COVID-19: Why America prevails in the 'clash of civilizations'

COVID-19: Why America prevails in the 'clash of civilizations'
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COVID-19 is the latest “pop-quiz” that the cosmos springs on us periodically and unexpectedly. This quiz was designed to test the so-called “clash of civilizations” that so many historians have opined about for the past 100 years, speculating on how well the “American experiment” would do in comparison to fearsome rivals such as global communism and socialism, Islamic fundamentalism and, most recently, China. 

So far, the chaotic, contentious, unpredictable and, at times, outright nasty American open society, instant communication, 300-plus million opinions, free market model has done very well.

While it is very likely that the virus will spread to almost everyone, people are well aware of that and preparing. Someone in every neighborhood in America is preaching about “flattening the curve” and “social distancing.” Local communities are talking and preparing, but few, if any, are panicking. Draconian or extreme measures are proposed by some, but then quickly discussed and rejected. People are prepared for anything.


By far, the most interesting recent event was the Friday press conference held by New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoPaul Rudd hands out cookies to long lines of early voters waiting in rain Two events in NY county turn into superspreaders that infect 56 people Justice Department expands inquiry into NY nursing home COVID-19 death count MORE, at which he announced he would not close public schools at the moment, but would shift those decisions to local governments. The press appeared dumbfounded. They asked repeatedly why he didn’t just “order” New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioOn The Money: Trump makes a late pitch on the economy | US economy records record GDP gains after historic COVID-19 drop | Pelosi eyes big COVID-19 deal in lame duck De Blasio mum on whether he'll block sale of Mets to controversial investor De Blasio says New Yorkers should avoid holiday travel: 'It's sad. It's very sad' MORE to close all schools “now.”  They shouted “social distancing.” Cuomo responded that there were very important tradeoffs. He said many children at home would play with other children and spread the disease anyway. He said that many working-class families couldn’t afford day care and would need to take off work, risking jobs and income. He said that many of those parents were health care workers and it was urgent that they be at work. He said many family decisions must be made at the local level, trusting people closest to the problem. 

That press conference spotlights America’s deepest traditions and strengths.

America is built on trust of the individual more than the state. Federalism is not a quaint, ancient notion. It is a core value. The federal government is given powers assigned to it by the states for the very reasons outlined by Cuomo. Local people are best suited, generally, to understand local crises and make decisions for themselves, unless there is an overriding national interest, e.g., defense, homeland security, interstate transportation, central banking, civil rights.

It is the reason that “antiquated ideas” such as the Electoral College and equal state representation in the U.S. Senate actually create the tremendous cohesion and power that holds America together. 

And it also leads to quicker responses and better decision-making than other systems. America’s political decision-making system can often look like a circus or complete train wreck to outsiders. Everyone thinks they could do better. And yet, it seems to work.


As the coronavirus began to have an impact on America, everyone had an opinion. The virus was 10-30 times more deadly than the flu. Wait a minute! That’s quite a range of uncertainty for “scientific” information, especially lacking any good data. And, no, the flu season was more deadly than people realized. We’re overreacting, we’re under-reacting. “Social-distancing” is essential immediately. Maybe it isn’t (according to Cuomo). Test kits are critical. Test kits won’t be that important since nearly everybody will get the virus and it’s next to impossible to prevent exposure five minutes after a test. 

The point is not who is right. The point is that there is vibrant public discussion and exchange of information. There is a very heated public argument. Decision-makers are forced to confront all sides of an argument. They are forced to make decisions based upon technical information and upon the judgment and wishes of those most affected. That means that democratic decision-makers often have more perspective to work from and the country is more willing to get behind decisions that are made. It also means that decisions can be remade quickly based upon new information. 

At the same time, the economy reacts faster and, ultimately, better. The decline in the stock market was dramatic as America rapidly re-allocated its capital. Relying on the knowledge, insights and instincts, and, yes, greed, of fierce and focussed business people and analysts, the market immediately re-balanced the economy based upon the best information and analysis in the world. Other systems, relying on a room full of old, male, bureaucrats and autocrats and “technocrats,” often get it very wrong and compound their mistakes with secrecy, repression and denial.

The American approach sometimes may appear more cold and ruthless than other systems, and yet far more effective at delivering on ultimate, broad social good than any other system, although admittedly after a circuitous and often chaotic journey. It channels all the knowledge and wisdom of an entire society into thoughtful decisions and action, rather than relying on a narrow group of “elites.” Of course, it wins and all Americans benefit. 

That is what authoritarians and many progressives cannot grasp. It is what the dictators in Moscow and Beijing and the mullahs in Qom will never get. It is why America will do very well in the “clash of civilizations” and probably emerge more quickly and stronger than others in the COVID-19 crisis.

Grady Means is a writer (GradyMeans.com) and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1.