I’ve been in the country four weeks now and that’s quite long enough to arrive at some sweeping conclusions about a country of 300 million people, from one small corner of it (although the Bronx, famously and unlike the other NYC boroughs, is connected to “the mainland”). There’s a clue in the title. The nation’s in a state.
Of course, the multiple shocks of the last 16 months are a big part of that. The US, like every other country, is clearly not out of the COVID woods and also like elsewhere, the contradictory messages are baffling. Biden, like Johnson, says “job done” in one breath and “danger ahead” in the next. Some places are already reintroducing pandemic control measures that have only recently been relaxed. But elsewhere, there are laws preventing the requirement to wear masks. There is a strong correlation between areas where vaccination is low and support for Trump is high. The inevitable increase in serious infections shows that, as well as everything else, Trumpism has become a death cult.
The lynching of George Floyd, the magnificent #BlackLivesMatter uprising and coronavirus will forever be historically entwined. While, as I understand if from a distance, the UK goes through another racist convulsion, the issue remains the third-rail of US politics and society. Since I’ve been here, it has mostly manifested itself in wailing from the right about “liberals” who insist on embarrassing the nation by talking about the legacy of slavery, the extra-judicial killing of black people by the police and institutional discrimination. The push-back is taking the form of a racially-coded concern about urban violence and a general moral panic about law and order, all of which is really designed to undermine the Biden administration and preserve the possibility of a Trumpian reincarnation, perhaps even in the form of the monster himself (although that looks increasingly unlikely).
The other key element in the national malaise is the economy. In Union Square, there’s an installation that shows the level of debt being carried by the State and individuals. The numbers are mind-boggling. But this is nothing new. I vividly recall being here 14 years ago and hearing an economist make the obvious point that a pattern of an ever-increasing cost of living and consumer debt, alongside stagnating wages, was unsustainable. He was vindicated not long after with the 2007/08 crash and the Great Recession which many working class Americans have yet to fully emerge from. Currently, there is much talk of “bounce back”, again, an echo of the UK. But there are other voices pointing out the underlying structural weakness of the US economy for those other than the billionaires who have continued to build their fortunes throughout the pandemic.
I’ve long admired the inveterate optimism of many Americans which, however synthetically, is stitched into the national identity. I often recall meeting a man sitting on the porch of his New Orleans house which was shattered by hurricane Katrina 10 years earlier. Even after a decade of waiting for an insurance payment so he could restore electricity and repair his home, he was full of hope that when this happened, he would be able to fulfil his other ambitions.
Sadly, this vision of the American Dream is not helping the huge number of citizens who are destroying themselves. Deaths through drug and alcohol overdoses have increased 600% in the last 20 years. 90.000 people died that way last year, a 20,000 increase on the year before – and by their nature, these figures almost certainly under-estimate the level of existential sadness and desperation in the country. If, as we are often told when war is being waged, the first duty of government is to protect its people, then the US State is failing miserably.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the really BIG, big issue is now knocking loudly at the door. Even from my cosseted position, everyday life in New York City has been quite difficult over the last four weeks because of the weather. US summers are always hot, but at the moment, temperatures are reaching heights they may once have reached on odd days, but staying there for weeks. The city has been under several “weather advisories” since I arrived, with near 100°F (37°C) heat mixed with prolonged torrential rain and at least one classified Tropical Storm. Weather memory is perhaps the least reliable of all, but the statistics confirm my feeling that this weather is more extreme than I’ve experienced when coming here over the last 20 years. But what the north-east coast is experiencing is as nothing compared to other parts of the country. There are currently 70 out-of-control forest fires on the west coast, creating a pall of smoke we’ve been told could affect the atmosphere here, 3,000 miles away. The temperature in Death Valley, admittedly never a place to confuse with Manchester, hit a record level of 130°F (54°C) last week and there is a deepening drought across California. There are some suggestions that the deadly collapsed condominium building in Florida recently was a potent of similar incidents, as rising tides weaken foundations and structures, particularly in coastal areas. We’re not quite in “The Day After Tomorrow” territory yet, but it could be the week after next!
All of which brings us to the embryonic Joe Biden administration. The stakes could hardly be higher. I share the feeling “pleasantly surprised” I’ve heard from people on the progressive left here with the ambition in the first six months, at least on the domestic front (there’s much less enthusiasm about Biden’s international agenda). It might only be a conventional Keynesian response to capitalist crisis, but it’s on a scale that could make a serious impact, including a stated intention to increase taxation on incomes over $400,000. But at the moment, it’s all talk and graphs. The next few months of political wrangling on Capitol Hill will determine whether it stays that way. I don’t get a sense that the left in Congress is strong enough to seriously influence this process and insist, for example, that the stated (truly remarkable) intention to invest $70billion in public housing, is adhered to. The strategy seems to be to hold on to as much of the COVID-recovery-infrastructure package as possible – in the face of concerted efforts to water It down – and hope this convinces enough Americans to vote Democrat in the mid-term elections in November 2022, so that Biden has a bigger majority in Congress to enable more reforms in the second half of the Presidency, sufficient to win a second term, either for him, or his Democratic Party successor.
From my limited perspective, that all sounds high-risk (and not just because of Biden’s age, although this is often raised as an issue). There’s a cautiousness, combined with complacency, that I see somewhat mirrored in relation to the housing situation in NYC. Of course, noone expects to see Biden and Harris leading a popular movement to demand the establishment concedes the ground necessary for real changes to improve the lives of working class Americans. They’re part of the establishment! But their political survival will depend on delivering those changes. Otherwise, the doors to the abyss could open again.