1.7 US in Decline - Perils of Elitism & Vested Interests
1 December 2016
The picture of US today is one of constant internal squabbling. The election of the highly controversial Donald Trump shows how bitterly divided the country is. Studies of public opinions in the past shows that the more serious the domestic problems relative to the external challenges facing the US are, the greater are Americans’ isolationist tendencies. It’s therefore hard to see how US can wage another war on a new front without first bridging its domestic social and political divides and arriving at a consensus on the roles US should play as a responsible player in a UN-centric international order within a geopolitically multipolar world. Otherwise, all that China needs to achieve in a conflict in SCS is a stalemate and the high costs associated with yet another protracted war will over time wear thin any domestic support that the US government may have to begin with.
US in Sustained Decline
Why this long story about the evolution of US foreign policy? It is to make a point that, relative to the rest of the world at least, the US is indeed in a stage of sustained decline, in case there are still doubts. More importantly, the waning of its fortune is broad-based and it is highly unlikely that the world will return to a unipolar geopolitical structure.
Externally, amid the growing crisis associated with neoliberalism, the influence of international financial institutions (i.e. IMF and World Bank) and multilateral regulatory institutions (i.e. WTO, United Nations), where the US itself has traditionally wielded exceptional influence, has been on the decline. To illustrate as evidence, critics have been quick to point to the ‘failure’ of the Doha round of trade negotiations within the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the contemporary rejection in Latin America of IMF recipes for adjustment and restructuring, the current expansion of ‘Third World’ (particularly Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and Russian) capital, and the re-emergence of inter-imperialistic competition between US and EU blocs with the collapse of the socialist threat to capitalism.
Domestically, the US is seeing multiple failures in its social, economic and political systems. These extensive failures are systemic and are caused not by unexpected changes in environment but by deliberate short-sighted policies made under influence of lobbying to favour specific sections of Americans. And because they are caused by deliberate actions, they can only be resolved by deliberate adjustments in policies. This, however, is unlikely to happen because of deeply entrenched vested interests of American elites. American political system is therefore one of “to get along, go along”. In other words, any president who wants to have work done must learn to go along instead of go against. In the end, decisions are made based on consultation and compromise with the entrenched interests.
The Perils of Elitism and Vested Interests
The issue of elitism is not new. The studies by C. Wright Mills on Elite Decision-Making Theory in the 1950s triggered an intense debate over the policy-formulation process in the US. The quote below pertains to American foreign policy formulations but the same may well apply to policymaking in other areas:
“According to elite theory, foreign policy is formulated as a response to demands generated by the domestic political and economic order. However, not all demands received equal attention. Some are more privileged than others. Those interests that receive special consideration and become embodied in policy advance the economic and political well-being of only a small sector of society.”
“Elite theory sees policy makers in and out of government as being a stable and cohesive group who share common goals, interests, and values. Disagreement exists only at the margins and surface most frequently in disputes over how to implement policy and not over the ends of that policy. Those outside the elite group are held to be powerless. They react to policy rather than shape it. Furthermore, public reactions are often orchestrated and manipulated by elites. Ideas that do not build upon the relatively narrow range of value assumptions shared by the elite and that are supported by the underlying socioeconomic structure of American society will fail to become embodied in policy. Elite theory thus expects that the basic directions of US foreign policy will change little, if at all.”
Concerns over undue influence of elitist groups arose in fact as far back as the first US President George Washington and his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who went on to become the third US president. Both had a deep mistrust of US elites whom they worried would influence foreign policy resulting in US entering into military alliances and costly wars and in the process legitimizing the narrowly-focused commercial interests at the expense of the majority of the populace. Washington’s and Jefferson’s worry proved prophetic when hearings held in 1934 by Nye Commission concluded that bankers and commercial interests had lobbied President Woodrow Wilson into WWI and profited handsomely from the war. As a result of the finding, US Congress passed a series of four Neutrality Acts in 1935, 1936, and 1937 designed to keep the United States out of WWII and to prohibit Americans from lending money or selling weapons to warring states.
