It would strain credibility to assert that this election campaign has enhanced America’s reputation in the world. The best that might be said is that it has been a slightly less gruesome spectacle than the 2016 affair — and that, perhaps, only because the pandemic has limited public appearances. The great puzzle is how a country of 330 million cannot seem to find two more inspiring candidates.
Yet should we take seriously those who are forecasting that the country now descends into civil war or that democracy has died? No, and not just because the latter prediction tends to be conditional on the election’s failing to deliver their favored outcome. American democracy, American power and influence are not dying, and neither are they under threat.
On the contrary, the events of this year, agonizing though they have been, have only confirmed the role of the US as the leader among nations. Easy though it is to pick at the quality of rhetoric emanating from the White House — and notwithstanding Will Lloyd’s astute critique of American culture — the fact that the world is so interested in the President’s every word is proof the US still matters in a way that, say, Belgium does not.
Politics aside, look at the way money has flowed into US stocks since the nadir of the market in March. The world may have seemed to be breaking apart at times over the past few months, but one thing has not changed — it is US corporations, tech companies especially, that the world’s investors most want to own. The US economy may still be down, yet the rate of job creation is phenomenal: with another 660,000 jobs added in September, the US jobless rate is already lower than it was in 2010 and lower than that of France or Italy prior to the pandemic.
The world’s most dynamic economy is best-placed among developed economies to recover quickest. Many conservatives these days recoil from arguments in favor of the free market — it’s considered bad politics. But it is not ‘neoliberal’ to say that the engine of America has always been and remains its extraordinary spirit of enterprise. It’s just true.
The summer’s riots have exposed deep rifts in American society, exacerbated by the economic and emotional strains of the pandemic. Nothing can excuse the violence and criminal damage, but there is strength in a society in which grievances can be aired so publicly. Nearly two decades ago, the then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld drew ridicule by trying to explain the chaos in post-Saddam Iraq by saying that ‘freedom’s messy’. It was a crass remark, given that the Bush administration bore a heavy responsibility for the reorganization of the country after Saddam. But he had a point.
The apparent order that can exist in brutal dictatorships — China, say — is not a sign of health. One crack and bitter resentments tend to break out. The current explosion of tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh is a reminder of what happened when the Soviet empire began to crumble: it was there, three decades ago, that the first nationalist tensions, suppressed under communism, began to appear.
Americans are full of self-loathing for their country’s handling of the COVID pandemic. There will be some in the West who envy the way China’s Xi Jinping has been able to marshal an apparently uncomplaining people into surrendering what freedoms they have in order to see off the virus. With an official death toll of just three out of every million (compared with nearly 700 per million in the US), it may seem tempting to ask: why can’t we embrace China’s ability to organize?
China would love to use the COVID crisis to challenge American political, economic and cultural hegemony. Yet its attempts to do so have fallen flat. For all its low official death toll, it has a very big black mark against its name: it was in China that the virus emerged, and China’s inability to stop the spread has emphasized the country’s continuing backwardness in many respects. When the novel virus first emerged, the first instinct of the communist authorities was to arrest the doctor who blew the whistle. Moreover, the beginning of the crisis coincided with the putdown of the Hong Kong crisis — a reminder of the true nature of the regime in Beijing. While the Chinese economy might seem to be buzzing again, how many people used to life in the free world have felt a desire to adopt the Chinese way as a result of this crisis?
China’s attempt to become the world’s superpower is hampered on many fronts. Its economic model is still painfully reliant on western consumers: fine when you are growing from a low base, but it becomes more problematic as the gap in wealth narrows. Above all else, the US has the huge advantage as a free country of being vastly more attractive to the world’s most talented people. China will always struggle to dissuade its most entrepreneurial citizens from leaving; as for attracting inventors, technologists and scientists from elsewhere in the world, it can pretty well forget it for as long as it remains a dictatorship.
It has become received wisdom that the world will never be the same again post-COVID, that it will turn old power structures upside down in the same way as did the great cataclysms of the past such as the Black Death or the two world wars of the 20th century. In some ways this will no doubt be true — it will surely change for good the relationship between the people and the state, and will speed up the introduction of many new technologies while permanently depressing some other industries. But in one important respect COVID will change nothing, and neither will another dismal election. America will remain the world’s economic and cultural superpower. Long may it be so.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2020 US edition.