America’s Slide toward Failed State

The blanket refusal of Senate Republican leaders to consider President Obama’s choice to succeed Justice Scalia reflects a descent of the United States toward the kind of dysfunctional failed state that Washington normally upbraids, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

We Americans, usually quick to judge other societies by American standards, can become more self-aware by reversing the direction of the comparison and thinking of what the attributes of other nations might highlight about our own deficiencies.

Such comparisons can work in either of two ways. One is to observe how far the United States has fallen behind others in endeavors at which others excel and set the standards. Investment in transportation infrastructure, for example. Ride a train in Switzerland after riding one in the United States and the point becomes clear.

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court with Justice Antonin Scalia, seated second from left.

The other sort of comparison is to examine the troubles of other countries that are deeply troubled, with an eye toward identifying underlying problems that might also be found in the United States even though the United States has not gone as far down the troubled path, at least not yet. There is no shortage of countries, from Syria to Somalia to South Sudan, that we commonly label as politically unstable and that present grief for their own citizens, challenges for U.S. policymakers, and fodder for foreign policy pundits.

An attempt to identify underlying problems can come up with many things, involving the structure of civil society, ethnic divisions, and the like. But two very fundamental necessities for stable liberal democracy are in short supply in those trouble lands. One is the acceptance as legitimate of interests and viewpoints different from one’s own. Such acceptance does not preclude continued sharp differences. Recognized legitimacy is not the same as agreement.

Opposing political positions can grow out of different interests or different views about the best way of pursuing a shared interest. Either way, what is required is acknowledgment that one’s own side in a political contest does not necessarily have a monopoly on what is just, wise or moral, and that those on the other side have as much right to be part of the contest and of the give-and-take that feeds into national policy.

The other big necessity is a commitment to the entire political system that is greater than commitment to any of the particular interests or objectives that get pursued through that system. This does not just mean an avowing of patriotism; expressions of nationalist sentiment are easy to come by even in troubled and unstable nations. What is needed is acknowledgment and genuine belief that the health and smooth functioning of the entire system are of paramount importance and that without them those more parochial interests could not be effectively pursued anyway.

The Republican posture of keeping the U.S. Supreme Court short-handed for a year, and thereby screwing up not just one but two terms of the court, solely to deny an appointment to the incumbent president and to try to hand that power to a hoped-for Republican successor, is the latest and most salient of several episodes that indicate a growing shortfall in the United States of these two essential conditions for stable liberal democracy.

There have been other episodes occurring with increasing frequency in recent years. These include blanket rejection, begun even before Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, of anyone Barack Obama would nominate as an appellate judge. They include automatic opposition to the President’s most important legislative initiatives, as seen most vividly with health care, on which the opposition has become an obsession pursued without regard to the conceptual origins of the particular legislation or its actual effects once enacted. And they include the use of extortion, with threats involving default on debt or shutdown of government, in pursuit of some matter involving the budget or a social issue.

This pattern exhibits a lack of the first requirement involving an acceptance of the opposing side’s legitimacy. The outlook involved has been clear on an issue such as abortion, in which an opposing side get defined as not just wrong but as immoral. The outlook also has been applied personally to Barack Obama more than to any other U.S. president in modern times.

Suffusing through much of the reflexive opposition to his policies, and punctuated by the birther nonsense, has been a sense that he is somehow, well, not quite one of us and not quite a real American, that he is less a legitimate occupant of the Oval Office and more of a transient interloper there. To what extent this attitude is due, as many African-American supporters of Mr. Obama believe, to his race is impossible to determine definitively, but the attitude is too obvious to ignore.

The pattern also exhibits a shortfall in the second key requirement of stable liberal democracy, the greater value that must be placed on the political whole than on any more parochial interests. This shortfall is obviously present with the extortionate tactics involving damage to the nation’s credit rating or to the operation of the entire government, as it is now with tactics threatening to cripple the Supreme Court.

All of this goes beyond the damage that is due to intensified partisanship, which also has become worse in the United States over the past couple of decades and is bad enough just by itself. We are talking here about something more fundamental, and something that is alike in kind to what underlies the instability in any number of politically unstable countries on other continents.

The corresponding problem in the United States, though alike in kind, has not become alike in degree to those archetypical unstable countries from the Third World, again, not yet. But the trend is in the wrong direction, and those who care about the health of American democracy ought to be worried about that trend.

American citizens who do care, and at least as much, those who have been participating in some of the disturbing episodes mentioned above, ought to look at those unstable countries abroad and think the following thoughts.

First, there but for the grace of wise forefathers and other lucky circumstances of America go we.

Second, the critical ingredients of successful and stable liberal democracy are precious, not all that common in the world, and vulnerable to being lost. It may sound oxymoronic but is nevertheless true that political stability is fragile.

And finally, we need to ask ourselves continually what is more important: whatever specific policy issue has gotten people’s dander up at the moment, or having a political system, healthy and effective as well as free, that enables us to argue and compete about such issues at all.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “America’s Slide toward Failed State

  1. H. E. Parmer
    February 26, 2016 at 17:44

    The thought of the U.S. becoming a failed state is frightening enough, but a disintegrating state that’s also the foremost global military power, and possesses a gigantic nuclear arsenal? That’s unprecedented, and it’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

  2. Airbrush2020
    February 22, 2016 at 16:47

    A “Failed State” is a nation that ceases to function, protect it’s citizens, and safegard infrastructure in a meaningful way. The United States is far from being a failed state. However, we are a STAGNANT state. If you look at our social programs and policies we’re still in the FDR days. We’re still fighting the Cold War. We haven’t improved our political process since forever. I haven’t heard an original thought from Congress. We blindly follow lawyers and the wealthy to achieve their ends.

