The erosion of American resilience
The enviable American resilience that once enabled the world’s only superpower to easily adapt to shocks like economic crashes and pandemics is being eroded for shortsighted personal gain. I lead the research behind the Fund for Peace‘s annual Fragile States Index analyzing global national fragility and resilience. America is a country that once ably met great challenges but is now regularly shaken by seemingly minor events. Today, however, its institutional legitimacy is being undercut by repeated failures, sacrificed for narrow ephemeral gains. How did we get here and how do we recover?
A simple fix to a single cause or a restoration of the imagined glories of a past era misunderstands the present. Our weaknesses did not spring from a single individual, nor can they be put back in the box by a single election.
Pressures mounting for decades are now so common we are numb to their recitation, though not to their effects: The opioid crisis, deindustrialization, and natural disasters magnified by climate change weaken our faith in American prosperity, while a gutted local media, the purge of expertise from public agencies, and flourishing conspiracy theories — from the ‘Deep State’ to QAnon — undermine faith in our institutions.
The American government’s responsibilities encompass what journalist and author Michael Lewis calls “the biggest portfolio of [catastrophic] risks ever managed by a single institution in the history of the world,” some now all too apparent while others still virtually unimaginable. Yet the erosion of trust and the crippling of national institutions hamstring the response to challenges old and new, while massive shocks like COVID-19 accelerate the breakdown. The result is a genuine national uncertainty for the future of our country.
As a nation’s resilience is chipped away in pieces big and small, even minor shocks can generate cascading effects, particularly during periods of uncertainty.
Elections are often a prime example of this type of uncertainty, especially when norms around the peaceful transfer of power and the legitimacy of the opposition are eroded. Election “war games” run by the bipartisan Transition Integrity Project warn that our November election could “be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape” and that “Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means” potentially lasting all the way to Inauguration Day. During this extended period of turbulence, the choices of individuals from postal workers to election officials and up to our party leadership could substantively shape America’s future for the better, or worse.
In analyzing global fragility, it is clear that vulnerabilities rarely manifest in a single way, and successfully avoiding one risk does not preclude another. Even if the election is decided peacefully and without major controversy, America could experience further democratic backsliding. As seen in countries like Hungary and Poland, such backsliding rarely takes the form of a single decisive crisis.
Restoring institutional legitimacy is a daunting task that must be undertaken in the harsh spotlight of public attention as well as in dark corners where altruistic actions and personal sacrifice elicit no public acclaim.
We will need to challenge national shibboleths and be unafraid to experiment with what has worked in other countries, including potentially radical changes to our fundamental political institutions, such as German mixed-member proportional representation, Brazilian participatory democracy or Taiwanese digital democracy.
However we do it, rebuilding national resilience depends on our public figures, but also on millions of individual choices appearing singularly unimportant but which collectively create a future worthy of the historic sacrifices of our parents and the dreams of our children.
Natalie Fiertz is a programs manager at the Fund for Peace. She principally works on the group’s state fragility and resilience and conflict early warning and response programs. She leads the annual production of the Fragile States Index. She has field experience in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, India, and Mali and holds a Master’s in Public Policy from Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.