Qui­te un­ders­tan­dab­ly, the news from Ame­ri­ca these days is do­mi­na­ted by the ext­ra­or­di­na­ry spec­tac­le of an una­bas­hed­ly nar­cis­sis­tic, pat­ho­lo­gi­cal liar chal­len­ging a cog­ni­ti­ve­ly-dec­li­ning, oc­to­ge­na­ri­an in­cum­bent for the pre­si­den­cy. Were this a mo­vie, cri­tics, and cog­nos­cen­ti would un­doub­ted­ly pan it as an over-the-top, one-joke far­ce lac­king any cha­rac­ter de­ve­lop­ment or in­tel­lec­tu­al depth. No­net­he­less (or more ac­cu­ra­te­ly, con­se­qu­ent­ly?), it cer­tain­ly has eve­ryt­hing nee­ded to make it the smash hit of the 2024 se­a­son.

The Spectacle of American Politics

The ca­pa­ci­ty of the Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal sys­tem to keep the world en­ter­tai­ned should not hide the fact that se­ri­ous, im­por­tant things are hap­pe­ning in Ame­ri­ca. In sa­ying this, I am not trying to sug­gest that who oc­cu­pies the White Hou­se af­ter the next Ame­ri­can elec­ti­on is unim­por­tant. Far from it: a se­cond Trump term would be vast­ly dif­fe­rent from a se­cond Bi­den term, and who wins the elec­ti­on – and how the lo­ser ac­cepts this out­co­me – will have swee­ping con­se­qu­en­ces for both Ame­ri­ca and the world. 

But in fo­cu­sing on the po­li­ti­cal co­me­dy of the mo­ment, it is es­sen­ti­al not to lose sight of the fun­da­men­tal chan­ges ta­king place just be­low the sur­fa­ce in Ame­ri­ca. Tec­to­nic pro­ces­ses at work are slow­ly but pro­found­ly re­ma­king Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty.  While these pro­ces­ses are inf­lu­en­ced by – and, in some ca­ses, dri­ven by po­li­ti­cal de­ci­si­ons, on­ce be­gun, they fol­low their ine­luc­tab­le lo­gic and un­fold on time sca­les far lon­ger than hu­man li­ves, much less sing­le pre­si­den­cies. To un­ders­tand what is going on in to­day’s Ame­ri­can po­li­tics – and to get a sen­se of what Ame­ri­ca will li­ke­ly look like in thir­ty or fif­ty ye­ars – it is es­sen­ti­al to fo­cus on four of these pro­ces­ses.

The Struggle for Transformation

The first and most pro­mi­nent of these is the on­going so­cio-eco­no­mic trans­for­ma­ti­on of Ame­ri­ca. Kick-star­ted by the tech­no­lo­gi­cal re­vo­lu­ti­on fi­nan­ced by the Cold War and sped up by the Baby Boo­mer ge­ne­ra­ti­on’s po­li­ti­cal emb­ra­ce of eco­no­mic li­be­ra­li­za­ti­on phi­lo­sop­hy, Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty's trans­for­ma­ti­on from in­dust­ri­al to post-in­dust­ri­al con­ti­nu­es to move to­ward its lo­gi­cal conc­lu­si­ons. This so­cio-eco­no­mic shift is vast­ly con­se­qu­en­ti­al, like the trans­for­ma­ti­on from an ag­ri­cul­tu­ral eco­no­my to an in­dust­ri­al one a cen­tu­ry ear­lier. It upends per­so­nal and so­ci­al hie­rarc­hies, chan­ging the skil­ls, traits, and be­ha­vi­ors va­lu­ed and res­pec­ted, rip­ping away the un­der­pin­nings of the pre­vi­ous ge­ne­ra­ti­on’s so­ci­al or­der. 

