On Sept. 10, 2001, the American mood was upbeat. Twenty years later, Americans are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In trying too hard to protect itself from external terrorist threats, Washington forgot to handle its own.
The New York sky at dawn on Sept. 11, 2001, was a reflection of the future taking shape in the United States at the start of the 21st century. It was radiant, cloudless on the horizon. The country reigned as the world’s sole superpower, its ideological enemies were falling into ruin and China was still in the early stages of what it would become.
Since 1992, economic growth had been uninterrupted. Performance in the period from 1996 to 2000 rivaled that of the 1960s, even the heart of the “30 glorious years,” a booming age for the American industrial fabric. This time, it was the technological revolution that led the charge.
The federal government was awash in unprecedented budget surpluses and the country had begun to pay off its national debt, then totaling $5 trillion. The presidential candidates in 2000 vied with each other in the generosity of their tax cut pledges.
The era of the first partisan trench wars in Congress had begun in earnest. There was even, at the end of the 1990s, the first full impeachment of a sitting president since 1868! But the governmental and legislative apparatus worked. Bill Clinton worked with Republicans to reach a balanced budget, reform social welfare and create a broad health care program for children, among other noteworthy accomplishments. And his successor, Republican George W. Bush, from his first months in the presidency, envisioned bipartisan cooperation, notably in the areas of tax relief and education.
In short, people were content. A clear majority of Americans deemed the union to be on the right path. Twenty years on, the nation’s horizon has darkened as much as the Manhattan sky midway through that fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The following decade in the United States was marked by a main debate on the role the world’s leading power should play on the international scene following the 9/11 attacks. Bush’s response took the form of two wars in the Middle East — one in Afghanistan, and one in Iraq — to protect American citizens from the new and diffuse threat that was Islamist terrorism. He turned his country into the world’s police and instituted the Bush Doctrine, believing that the best way to defend the United States was to export democracy. Americans were going to “spread liberty around the world,” to use the phrase prized by Bush. It was a new version of the Pax Americana of John F. Kennedy that many in Bush’s inner circle, from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to Vice President Dick Cheney, had wanted since the end of the Cold War 10 years before.
An untold number of essays and documentaries have analyzed, supported or even criticized this doctrine. In 2000, presidential candidate Bush, then governor of Texas, had rather called for a “humble” foreign policy, rejecting what he called efforts at “nation-building” undertaken by the Clinton administration in Haiti and Kosovo. 9/11 shook up his presidential program. The country was now in the grips of “a war unlike any other” that “oceans [could] no longer protect [Americans] from.”
But the enemy of power in the U.S. was not, in fact, what it was believed to be, and not in distant lands. What would weaken democracy in the country was coming from within. Budget surpluses gave way to historic deficits due to costly, and just as onerous, economic stimulus plans in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, notably provoked by laxity and government incompetence in the face of a powerful Wall Street. In 20 years, the federal deficit thus quintupled. It is some $28 trillion as of 2021, which results in a ratio of debt in proportion to gross domestic product higher than after World War II.
This financial skid weakening the country is the fruit of another menace. While the United States asserts itself as a model of democracy, its political institutions are crumbling. Every presidency since the start of the 21st century has been hampered by legislative dysfunction between the White House and Congress. The level of polarization between Democrats and Republicans is at its highest since the Civil War, when 620,000 soldiers lost their lives.
If the American people exuded good humor and confidence on Sept. 10, 2001, 20 years later they are in the dumps. When Joe Biden was elected in November 2020, fewer than one-quarter of Americans were satisfied with the direction their country was taking. Even at the height of the presidential honeymoon, a month after Biden took office, barely one-third of Americans, according to a poll by The Economist, were happy with the trajectory of the United States.
Worse, the average American voter mistrusts his neighbor.
Data, and studies that have multiplied in recent years, show Americans are less and less inclined to have friends, neighbors or partners who support a political party different from their own. The American left has been marked by a movement of censorship that emerged on college campuses and has gained momentum. As for the right, it is always largely, almost blindly, in line behind a leader with authoritarian tendencies who continually questions the very legitimacy of American elections.
The past year, especially, has aroused serious doubts as to the sustainability of not only hegemony, but American democracy. This fragility is of course not entirely attributable to the response of the country to the 9/11 attacks. Still, the damage that resulted, both direct and collateral, will have an immeasurable effect on the levels of cynicism, division and, ultimately, the desire for a more populist, nationalist and authoritarian style of politics.
While the American gaze was turned toward external dangers, the threat from within remained in its blind spot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Global Terrorism Database, in the years following 9/11, about 50 times more Americans were killed by firearms than in terrorist attacks.
The government looked to combat Islamist radicalization, while emerging social networks freely contributed to the extreme political tribalism between Americans. The pinnacle of domestic radicalism was the armed insurrection at the Capitol, the seat of legislative power for two centuries, led by an incumbent president.
Contrary to the twin towers, America is still standing. But its foundations are seriously damaged.