Is This the End of the American Era?

Amid a global pandemic, with a polarized political electorate, and with protesters crowding the streets, one wonders if the American Era might be coming to an end. Wade Davis certainly would argue that it is. In a recent article for “Rolling Stone,” he wrote about COVID-19 as a factor in “the unraveling of America.” Davis shares his thoughts with Hari Sreenivasan.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now, with protests on the streets, a global pandemic, and a polarized political landscape, you might wonder if the age of American exceptionalism is coming to an end. Our next guest, Wade Davis, believes that it is. He is professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. And in a recent article for “Rolling Stone,” he wrote about how COVID-19 signals — quote — “the unraveling of America.” And here he is talking to our Hari Sreenivasan about how even great empires have their day.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Thanks, Christiane. Wade Davis, thanks for joining us. This has been a popular concern among critics of the president, this idea that the American empire is unraveling. And I want to start with just a little quote from the essay that you had penned for “Rolling Stone.” And you said in there: “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th.” Why do you think that this is the end of the American empire or the American era?

WADE DAVIS, PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA: Well, I think, obviously, that’s not something I’m looking forward to. And I think if the era does slip away, we’re going to be very nostalgic for it, particularly if the — if the weight of history moves to China with that political structure. I was really at this piece trying to look at it through the cultural lens. It’s interesting. The arguments have always been about morbidity and mortality, as if it was a medical story. And you had one side saying that these figures are really desperately terrible, the other side saying, oh, we’re exaggerating and so on. And it struck me that the real issue was what this pandemic meant in this moment of time. The Black Death, of course, changed European history by wiping out half the population of Europe and transforming the economy. But we also have had other pandemics. My own grandfather died in the Spanish Flu in 1919. Millions of people died, yet that didn’t shake history, because it happened at a time when the world was already numb from death. And people forget that, for example, in the summer of Woodstock, when 500,000 kids swam around together in the mud in New York state, there was a major Hong Kong outbreak that left people in Berlin storing corpses in subway stations because the hospitals have got overrun. So what’s different now? I think what’s different now is, first, obviously the global reach of both technology to disseminate the story and the global reach of travel to disseminate the virus. Remember that, when Woodstock happened, the vast majority of Americans had never taken a commercial flight. So these two things have come together. And it’s created changes in our lives, but people are always adapting. We’re always dancing with new possibilities for life. We will get used to working from home. We will get used to having theaters shuttered, restaurants, this and that. And the economic challenge will hover over the economy. Unless there’s a total collapse, we will be all right on that front as well. But what has changed is the absolutely astonishing impact it’s had on the reputation United States and the myth of American exceptionalism. Here we were, a nation with 2,000 people dying a day, discovering that we were living kind of in a failed state ruled by a kind of a dysfunctional government, led by someone who clearly intellectually could not even begin to understand the significance of what was happening all around him.

SREENIVASAN: So, is the critique more about the specific government response and perhaps the president than it is about America in general? I mean, are those two the same?

DAVIS: No, they’re not. I think — I say in the article that the election of President Trump in 2016 was not a — was not a symptom or cause of decline. It was an indication of the intensity of the dissent, in a sense. We forget what’s become of America. And, again, I want to stress this. I have often described since this piece went viral, as a Canadian commenting on America, I married an American. I became a naturalized American. I love America. I got my education there. I — my entire career could never have happened in Canada. My own son-in-law is serving on active duty in the U.S. forces right now overseas. So, I am…

SREENIVASAN: So, you’re saying this, what, out of love?

DAVIS: Yes. It’s — you know what I think it is? It’s like a family intervention. If you have an intervention, the first thing you have to do is hold the mirror to the person to show you where they have gotten to. One of the most remarkable correlations of this whole crisis is to look at a difference in performance between the true social democracies of the world, whether it’s Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, or the Scandinavian nations, compared to the United States. And I have also had some criticism of this article by Canadians, who keep saying, oh, it’s not so great in Canada. Well, of course it’s not so great in Canada. We’re no perfect place. But the data is the data. And on July 30, when the United States announced 59,979 new cases of COVID, in all of British Columbia, there were five COVID patients in the hospitals. The measure of success in a civilized nation is not the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but the strength of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that sort of bind everybody one way or another into a common purpose. I mean, people in the United States just forget what they did. They save civilization. The Ford Motor Company made more industrial output than Italy. We were popping up Liberty ships two a day. The record for building a Liberty ship was four days — four days, 29 hours and 17 minutes from scratch. I mean, literally, industrial might of America, together with the blood of Russian soldiers, literally saved civilization. We ended up spending $6 trillion since 2001 on military adventures. We have — China’s never gone to war since the 1970s. We have never been at peace. And in that time, China every three years poured more cement than America did in the 20th century as they built their own country.