It dest­ro­ys the eco­no­mic vi­a­bi­li­ty of en­ti­re com­mu­ni­ties, even re­gi­ons, le­a­ving their in­ha­bi­tants eit­her to be suc­ked down­ward, swim­ming help­les­s­ly against a de­ath spi­ral, or to aban­don their past and be­co­me emig­rants to new pla­ces in what for them is a so­ci­o­lo­gi­cal new world. It chan­ges the re­la­ti­ve va­lue of la­bor, fi­nan­ci­al ca­pi­tal, and hu­man ca­pi­tal. It le­a­ves many tra­di­ti­o­nal ins­ti­tu­ti­ons figh­ting a re­ar­gu­ard, re­ac­ti­o­na­ry fight for re­le­van­ce and inf­lu­en­ce while ge­ne­ra­ting new ope­nings and new cre­a­ti­ve pres­su­res for bet­ter-po­si­ti­o­ned ins­ti­tu­ti­ons and new ones. 

This sort of chan­ge is bloo­dy, not blood­less. Even in their de­ath-throes, some tra­di­ti­o­nal ins­ti­tu­ti­ons are li­ke­ly to grow in po­wer tem­po­ra­ri­ly, dra­wing on the an­ger and des­pair of the “dep­lo­rab­les” who find them­sel­ves pas­sed over by prog­ress. These ins­ti­tu­ti­ons and their mem­bers­hip will fight fier­ce­ly to pro­tect their vi­si­on of the good life against the com­pe­ting one post-mo­der­ni­ty of­fers. So­ci­al re­vo­lu­ti­ons, even ones drag­ged out over mul­tip­le ge­ne­ra­ti­ons, are not pret­ty things to watch. The Gos­pel of Mat­t­hew, fa­mi­li­ar to Fun­da­men­ta­list Chris­ti­ans, of­fers an apt desc­rip­ti­on of chan­ge: “Do not think that I have come to bring pe­a­ce to the earth; I have not come to bring pe­a­ce, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his fat­her and a daugh­ter against her mot­her.”

The se­cond fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­ti­on of Ame­ri­ca that is now un­der­way is en­vi­ron­men­tal. Cli­ma­te chan­ge is real and is hap­pe­ning at a pace that cur­rent­ly outst­rips the ca­pa­ci­ty of po­li­ti­cal, eco­no­mic, or so­ci­al for­ces to res­pond or adapt. It is iro­nic and sig­ni­fi­cant that ci­ties like Pho­e­nix (in an inc­re­a­sing­ly parc­hed de­sert) and Fort My­ers (mas­si­ve­ly vul­ne­rab­le to hur­ri­ca­nes from the inc­re­a­sing­ly hur­ri­ca­ne-prone At­lan­tic) are near the top of Ame­ri­ca's most ra­pid­ly gro­wing ur­ban are­as. Even if not yet un­li­vab­le, parts of Ame­ri­ca are inc­re­a­sing­ly be­co­ming un-in­su­rab­le. 

The third trans­for­ma­ti­on is de­mog­rap­hic. Here, there still exists a choi­ce. Ame­ri­ca can ac­cept be­co­ming an inc­re­a­sing­ly aged na­ti­on and see its po­pu­la­ti­on shrink – an op­ti­on which, at best, will le­a­ve it with the eco­no­mic and so­ci­al chal­len­ges fa­cing Eu­ro­pe but, equ­al­ly li­ke­ly, will le­a­ve it with an eco­no­mic ca­tast­rop­he like the one fa­cing China and Rus­sia. Or Ame­ri­ca can emb­ra­ce im­mig­ra­ti­on and, as it has at past junc­tu­res in its his­to­ry, wrest­le with the ge­nui­ne but ul­ti­ma­te­ly ma­na­ge­ab­le prob­lems of in­teg­ra­ting cul­tu­ral­ly dif­fe­rent po­pu­la­ti­ons in­to an evol­ving na­ti­o­nal iden­ti­ty. Eit­her way, if one fal­ls in­to the trap of de­fi­ning yes­ter­day’s re­a­li­ty or to­day’s as “nor­mal,” Ame­ri­ca of the fu­tu­re will be inc­re­a­sing­ly stran­ge.

