American Democracy and the Challenge of Globalization

articles by Michael H. HuntThe midterm election campaign now approaching the home stretch has brought with it striking but fairly empty calls to action–from the Tea Party frenzy over fiscal virtue to a president exhorting his base with the banal promise of “moving America forward.”

But this and all the other lamentable features of our democracy, it is worth stressing, are nothing new. Many of those eligible to vote don’t, and the percentage of no-shows tends to be significantly higher than in other long-established democracies. Voters don’t know much. Though two-thirds of those surveyed by the Quinnipiac University Poll earlier this year claim to follow government and public affairs most of the time, the evidence suggests that they are in fact ill-informed on some of the most contentious issues of our time such as the workings of the health care system, the stimulatory effect of federal spending, and the science of climate change. What voters do know about is the state of their pocketbook, and that concern usually eclipses international issues, public goods, or questions of social justice.

What makes the upcoming election unusually worrisome is the silence over powerful international forces increasingly shaping American life. Globalization is the umbrella term for those forces. It has been playing out over the last century-and-a-half, gathering remarkable momentum over the last four decades and creating economic and social pressures noted three years ago in my treatment of The American Ascendancy (UNC Press). However consequential globalization may be, ordinary Americans have had difficulty wrapping their minds around it. In part the problem is sheer ignorance of the broader world. And in part it is the popularity of a version of globalization that is notably narrow and ahistorical.

Were globalization taken seriously, election-year debates and manifestos might grapple with four profound challenges facing the country. Globalization has, first of all, precipitated a relative U.S. decline that is at odds with any triumphalist notion of the “American century” and that calls for fresh thinking on the fundamentals of U.S. policy. The rise of the multipolar world with us today began with the recovery of the western European and Japanese economies in the several decades after World War II. More recently, poorer countries such as China, India, and Brazil have gotten onto the fast track. The implications are enormous. Not only is the U.S. no longer the dominant economic power, it is hardly as dynamic as it once was. Moreover, the very fact that so many peoples are now on the growth escalator has enormous implications. How to satisfy the material aspirations of so many with limited resources on a planet already in peril? A consumer-minded U.S. public is going to find it constitutionally difficult to confront the disturbing environmental and resource consequences of spreading abundance.

To make matters worse, this rise of multiple powers has (from an American perspective) followed an unorthodox path. States have played a major role in creating the foundations for economic success and in managing growth. Doing well economically, it turns out, depends not on an unfettered market but on an active state setting industrial policy and making provision for public goods including education, infrastructure, and social insurance against the instability inherent in a mobile, integrated world. With only one in five Americans thinking the federal government does the right thing most or almost all the time (according to the Quinnipiac University Poll noted above), there seems little chance of their abandoning their almost religious attachment to free markets and their intense distrust of the state.

The free market version of globalization that has taken hold in the United States not only feeds distrust of the state but also has raised corporations to a place so privileged that their influence extends well beyond the marketplace and into the political arena. Corporations have used that position to sidestep or neutralize state oversight and to capture government officials and agencies. (What better example than the officials in the Bush and Obama administrations who first neglected and then rescued a banking community in which they had a deep personal and professional investment.) To perpetuate this favorable situation, corporations have managed–with the blessing of the courts–to acquire political personhood with the right to spend freely to influence elections and legislation.

Finally, globalization tends over time to widen the income gap by providing disproportionate rewards to those with intellectual, social, and real capital. In the United States now that gap is as wide as at any time since 1917. For the last reported year (2008), the top 10 percent of income earners claimed roughly half of all income generated in the United States (according to the research of Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty). Japan and the continental European countries exposed to the same pressures toward inequality have responded by adopting distributive and educational policies to limit the disproportionate rewards that would otherwise go to the skilled and to high finance. Fighting social inequalities in this way is of course possible only with some kind of national consensus that a problem exists and with an acceptance of a large government role (including significant levels of taxation) as key parts of any solution. Neither of those preconditions exists in the United States.

The intense, multifaceted challenges posed by globalization require of Americans two things: First, more citizens need to care enough to vote, certainly more than the usual turn-out for midterm elections (less than two in five). Readers who need a little nudge might want to see these stories on the first day of early one-stop voting across North Carolina and on provisions in other states for early voting. But we also need voters who can take the measure of our country’s serious situation. Here is the larger challenge for scholars and policy specialists–of finding ways to make the big, difficult, neglected issues posed by globalization salient and comprehensible to the voting public.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.