any competition it wants to win over. Or it may only be in a competition with those regimes where democracy is just a metaphor of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Most nations are looking into America’s cue at this very election. Which direction will America’s moral compass turn towards? The rest of the world wants the same level of prosperity that the US and Europe monopolized for a few centuries, but also not make similar mistakes it made while achieving so. If we realize that the democracy America claims is actually hollow, of a low quality that may not deliver to many of its own citizens, the rest of the world will start looking elsewhere and many countries may even experiment into the Chinese model where lately the state centered (or captured) capitalism seems to have delivered unprecedented prosperity to its citizens unseen in a century there. The historical agonies of the communist experiments will often be blindsided by China’s recent ongoing successes. Many vulnerable nations both powerful and emerging will likely veer towards authoritarianism that usually ends with much pain and suffering spilling ultimately on to the USA  more than it did in the eve of the rise of fascism pre Second World War.. The signs are plenty here, if the US couldn’t avoid the pandemic how can it avoid the myriads of other disruptions lined up in the next decades. The Syrian, Libyan and nearby conflicts continue to torment Europe with refugees and radicalization when the US and Europe last decided to disengage. The fear and hunger for better health and education and protection from the ravages of climate crisis along with the desperation for quick prosperity but with no forthcoming examples from established democracies such as the US, might convince many conscious citizens in the budding democracies will rattle the spirits of many conscious citizenry around the world. Through moments of paranoia and numbing helplessness, people may hand over their democratic fundamentals namely their freedom, their dignity and their equitable growth to select few who act with impunity, a populist and totalitarian state machinery the American founding fathers and mothers had constantly dreaded and warned us all about. In the end, anything that wants to spread is highly contagious and will spread, whether it is a pathogenic virus or ideological one.

If the Covid pandemic is an example of “America first” vision of this current american leadership, then it is safe to say that no other country would like to follow these steps of the US. In the past century when the US has won, it has won majestic victories, from the fight for freedom and dignity and growth against fascism to communism to poverty. When it has lost its ways, it has done so at major costs from its support of authoritarian regimes and corporate greed all around, with the nuclear race to the bottom with the communists, and to the export of over-consuming, unsustainable, polluting culture. With  the proliferation of the internet, America has gifted the world an immensely valuable tool to bring humanity closer and instill democratic values of freedom of expression to billions. The same tool now specially amplified by social media also risks eroding of high quality democratic ideals  because of the counter-attack from outdated feudal, un-pragmatic values derived from corrosive ideas that convinced democracy as understood by american ideals to be a threat to its existence. In the coming days,  both similar and diverse challenges around the world will only grow exponentially, with nature already wagging her finger fervently at our existential crisis. 

So it is a ripe time for “America again”. To review and reorient the US’s moral compass towards an american citizen’s freedom, her dignity and his equitable growth. It is time to bring balance, cooperation and the concept of coexistence back. Listening and being listened to could be a start, through some form of direct dialogues between citizens and without the usual intermediaries that roam the lobbies of Washington D.C. Both Lincoln’s party and Roosevelt’s party should look into their illustrious history to get a sustainable American dream going on. In the decades to come, sustainable prosperity will not be gained not by ‘winner takes all’ method but by a “win-win” model. So, as long as there is an “America again” set of policies that are built on the fundamentals of collaboration and balance and co-existence between freedom, dignity and equitable growth of Americans, then y’all can proudly declare, “Americans first, America again” and it would resonate with the rest of us.

Nations may not understand nations yet, but humans have and will understand humans. Our humanity has evolved to ensure our survival through thousands of years of natural and man made calamities. It is time to put to rest the hollow “America first” narrative which has not delivered and in fact has run counter to the world’s expectations from a ‘high quality’ liberal democracy. Instead by putting the focus on an american’s freedom first, their dignity first and their collective and individual growth first, maybe the world can be in solidarity with America again.

By Ujwal Thapa from Nepal.


Nov 01, 2020