SREENIVASAN: I want to pull up a paragraph here. It says: “The American cult of the individual denies not just community, but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything, education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights, universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly and infirm, America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.” How did the United States go from a place where we were building ships, several ships a day, we all collectively sacrificed as a country for a wartime effort, to this cult of individualism?

DAVIS: Well, the cult of individualism has always been one of the great strengths and wonders of the United States, of course, going back to the founding fathers. But in the wake of World War II, don’t forget that with Europe and Asia in ashes, the United States, with about 6 percent of the world’s population, controlled 50 percent of the world’s economy. We built 90 percent of the world’s automobiles. And that affluence allowed for a truce between labor and capital that really gave rise to the middle class. And when I was a boy, relatively — a man with relatively little education could readily own a home, own a car, put his kids in good schools. And we kind of have a nostalgia for that era. But we also — we forget that the America of the 1950s, in economic terms, resembled Denmark more than it does the America of today. Remember that marginal tax rates on the wealthy were 90 percent. So the rise of affluence in what was often seen to be the golden age of American capitalism lifted all ships. And since then, we have entered a place of such almost grotesque income inequality. I mean, a democracy cannot thrive and it certainly can’t realize its ideals if the top 1 percent control $30 trillion in assets, but the bottom half of the entire populace in United States has more debt than assets, right? And so this kind of social safety net that we take for granted in a place like Canada, universal health care, access to good education, social support for the elderly, the infirm, the impoverished, that is sort of looked upon as in the States as sort of so many signs of weakness. When people go out to bars now, or — and we have seen this in the upsurge of cases — or go to the beaches, or go to conventions or protest the use of masks, that’s not a sign of freedom. That’s a sign of a people — of weakness, of people who lack the stoicism to endure the pandemic or the fortitude to defeat it.

SREENIVASAN: I was talking to my uncle the other day, and he kept hammering home that, hey, don’t give up on the United States. This is still a place with a tremendous amount of resilience. There is no better container right now of some of the best talent in the world, some of the best capital, institutions of higher education and research. That doesn’t go away with one election or one pandemic.

DAVIS: I agree 100 percent. And I wish with all my heart that your uncle is absolutely right. As I say in the essay, the decline of America is no time to gloat. It’s no time for celebration. At a moment when all of civilization could gone down a rabbit hole of unimaginable horrors, the military might and the industrial might of the United States literally, in the lifetime of our fathers, saved the world. And that’s not hyperbole. And, certainly, if the hinge of history does turn to an Asian century dominated by the current regime in China, with their 200 million surveillance cameras and their treatment of various minorities and so on, treatment of the people of Hong Kong, we will certainly be nostalgic for the American era. But, again, I think that, if America is to heal the bonds, you have to have some kind of sense of collective community, some sense of benign collective purpose. The talk of polarization in the States is always seen through the lens of the political immediacy, if you will, in the States. But the — in historic terms, it is so deeply sad, and it’s so deeply corrosive. And no matter what how happens in November, whoever is elected, whether the president is resoundingly defeated or whether he wins again, if America can’t begin to bridge the gap between itself, that kind of prosperous and hopeful future that your uncle envisions may just not happen.

SREENIVASAN: I mean, do societies know when they have peaked, or how long until they figure this out? I mean, it’s not like an athlete that can just kind of look back at their split times and say, yes, you know what, I was faster five years ago.