Tec­to­nic Tech­no­lo­gi­cal Shifts Af­fect Eve­ryt­hing

Fi­nal­ly, the Uni­ted Sta­tes is un­der­going a tech­no­lo­gi­cal and inf­rast­ruc­tu­ral trans­for­ma­ti­on. Even ack­now­led­ging sig­ni­fi­cant inef­fi­cien­cies in pub­lic and pri­va­te ca­pi­tal in­vest­ments, one can­not spend as much mo­ney as Ame­ri­ca is cur­rent­ly spen­ding wit­hout it ha­ving an im­pact. Some of this in­vest­ment is in main­tai­ning, mo­der­ni­zing, or ex­pan­ding the “old” inf­rast­ruc­tu­re: wa­ter, elect­ri­ci­ty, oil and na­tu­ral gas, high­wa­ys, brid­ges, con­tai­ner ports, air­ports, etc. Some of it is in inf­rast­ruc­tu­re that is dif­fe­rent from but ana­lo­gous to the old inf­rast­ruc­tu­re – for examp­le, high-speed in­ter­net con­nec­ti­vi­ty and ex­ten­si­ve net­works of sa­tel­li­tes. 

Some of it, though, is suf­fi­cient­ly no­vel that it may not even seem like “inf­rast­ruc­tu­re.” For examp­le, the Uni­ted Sta­tes, which cur­rent­ly has rough­ly half the world’s data cen­ter ca­pa­ci­ty and ope­ra­tes eight of the 13 most pro­mi­nent cen­ters in the world, is pro­jec­ted to see its data cen­ter ca­pa­ci­ty ex­pand from rough­ly 14 gi­ga­wat­ts to ap­p­ro­xi­ma­te­ly 25 gi­ga­wat­ts in just the next five ye­ars. Be­cau­se they don’t use a data cen­ter to get their crops or wid­gets to mar­ket, nor do most of them (cur­rent­ly) use a data cen­ter to com­mu­te to the of­fi­ce, Ame­ri­cans tend to over­look the mag­ni­tu­de and trans­for­ma­ti­ve im­pact of the next-era ca­pi­tal in­vest­ment now hap­pe­ning, see­ing sta­sis when in fact ge­nui­ne, hu­ge­ly con­se­qu­en­ti­al chan­ge is un­der­way.

Our fi­xa­ti­on on the No­vem­ber elec­ti­ons is na­tu­ral – and, gi­ven the sta­kes, pro­bab­ly he­alt­hy and wise. But pay at­ten­ti­on to the more pro­found chan­ges in Ame­ri­ca! Even ma­king the most con­ser­va­ti­ve as­sump­ti­ons about how all this plays out and even avoi­ding the crazy hype of tech­no­lo­gi­cal fu­tu­rists, it should be clear that Ame­ri­ca is very much a so­cie­ty and eco­no­my in tran­si­ti­on.


Ed­ward Rho­des is a pro­fes­sor of Go­vern­ment and In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Af­fairs at Ge­or­ge Ma­son Uni­ver­si­ty. Rho­des is best known for his re­se­arch in­to the phi­lo­sop­hi­cal and cul­tu­ral roots of Ame­ri­can fo­reign and na­ti­o­nal se­cu­ri­ty po­li­cy. Rho­des ser­ved for six ye­ars on the U.S. State De­part­ment’s Ad­vi­so­ry Com­mit­tee on His­to­ri­cal Dip­lo­ma­tic Do­cu­men­ta­ti­on, the Cong­res­si­o­nal­ly man­da­ted, non­par­ti­san body that re­views and cer­ti­fies the of­fi­ci­al, pub­lis­hed ac­count of Ame­ri­can fo­reign po­li­cy for comp­le­te­ness and ac­cu­ra­cy.