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.