  3. Zachary Smith
    February 21, 2016 at 23:23

    “America’s Slide toward Failed State “

    This was a fine essay, but I’ve got to confess that its title made an even stronger impression on me than did the text. I’ll quibble a bit with this line:

    …the critical ingredients of successful and stable liberal democracy are precious, not all that common in the world, and vulnerable to being lost.

    I’d amend that to say the critical ingredients are already lost. Elections have become a joke, both in the way the candidates are selected and then how we citizens get to “vote” for them. The federal government I knew while growing up has become a shadow of itself.

    Jimmy Carter nailed it when he said that the US has been turned into an oligarchy – in our case the rule by a few dozen billionaires.


    Everything is being ‘privatized’ to make their control even more pervasive; their wealth even greater. The US has the most extensive prison system on the planet. The schools are being destroyed so private systems can take their place. There is incredible pressure on the Post Office to destroy that operation. Water systems are being quietly sold to corporations. That’s what was going on in Flint, Michigan. The crooked state officials turned down Detroit’s offer for cheaper water – they wanted to “prove” by means of extremely high water bills that privatizing was the only solution. They were in such a hurry they rushed the switchover past all objections of not being ready. I’d predict there is about as much of a chance of Snyder going to prison for his part of it as GWB going on trial for torture and illegal warmaking.

    There are already several US states where there are more gun deaths than traffic deaths. Yet that special interest still isn’t satisfied. They’re pushing guns for kids now – anything to satisfy the “second amendment” lunatics and increase profits for the gun-makers. I worry that I’ll live to see the day when there is an NRA equivalent of ObamaCare – you either display proof you own a firearm or you pay a large penalty come April 15. Speaking of ObamaCare – that was a beauty – compulsory purchase of crappy and overpriced insurance.

    The military budget of the US is totally out of control. The revolving door of General >>> Big Weapons Executive is becoming worse than ever. We throw billions into an airplane which is a total piece of crap by any standard. Yet the demands for even more money for this cesspool of waste resonates with large sectors of the ignorant US electorate. If all you know about the situation comes from corporate print or TV media, what else would you believe?

    Getting back to that title, this was the first time I was forced to face the fact that the program to totally destroy the US government is shifting into high gear. Again, all the indications are that the battle is over, and ‘we the people’ lost.

    When was the turning point where the national decent became a rapid one? I’d put it back in 2000 with the Bush vs. Gore case. With the installation of the Texas Torturer, and his choices of Roberts and Alito, the forces of destruction had a period where they were Legally able to do an awful lot of bad things. The Supreme Court threw aside all law and good sense in order to perpetuate itself as a bastion of Right Wing power.

  4. Abbybwood
    February 21, 2016 at 19:54

    Interesting how the young Mitch McConnell said that Supreme Court nominees should be left to the discretion of the president:

  5. S. Keeling
    February 21, 2016 at 19:36

    “The other big necessity is a commitment to the entire political system that is greater than commitment to any of the particular interests or objectives that get pursued through that system. This does not just mean an avowing of patriotism; expressions of nationalist sentiment are easy to come by even in troubled and unstable nations.”

    I’d suggest consigning nationalism to the dustbin of history. It’s not a positive value regardless of how many patriots speak well of it. Tribalism may be in our genes, but our brains enable us to rise above it. We all should as soon as possible. It’s been our nemesis for too long. All it does is divide us and enable “them” to prey upon us. Deny them the sanction of the victim.

  6. newportbob
    February 21, 2016 at 11:42

    Some would argue that the (operational division of the) CIA was essentially at the vanguard of squashing/quashing “democratic socialism” around the world in favor of ruthless business interests — beginning with Mosaddegh in Iran, and continuing with Arbenz and Allende in South/Central America, Lumumba in Africa, and many, many others. That powerful transnational business interests have now begun hollowing out the U.S. (viewing it as a resource to be exploited and driving it toward banana republic oligarchy) should come as no surprise — “Ye shall reap what ye sow” was a sentiment expressed a couple of millennia ago …

    … And, of course, greed and selfishness observe no borders …

    Interestingly, the nature of compartmentalization is such that (I’m guessing) the analyst branches of CIA might well have known less than the general public about what the operative branches of CIA were doing — as some of the “eyewashing” articles in the news lately suggest …

  7. Erik
    February 20, 2016 at 09:57

    Good points here. But I think that the failure of rational political debate is not susceptible to rational analysis: it is due to the conquest of democracy by economic concentrations not present when the US Constitution was written. We do not have a democracy to fail, but a prehistoric tyranny of economic power.

    The right wing never really believes the principles it claims: truth is not a factor in what its members must state as their beliefs. It waves the flag and praises the lord of whatever state it finds itself in, because it must do so to gain the advantages of the gang, and to avoid gang retribution. As H.L. Mencken put it,
    “The average man …avoids the truth as diligently as he avoids arson, regicide or piracy on the high seas, and for the same reason: because he believes that it is dangerous, that no good can come of it, that it doesn’t pay.”

    Even when sympathetic, the sheeple go along with the oligarchy and dump the problem on better citizens and damn them when that is inadequate. They can always pretend that personal benefit is “conservatism.”

    The days of courageous patriotism are long gone. Americans are not stout enough to resist bullying, because they no longer live with forces of nature, but only the forces of money and totalitarianism. They will do nothing until they fear suffering themselves, when it will be too late for them. This will not change until the angry dispossessed are at their door, when the empty suit of armor that the US has become, the fortress of the rich, is toppled by its enemies.

    • DocHollywood
      February 20, 2016 at 13:35

      Erik provides an excellent commentary to compliment Mr Pillar’s thoughtful insights; many thanks to you both.

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