Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness for all? An in-depth look into contemporary US domestic politics by two Fulbrighters
Current debates concerning the US are focused on the end of the American century and the future of American power in the liberal world order. However, domestic issues are underestimated when it comes to their influence on US foreign policy. Therefore, this essay examines the promises the American Dream entails with the help of our Fulbright experience.
As part of the Fulbright Diversity Initiative – composed of German students with a migrant background –, we visited Trinity University in San Antonio (Texas). We were supposed to get an insight into the student life of a Liberal Arts College. Simultaneously, the Diversity Initiative shows American students how Germany is shaped by multiculturalism as well. While leading the Fulbright program in important new directions, the Diversity Initiative most importantly influenced our views regarding the US.
The general perception of the US is that they are a land of boundless opportunities. It protects Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness of each citizen and provides them with Justice, Tranquility and general Welfare. Considering that in contemporary US politics nationalism, populism and racism are on the rise, we must pose the question whether those values apply to a currently divided and polarized US society. Hence, this essay is going to emphasize how much aspirations differ from reality by relying on our subsequently shared experiences. We will refer to our stays in 2015 and 2018 respectively, during which we were able to visit, for example, Bexar County Jail or the San Antonio Food Bank. These excursions offered us an opportunity to experience San Antonio and US society from another perspective.
Justice system, social mobility, political system and immigration policy – The issues in these four domestic areas demonstrate America’s declining role as the world’s leading superpower.
A local judge offered us a walkthrough in the County Jail where Texas’ most dangerous people were arrested. It’s the third largest jail in Texas and 16th largest in the entire country. The jail, imprisoning more than 4.500 people, mainly Afro-Americans and Latinos, attaches utmost importance to safety. For instance, inmates are completely cut off from their environment and fellows by living in small cells within protected walls. Since they are being held captive for 23 hours without daylight, they barely experience the freedom and the right to pursue their happiness proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Additionally, the Officer’s statement after the walkthrough “We keep working for your safety.” stuck in my mind, trying to justify and whitewash the inhumane treatment.
Moreover, an excursion to the San Antonio Food Bank illustrated the people’s dependence on food distribution and municipal subsidies. The Food Bank that aims to “fight hunger and feed hope” provides 500 partner agencies in 16 counties throughout Texas with grocery products. Measures like those are not only applied in Texas but also throughout the entire country. Statistics show that one quarter of American workers make less than $10 per hour and thus rely on subsidies and the support from agencies like the Food Bank. Those 25% of US workers have an income below the federal poverty level. The perception of the US as a wealthy country where each person has the chance to make a fortune is diminished by the fact that only in Southwest Texas 58.000 individuals are served each week and 74 million meals are distributed annually.
Consequently, the principal of American exceptionalism and domestic coherence are being challenged, while a new configuration of power in current global affairs takes place. Thus, the nature of American power and its standing as Primus Inter Pares in the liberal world order are being fundamentally questioned. According to the historian Adam Tooze the American century is over and America’s prominent role as sole superpower needs to be redefined. Does the end of the American century mean that the American Dream reached its end, too? Has the American Dream been irrevocably dreamt to nothing? A look at the currently polarized US society gives us the answer.
Current socio-economic and cultural alienation processes fuel the debate about a new economic model – socialism instead of capitalism. But why are many Americans longing for a socialist economy and not a capitalist one? According to economic research institutes, the top 1% of families in the USA made more than 25 times what families in the bottom 99% did. Income inequality which has risen in nearly every state affects virtually every part of the country and thus many policy fields, such as societal coherence and openness for immigrants. This also reveals a paradox which European societies are also confronted with: On the one hand, the cosmopolitan and multicultural approach. This approach pleads for a liberal immigration society, diversity and inclusion. On the other hand, the nation-state and ethnocentric approach, which emphasizes national sovereignty and the protection of one’s own cultural identity and perceives refugees as a threat.
In fact, the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz points out in his study The Society of Singularities that with the transition from an egalitarian, industrial modernity to an industrial late modernity, the process of social declassification transpires, that goes hand in hand with the feeling of cultural devaluation. Subsequently, the rise of the new middle class is mirrored by the emergence of a new subclass. Those class interests are threatened by strong migration movements towards the US and Europe, whereby the fear of “Strangers at Our Door” (Zygmunt Bauman), particularly the fear of immigrants, exemplify the theory postulated by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild: They feel like strangers in their own land.
As a result, the different perspectives and policy measures of libertarians, leftists, rightists and conservatives accentuate how deeply the US-American society is polarized, even divided. Thus, we live in an age of identity politics that vividly addresses crucial aspects of society. According to the political scientist Francis Fukuyama “the rise of identity politics in modern liberal democracies is one of the chief threats that they face, […].” (Fukuyama 2018: xvi) Fukuyama argues that the “demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today.” (Fukuyama 2018: xv)
Moreover, humans instead of money/commodities should occupy the center stage again. American workers that have an income below the federal poverty level should be supported in pursuing their ambitions and dreams. In the short term, they can rely on subsidies and support from authorities. In the long term, however, less privileged citizens should be supported more sustainably through acceptance, social convergence and life-long learning. The perception of the US as a wealthy country and as the leader of the free world where everyone can make his or her fortune and where democratic ideals are lived to the fullest remains an illusion. The fact that economic inequality, social tensions and the violation of civil and human rights are experienced in daily life conveys the impression that there is still a long way to go to make the American Dream become a reality. The food distribution and advocacy program of the Food Bank are exemplary for America’s struggle in being a role model in terms of economic success. But primarily, the derogatory treatment of inmates due to their ethnicity, social class or sex – experienced in the County Jail – displays the USA’s double standard when it comes to preaching democratic and liberal values.
In conclusion, the USA’s self-image as a melting pot attracts many people from all over the world. Meanwhile, Germany struggled and still struggles to define itself as Einwanderungsgesellschaft (society of migration). Furthermore, they share common societal difficulties, such as social inequality, cultural alienation processes, societal upheavals and democratic deficits. From a historical perspective, one could argue that the end of American hegemony is mirrored by the return of the German question which signifies the difficulty of keeping up the European balance of power due to Germany’s semi-hegemonic position in Europe called the Mittellage. Both countries necessarily need to redefine their respective roles in the light of a multipolar world in which new regional and global powers are emerging. Germany and the USA can only find ways to revive their respective dream if they acknowledge these issues. Finally, former US Senator James William Fulbright once wrote: “In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith.” That assertion can be understood as an appeal for Germany and the United States to accept variety in all facets in order to keep the promise of the American and German Dream alive.
Majd studies History, Political Science and Sociology, scholarship holder of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, Fulbright alumnus, editor of the foreign policy journal WeltTrends and responsible for the book department and IFAIR member. || Mohammad studied History, Political Science and Sociology and now pursues a degree in International Relations and Security, scholarship holder of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, Fulbright alumnus, START-Stiftung alumnus and MIRAI Program alumnus.