DAVIS: The fascinating thing is, the British empire, few people realize it reached its greatest geographical extent in 1935, long after the Great War, but we now know, of course, that the empire was absolutely bled white and bankrupt by that war. In fact, probably, its height was back in the 1880s. And yet there they were in 1935 still having their gin and tonics in all corners of the world, and the map of the world was red. But the torch of history had long before passed the Americans. And so it’s the first thing you read from that article. Again, none of this is wish — something I wished. And, certainly, I did not write it in any bitterness or any desire to hurt my American friends and family members. But the reality is that empires rise and fall. Eras come and go. That’s the truth of history. And if the people can’t see what’s going on to themselves, that’s often a sure sign that the danger is on the horizon.

SREENIVASAN: What’s so wrong about pointing inward and saying we have our own problems to fix, and perhaps we don’t need to be on the world stage in the same way? What is the impact of having global leadership or a society standing, if you choose to do that?

DAVIS: Well, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong about it. It’s more an issue of the American presence on the global stage. Do we look back over the last 50 or 60 years and believe that it’s been, for all of its problems, fundamentally a positive or a negative force in the world? Certainly, the idea of turning back upon ourselves, improving our infrastructure, looking after our own people, is probably long overdue. But I think that the bigger question is, the integrity of who we are. How do we — how do we bridge this divide? I mean, how do we get back to a place where — and part of this is just sociological. We want — people always talk about how great the schools were in the 1950s. But often left out of that equation is the fact that the only opportunities for women in that decade were, of course, nursing or secretarial or teaching. Sol, when we grew up — or when I grew up, our teachers were women who today are on the bench. They are surgeons. They’re running for office. They’re running corporations. So some of these things just — and the idea that a family can be solid middle class just with a single wage is simply no longer the case. So, some of these changes, we just have to adapt to. But I think this — no nation can stand when it’s — it’s like Lincoln said. No nation can stand when it’s at odds with itself, and until America, I think, looks in the mirror and sees how crippling this polarization has become, not simply as an artifice of political discourse, but deep cultural divide, really unprecedented since the divide before the Civil War.

SREENIVASAN: Besides the pandemic, the United States also seems to be beginning a very difficult reckoning on race. Why won’t that result in real change that moves the country forward that sets an example?

DAVIS: Well, if we could somehow in the United States resolve the challenges of race, that would be a fantastic thing. But it goes hand in hand, as Martin Luther King at the very, very beginning of his crusade, he never separated the racial challenge from the economic challenge. And it seems to me that the key thing in the United States is not just overcoming the nightmare of racial discrimination, but also economic discrimination. One thing I try to explain to my American friends to try to — the difference between Canada and the United States or any social democracy and the United States — and, again, I’m not saying that we don’t have enormous problems here in Canada, but I call it sort of the Safeway grocery store test. If you get your groceries at most Safeways in the United States, there tends to be an educational racial, cultural, class, economic chasm between you and the checkout person that’s very difficult to bridge. And you don’t feel that at the Safeway in Canada, not that you necessarily interact as a peer, but you do have a sense of being part of a wider community. And that’s palpable. You can sense it. And I think the reason for that is very simple, is that you — checkout person who is getting a decent wage because of the unions, you know that probably your kids and their kids go to the same public schools, because the Safeways are based in neighborhoods. But, more importantly — and this really is an important thing — health care is not about medicine alone. It’s about social solidarity. It’s a message that you send to every citizen that you matter. And that person at the Safeway checkout counter knows that I know that they know that I know that, their kids get sick, they will get not just the same care as my kids, but the care of the prime minister.

SREENIVASAN: So do you think then that it is possible? I mean, here you are. You have written this love letter intervention to the United States, in a way. Millions of people have read it. So do you think America has the capability to turn on a dime again, to try to figure out how to build these bridges and maintain its leadership?

DAVIS: Whether it maintains its political leadership or whether we even want that to be the case, I’m not sure. But whether America itself can reinvent itself as the better heart of our nature, the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, absolutely. I mean, my whole pitch is not that I want to be critical of America. I just want America to be the America of my dreams as a boy growing up in Canada, and that was the America of Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Grateful Dead. That’s what I want America to be again.

SREENIVASAN: Wade Davis, thanks so much.

DAVIS: Thank you so much.

About This Episode EXPAND

John Kasich explains why he has crossed the aisle to make his argument for Joe Biden at the DNC. Filmmakers Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch discuss their new documentary on the CIA/MI6-backed 1953 coup in Iran. Anthropologist Wade Davis explains how the COVID-19 pandemic is signaling “the unraveling of America.”