In 1961, warning came again from the outgoing 34th president General Eisenhower who voiced in his farewell address the dangers of a military-industrial complex (MIC) made up of a coalition of business interests and professional military officers who when retired held important positions in defence industries. In the early 1960s, for example, General Dynamics Corporation, which produced the Polaris submarine among other weapons systems, employed 200 retired military officers. Its president was a former secretary of the army. Both defence industrialists and military officers were also found in Congress. Even though war and the preparation for war were not necessarily in the American national interests, they served the business and professional interests of these groups. Hence, these groups had a vested interest in belligerent foreign policies and it was Eisenhower’s view that their informal alliance had coalesced into a powerful lobby that threatened to “distort the American economy and undermine democracy and American civil liberties”.
By the 1980s, the US MIC began to finance the rise of the neocons who served initially within the Reagan administration and then again with Junior Bush. The Bush administration was, therefore, dominated by hawkish neocons who were indebted to the MIC. Their waging of a preventive war unilaterally without any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Iraq stands testimonial to the harms a small group of policy elites can inflict on the standing of an otherwise great nation that had played a pivot role in ending the two world wars and in protecting the free world from the threat of dictatorial communism.
The MIC is only one of the many examples of how policymaking is being influenced by commercial interests working with policymakers. Today, powerful lobbies exist to represent a wide array of interests seeking to influence policy in their favour, leaving only the masses, for whom the political system is supposed to serve first and foremost, without any effective representation for their wellbeing.
The US is in decline therefore not because of external challenges from another hegemonic power but because of internal decay brought about by political and business elites. To say that this is US’ moment of reckoning is an understatement. Because of the unrestrained globalization promoted by neoliberalism since the time of Reagan, the US economy has been hollowed out resulting in rising unemployment, falling wages shrinking middle-class, and rising inequality. The unrestrained speculation brought about by financialization of its economy also culminated in more frequent bouts of financial crises, each of increasing severity. Meanwhile, many social welfare measures put in place by FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society had been systematically stripped off, in the name of efficiency and fiscal rectitude, by successive presidents starting from Reagan. Trillions, on the other hand, have been and are still being added to the astronomical level of national debts due to Bush’s Middle East policies while US’ physical infrastructures badly in need of repairs and upgrading lie antiquated awaiting rejuvenation due to lack of funding.
For the majority of the Americans, this is the worst of time. Neither the Democratic nor the Republican agenda is working the way the American people expect it to work. Given the challenges US face today, there is never a more dire need for its political system to be at its best. Yet, instead of producing the best person for the job, the winner of the 2016 presidential election was one of the lesser evil. Americans chose not to elect Hillary but their long-time distrust of their political institutions led to their misguided faith in the highly controversial anti-establishment Trump to fix the system. But Hillary and Trump are merely the symptoms. The real problem to begin with is the electoral system that produced the two worst candidates in the electoral history of America.
In short, a revolution is afoot in American politics. Struggles are being “waged against the neoconservative form of imperialism as well as against the continuation of neoliberalism at the economic level”. The outcome, which will have grave impacts not only on the US but also the rest of the world, depends on the balance of domestic political forces of not only the elites but also the hitherto powerless masses that have been shut out of the political system and impoverished by the economic system.
For now, the world can only watch and hope that the Americans find a way to address their problems. Until they do, the US is in no position to mount an effective response to the challenge posed by China’s rise or, for that matter, to lead the free world again as Colin Powell’s idea of a good bully.
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 See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 420.
 See Tsolakis, Andreas A. (___).
 See Ranalli, Brent. (2016).
 See Wright, Mills C. (1956).
 See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 160
 Mead (2001). Pg 187; See Kalaitzidis, Akis & Streich, Gregory W. (2011). pp xiv.
 See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 376
 See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 351.
 See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 246
 See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 332.
 See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 158.
 See Phillips, Richard. (2016).
 See Harvey D. (2003). pp 221