It’s a bombastic question, and usually it’s the domain of the nativist right or the anchorless left. Patrick Buchanan, for example, framed the question in terms of illegal immigration from Latin America:
Thousands of U.S. troops safeguard the border of South Korea. U.S. warships patrol the South China Sea to stand witness to the territorial claims of Asian allies against China. U.S. troops move in and out of the Baltic States to signal our willingness to defend the frontiers of these tiny NATO allies. Yet nothing that happens on these borders imperils America so much as what is happening on our own bleeding border with Mexico. Over three decades, that border has been a causeway into the USA for millions of illegal immigrants who are changing the face of America — to the delight of those who think the country we grew up in was ugly.
And a number of left-of-center publications — Rolling Stone and The Nation — for example, have argued that in terms of social services, infrastructure, and government services, the United States is slipping into third world territory.
Forty-seven percent of all statistics are, of course, nonsense. The notion that the United States — by far the largest economy in the world — and likely to remain so for some time has infrastructure and education systems reminiscent of the Third World both suggests an ignorance of just how poor infrastructure can be in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, Latin America, Russia, and South Asia; and ignores how and why the United States remains the educational destination of choice across the globe.
That said, the question about whether or not the United States is destined to become like a third world country is fair. Elite — and not so elite — college campuses are microcosms of the new elite and reflective of the attitudes ingrained into a future generation of leaders. Few students question entitlements, even though they have effectively become a Ponzi scheme guaranteeing a crash in a not too distant future when those paying in cannot match those on the receiving end. The ballooning debt to GDP is neither sustainable nor wise. Politicians often prioritize the easy over the wise and ultimately they will deal with debt by default. One default makes further defaults easier as the stigma erodes. And the problem isn’t just national debt: unfunded pensions will ultimately force a showdown between an entitled government class and the private sector as to whether the latter will have to bail out the former.
Of greater concern should be the willingness to trade away basic rights for the political imperatives of the day. That Yale University students are willing to trade away the first amendment so cavalierly should concern everyone. It shows a failure not only in the educational (and admissions) environment at Yale, but also reflects the grooming of a generation of students at the secondary school levels. Those who seek to succeed are those who treat constitutional rights as relative or optional.
The Supreme Court is neither the check nor balance it might once have been as a generation of ambitious jurists rise through the ranks who prioritize amorphous notions of social justice above a strict reading of the constitution. Yale Law School teaches, for example, that because the government provides the infrastructure upon which entrepreneurs operate and the law-and-order that provides a safe space, that government should be able to trump the individual and become almost limitless. That is not an exceptional reading among elite law professors, and it is increasingly becoming reflected in the courts. Too many justices privilege what they believe to be right or just over what the law might say. As a result, the Supreme Court has effectively become a second legislative body, establishing law or new interpretation by fiat, rather than simply kicking flawed or unconstitutional laws back to the legislature where they belong. That is very dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, judicial legislation is antithetical to democracy and, secondly, the court’s expansion risk creating a blowback in which populist politicians simply choose to defy it, creating a constitutional crisis not experienced in generations.
Buchanan might single out illegal immigrants. And certainly any attempt to change demography extra-legally for the purpose of altering the electoral landscape is akin to a slow motion coup. Those who might wish for such a result are not democrats, for one party states do not make healthy democracies. No political agenda is worth subverting true democracy.
The real problem is, however, broader than the influx of immigrants from Latin America. Rather, the problem is that identity politics as now practiced is essentially a return to tribalism. America was founded on the notion of individual liberty, but that idea increasingly is at risk of being subordinated to communalism. The problem goes beyond affirmative action — perhaps the marquee example of prioritizing group over individual — and instead is manifested in the commonplace political competition for disproportionate rewards for specific groups. What goes unsaid is that privilege for some comes at the expense of others. That sort of dynamic is unhealthy and drives corruption. The United States has for decades seen such dynamics in the racial politics that have blighted major American cities and contributed to the decline of Detroit and perhaps Philadelphia. To endure it on a national level will ultimately undercut American cohesion and strength.
Donald Trump might tap into widespread dissatisfaction with the elite and political class, but the personality cult he promotes is really little different than that of a Hugo Chavez, Saddam Hussein, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, or Raul Castro. That is not to say that he would be as murderous as any of them — it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest as much — but when personality cult trumps substantive discussion, the prognosis is bleak. When racist castigations of Mexicans or Muslims become successful strategies, a window into a third world future becomes clear.
So what is the solution? Even in the debate about immigration, few politicians address head on the question about what citizenship should mean. It’s easy to limit discussion to practical matters such as what to do with the more than ten million illegal immigrants and their undocumented children on one hand and how to secure America’s borders on the other. But, in an era where some school districts consider the American flag a symbol of hate and historical revisionism becomes the canon, where American exceptionalism is treated with disdain, and moral equivalency pervades into the Oval Office, then what should be the meaning of being an American? Is it simply a geographic concept—anyone who manages to live within the borders of the United States should be considered an American—or are their common values? If so, what are those values? That is the debate that goes beyond the soundbites candidates on either side of the political spectrum are willing to offer, but ultimately it is the core issue if America is going to continue to check its descent into the internal maelstrom that tears at the economic, social, and political fabric of most Third World countries.