As the Upper House voted for Ms Rousseff’s suspension, many questions were raised. The people, the media, opportunist and well-intentioned public figures, they all had something to say. Like any good scripted fiction, too, factors and variants were (and remain) many, generating a plethora of theories and, unfortunately, not much of productive debate.
The interim government, on the other hand, has presented a series of pressure-oriented approaches and controversial decisions, showing a president nowhere near as confident as he was believed to be. Along with being an infamous heir of a government with massive debts,increasing unemployment rates and a disastrous GPR, the now president Temer tries to implement highly unpopular, sometimes deeply depised measures in order to get Brazil ‘back on rails’, putting into question his political abilities, not closely followed by the average Brazilian over the last thirty years of his political career.
Is impeachment a solution?
Dilma Rousseff’s charge in the Senate does not accuse her of corruption, but mismanagement and fiscal misconducts. In simpler terms, this means that politicians assume that she did not benefit directly from the public funds, but that she, as to keep the budget previously stablished by a budget law, deliberately did not pay public monetary institutions, resulting in their financing policies of social welfare like ‘Minha Casa, Minha Vida’ (a housing program) and ‘Bolsa-família’ (a monthly stipend designed to help poor families) with their own resources. It is important here to say that the point is not the delay in the payment itself, but how it was orchestrated – if those delays were acknowledged correctly, there would not have been a prior forecast of a R$24 billion primary surplus (that now curiously turned out to be a R$170,5 billion deficit), and gross incongruences of such a kind increase the local economic instability (as we may have perceived with the downgrades from three of the most important rating agencies in the world).
Another argument against Ms Rousseff is her involvement in the Petrobras scandal. It is to say that she was never accused of receiving undue money; however, she is believed to have shielded important actors of the scam, like Lula, to whom she offered the position of chief of staff. Also, for being close to many others who participated in the same scandal, prosecutors claim she had known about it all, and that her choice of not delating it would be considered passive corruption.
Finally, Lava-Jato operation still investigates whether or not funds resulting from corruption and money-laundering were used to finance her presidential campaign. Yet, that is not part of her accusation, since the then speaker of the lower house, Mr Eduardo Cunha, opted to open the process as soon as possible.
Those who defend the ousted president claim that 1) neither corruption, nor the misconduct were invented by her or her government; 2) state governments commit the same irregularity; 3) her faults are not sufficient to sustain an impeachment process.
Well, actually, they are. It is true that, weren’t that for political articulation from Mr Cunha and others, she would have finished her mandate. Let us explain it in parts.
Fiscal misconducts are and have been a mechanism inherent to management, here and abroad. Even so, not in this scale, not systematically – what triggers and sustains a denouncement here was the use of such an artifice as a device for controlling budget and how it deeply affected financial estimations yearly (mainly in 2014, when she was reelected).
Ms Rousseff is not the one to blame for the crisis, which is cyclic and belongs to our capitalist system. She obviously couldn’t have chosen not to go through a crisis, but she could have chosen how to manage that wisely (or, if I can say so, into legality). The leftists argue that the Workers Party did much more for the poor when compared to the right-wing parties and, for that, there is a feasible explanation for this maneuver – the president has reevaluated the expenses on social programs in the beginning of this year and reviewed the budget concerning educational devices, like Pronatec, FIES and the program Science Without Borders. Furthermore, president Dilma had had difficulties while negotiating with social movement leaders (like the Landless Worker’s Movement) , which shows us that being populist wasn’t enough for the government to reach an agreement with such movements. Also, compared to the financial gap Brazil currently faces , this was not in the slightest the problem. The undue expenses were, themselves, bigger and couldn’t be paid.
Dilma’s defenders also say that Cunha articulated this impeachment process, and that the demonstrators on the streets were somewhat his ‘puppets’, raising their voices against a sort of corruption that was primarily headed by the politicians who uttered that the president was corrupt.
It is, in fact, something to be considered. Mr Cunha was investigated and charged during Operation Car Wash. It is confirmed that he tried to make agreements to escape the accusations against him and that he’s got plenty of influence in the Lower House. Last week, as if there were any doubts left, the Planning Minister, Mr Romero Jucá, was caught saying that suspending Dilma was a way of stopping the Operation – he resigned one day later.
Moreover, Car Wash was one of the biggest corruption scandal revealed and most widely communicated (or, as we say in Communications, a recurrent subject of agenda-setting), and Brazilians have been through a tough, rough process of political maturation (and, since it seems to come in a moment of cataclysm, we can expect some overreaction, directly linked to anger and passion, as we see in soccer. I wrote about it here and here), easily inflamed by the feeling of being tricked. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the role of a savior is so perfectly built, and that counts a lot in a moment of polarization, especially with the extra pressure of the ghosts of unemployment and lack of public facilities. So, even though her neglect was made bigger because of a political articulation (and, as said before, the mistakes themselves were a legit cause for a denounce) demonstrators are not being as much manipulated as pro-Dilma activists like to preach – they are desperate and afraid; they want a solution and they want it immediately, something that she couldn’t provide them.
