Optimism is to be cherished, but, given the state of the world, it may be a foolish indulgence. The times call for levelheaded engagement, not the dreamy complacency that optimism breeds. Faith in our political system, in the American people, or in the capacities of elected leaders: faith like that has yielded small rewards lately. The glue of trust that valorizes American government is disintegrating.
That the US has fallen into troughs of mediocrity before (think of the Gilded Age culture Mark Twain pilloried) is one of the few thoughts that consoles me.
Our national capacities matter more then ever, given the dire condition of the world, our institutions, and many of our communities. What can we bring to 2016’s daunting prospect, a prospect defined by several cosmic and worrisome possibilities?
1. World War Three?
If it breaks out, it will be a war like no other, as was also true of World Wars One and Two. In fact, it may already be underway. We may not know it, simply because we are in the same situation as those who lived through other world wars. We watch as an unconventional conflict erupts and spreads in a fashion that the world order is unprepared to protect itself against. In Syria and with the Islamic State, aggressors are working with playbooks that defy borders and prevailing conceptions of war and nationality. As in previous wars, the Middle East’s war-within-a war has geographic and strategic traits that have already begun enmeshing a widening set of parties, both psychologically and militarily.
2. The decline of national sovereignty
World order as we know it is based on the concept of the nation-state: that states and powers have boundaries, and that, within those boundaries, all are subject to a nation’s laws. The international order and our concepts of war are built on the notion that nations are sovereign. In the many parts of the world, the concept of the nation-state has allowed humans to live peacefully under the rule of law.
These days, the integrity of the nation-state and the inviolable nature of national sovereignty are losing salience. A host of contributing forces, both economic and geopolitical, was strikingly evident in 2015. While Greece’s economic crisis exposed the mutual discontents inherent in the great experiment known as the European Union, its member-states are increasingly fractious, as the incidence of terrorism and a massive influx of refugees from war-torn and dysfunctional parts of the world have highlighted their loss of internal control.
Global mobility has increasingly challenged the static bulwark of the nation state, but the world’s leading powers have also rained insults on its integrity. Whether it’s Russia in the Ukraine, or the US in Syria, the superpowers frequently allow their desires to override their respect for the sovereignty of nations that they dislike. Their increasing resort to overt and covert interventionism mocks the concept of national sovereignty. Even changes in technology–such as the increasing sophistication of air-to-ground warfare–have made it easier to ignore and violate the clear boundaries that formerly protected nations from one another and impeded a general descent into war.
3. Witchy weather
Climate change, global warming—call it what you will, it’s a major worry. Unbreathable air; murderous landslides; droughts and forest fires; glaciers melting, oceans rising. Whether you’re a scientist or a believer in the Biblical end-time, you may agree (while wearing shorts in winter) that ‘Old Mother Nature’ is trying to tell us something. Resource exhaustion is how a planet’s inhabitants typically do themselves in. With omens like this, why worry about bombs?
4. The twin bankruptcies of Chicago and Illinois
Chicago and the State of Illinois are bankrupt already. They just haven’t admitted it yet because of the shame. The most powerful people in our state, especially the state legislators and Speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan, will be remembered as the people at the helm when the ship went down.
Poor governance alone is to blame for Chicago and Illinois’s difficulties, for, ironically, both are richly endowed entities, with great human capital and masses of valuable resources and assets, including some of the world’s most productive farmland. Illinois has one of the largest GDPs in the country, but it is saddled with a growing and inescapable debt load consisting chiefly of unmet pension obligations, the legacy of decades of corrupt and self-interested leadership.
The collapse of a major American city and its state AT THE SAME TIME has no precedent in US history. History will remember and damn the leading politicians who for decades have written bad laws and abused the people’s trust. Hold on to your hats, all Illinois! 2016’s going to be a bumpy ride.
5. A Donald Trump presidency
Beyond the well-aired controversies that Donald Trump inflames, his ascendancy portends chaos in the political realm. Not only does Trump’s unwelcome prominence prove that the Republican National Committee has lost control of the party; it also shows the degree to which both parties and their personnel have lost touch with the sentiments of the electorate. Whether Trump can convert viewers into votes remains to be seen, but if he polls well, we’re going to find out what happens when a candidate upends an entrenched national party.
Image: Carol M. Highsmith, Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island,
from this source.
I do not understand why there is not a movement to amend the state constitution so that pension reforms can be negotiated. Margie
There should be, but I think the tradition of union support in Illinois is so strong that many people are reluctant to oppose public-worker privileges openly. It would take several years of hard work to get rid of the pensions-protection clause using the referendum process–and even then it might not succeed in a state-wide ballot. The legislature has previously failed to effect even a modest change to this part of the IL constitution:
The Crain’s article suggests that Illinoisans do not understand the role of pension obligations in bringing the government down, but that’s hard to believe given the exhaustive coverage this topic has been receiving for years.
This is why I favor a judicial challenge to the pension-protection clause–I believe it could be struck down as violating the guarantee of equal protection in the US Constitution.
The pension loads are clearly the main albatross strangling the city and state. If they cannot be modified, the state and city will go down.
Good post, Susan. It is sobering to contemplate so many major problems at a range of scales, from the very local to the stratospheric (and their interconnections).
Yes, it is sobering–particularly since I limited myself just a few worries and left some items (like the asymmetric conflict between religious toleration and violent fanaticism off the list).
Some of the big problems are interconnected, and one of the interesting aspects of this presidential election cycle is that the candidates are stressing and exploiting some of these connections. This is one of the healthier features of the campaign, in my opinion.
Thanks for writing in!