Despite Joe Biden’s election and the speeches about national unity by the new president of the United States, American society remains more polarized than ever and is still struggling with the issue of race. It is a counter-model for Europe, which must be wary of its own demons, writes Dominique Moisi.
Where does America stand today? History may remember that at the beginning of his term, Joe Biden launched the most ambitious, courageous and generous program of economic and social reform since Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the polarization of American society has reached such a level that the United States seems doomed to paralysis, if not irremediable decline in the near future. How can the country — which is still the world’s leading power — cope with the growing ambitions of China and Russia, climate change, not to mention the ever-present terrorist threat, when it finds itself in a state of quasi-civil war and when the main ambition of half of Americans is to oppose what the other half wants to do?
This polarization has just been illustrated in a spectacular way by two recent judgments. On the surface, the verdict of the jurors of Wisconsin seems the opposite of that of the jurors of Georgia. Acquittal in the first case; conviction in the second. And yet. …
2 Types of Americans
Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal by a jury in the state of Wisconsin is the most perfect illustration of the “American ailment.” Coming from another state with a weapon of war, the 18-year-old killed two men and seriously injured a third during the riots that followed the “murder” of a Black citizen, Jacob Blake, by the police in the summer of 2020. The Wisconsin jury’s verdict has nothing to do with justice. It reflects the deep, insurmountable, even intolerable division that exists within society between two types of Americans. On the one hand, there are those who see a very young hero in Rittenhouse, one who risked his life to defend order and property. On the other hand, there are those who simply perceive him as an immature ideologue and remain convinced that the judgment would have been very different if Rittenhouse had been a Black man himself.
And in Georgia, who can say what the verdict of a mostly white jury would have been if the three murderers of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black jogger, had not decided to film their “exploits” without realizing that they were providing the jurors with a damning prosecution against them?
This American polarization, which persists and even seems to deepen, is taking place in an environment still dominated by the COVID-19 crisis. In 2021, there have already been more deaths due to the pandemic in the United States than in 2020. And statistically speaking, America disgracefully finds itself between Mexico and Romania in terms of the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. It is not surprising, in this context, that Biden’s chances of retaining his already narrow majority in both houses of Congress in 2022 are considered low.
A Sense of Discouragement
Admittedly, losing the majority in the midterm elections is not in itself an exceptional situation: It happens with great regularity. And Biden’s lack of popularity after a year in power also comes as no surprise. With an approval rating of only 42%, Biden is doing better than Donald Trump, who, at the same point in his term, had only rallied 37% of Americans. How, then — beyond the persistent pandemic — can we explain the feeling of discouragement that seems to grip so many Americans, particularly when unemployment is at its lowest and growth at its highest? Is it the debacle of the American withdrawal from Kabul and its impact on the country’s image, and even more so on that of its president, who seems ever older and more tired? Is it simply the feeling that America can’t seem to get by?
Trump’s almost surprising defeat — what would have happened without COVID? — may have been an illusion for a few months. But a seed of doubt is growing and settling in ever more forcefully, not only among America’s allies or adversaries, but among Americans themselves. Nothing has changed in America because nothing can change in a society so sick with divisions. The ultra-radicalism of the most left-leaning fringe of the Democratic Party now seems to respond to the pathological ultra-conservatism of the Republican Party. The fascist temptation and assumed racism of some, the irresponsible wokeism of others: The path is worse than narrow for the forces of reason and progress.
A Societal Counter-Model
For those who lived through May 1968,** the slippages of wokeism evoke, from afar, those of Maoism. One cannot, of course, compare the attraction for a model that starves its population in its destructive madness to the spirit of revenge in the face of a past that does not pass. But Thomas Jefferson in the United States, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert in France, cannot be judged solely by their behavior on the issue of slavery.
In the mid-1960s, in the landmark book “The American Challenge,” Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber called on Europe to follow America’s example, which was perceived at the time not only as a form of ultimate life insurance in the face of the Soviet threat, but as a source of inspiration and emulation. Almost 60 years later, the challenge for Europe is no longer whether it is able to draw inspiration from the American model, but whether it will be able to resist replicating the traps into which America has fallen on its own territory. In fact, America has almost become a societal counter-model for Europe. Have we unwittingly gone from the American dream to the American nightmare? It was said that America’s present was Europe’s future. How can we prevent the polarization of our societies from becoming the norm and no longer the exception, with the Muslim community potentially in the role of the United States’ Black community?
The “Old Continent” must not only be concerned about its strategic autonomy from the United States, but also about its societal autonomy, by defending the unity and cohesion of all of its citizens.
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**Translator’s Note: May 1968 was the beginning of a period of civil unrest throughout France, characterized by protests, demonstrations, general strikes and the occupation of universities and factories.