Finally, there is one last factor that those who are pro-Dilma cry on the streets; it is a coup. As it was presented before, there are reasons for her to be investigated and charged. The process of condemnation is something different, guaranteed by the Constitution and led by the Senate, a House composed of equally directly elected congressmen. If she’s considered guilty, Michel Temer, a vice-president who was, he too, chosen by the Brazilian people, will take her place.
This is not a coup. I’d rather say this is a legit process being catalyzed by a lame political system, which allows deputies who occupy the chairs of the Congress because of the proportionality law to vote duly aligned to the impeachment mindset because of the concrete benefits their parties would have and in the name of various causes or people of their own preferences, forgetting about the very only reason they are there – the sake of the nation.
Answering the question that named this article, impeachment is a palliative, but not a solution. Ms Rousseff’s impeachment is, hopefully, a mark in the Brazilian story against corruption, but it cannot stop there, or it will be in vain. It must be the first step for a thorough political reform and also a test for a recent politicized mass of Brazilians, who must not lose track of their wish for changes nor settle down for shallow investigations, starting with the ineligible interim president Temer.
Belt and Road Hazards, Coming to the Americas
The Chinese train that came and went
At a nationally-televised press conference in Panama City in March 2019, a China-funded team of Chinese and Panamanian engineers took the stage. They unveiled the results of their feasibility study of the proposed Panama-Chiriquí Railway. They announced the megaproject would cost $4.1 billion and take six years to build. It would cut travel time from the capital to the Costa Rican border from eight hours to three. On this sunny day, Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela was on hand to cut the blue ribbon, beaming alongside Wei Qiang, China’s Spanish-fluent ambassador. Varela said new urban areas would be created along the route, helping to develop Panama’s neglected interior. He added that the train would increase the export-competitiveness of Panama’s rural producers—noting it is currently cheaper to send cargo to Panama’s ports from Shanghai than from its own coffee-growing Chiriquí Highlands. Panama would modernize its slow, fragmented land transport, and China Railway Design Corporation would get a big fat contract. Everyone agreed it was a win-win.
“Win-win projects” are indeed the stated goal of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road. Introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the BRI is China’s global economic strategy for the twenty-first century: to finance and build new infrastructure in partner countries around the world, linking them to China and Chinese-operated logistics hubs, putting China and its influence at the center of global commerce.
The Panama-Chiriquí Railway was to be China’s first BRI project in the Americas. Panama became the first country in the region to join to the BRI in November 2017. That was the year of what a local newspaper called a “honeymoon dance” between President Varela and Xi, when Varela cut Panama’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan and opened them with China. That same year, a Chinese firm won a $165 million contract to build the Amador Cruise Terminal at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. At the Atlantic end, another Chinese firm began construction of a $900 million liquid natural gas (LNG) power plant and the $1.1 billion Panama Colón Container Port, to be the largest port in Panama. With hard hats and shovels, President Varela and Wei Qiang stood together at the ceremony to lay the port’s first stone—Varela noting it was the biggest investment China had ever made in Panama. The deal also meant Chinese firms would soon control three of the six container ports on the Panama Canal, as Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Ports already manages the ports of Balboa and Cristóbal. China was on a roll in Panama.
As Chinese firms poured billions into real estate and infrastructure projects at both ends of the Panama Canal, many locals worried that Panama’s sovereignty was being threatened—a sovereignty only recently achieved, when the US handed over the Canal Zone to Panama in 1997. In a 2018 editorial in La Estrella, Universidad Interamericana de Panama professor Euclid Tapia warned of the debt-trap diplomacy for which China has become infamous in many other BRI countries. Tapia cited Sri Lanka, “where to pay its debts to Chinese creditors the country was forced to lease its most important port for 99 years.” He said similarly, and with little public attention, China was now seeking to construct a new fourth set of locks on the Panama Canal at an “unspeakable” cost of $15 to $20 billion—which “will gladly be financed by China,” precisely because Panama would likely be unable to pay it back. “Knowing the degree of corruption of our governments,” wrote Tapia, “it is highly probable that the fate of the Panama Canal will follow that of the Suez Canal, which due to Egyptian debt, England took from France. China could take over our canal and swallow us by osmosis.”
Perhaps slow to respond, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Panama City in October 2018 to discuss US concerns with President Varela. Pompeo warned the president of the “predatory economic activity” of China’s state-owned enterprise (SOEs). “In parts of the world,” he told local news, “China has invested in ways that have left countries worse off, and that should never be the case. Any time there is investment that comes from outside of a country, it certainly should be a good investment for the investor, but it has to be something that’s good for the country that hosts that investment as well.” Through the media, Pompeo issued a warning to all of Latin America: “When China comes calling, it’s not always to the good of your citizens.”
Pompeo also broached another thorny topic: the four-hectares at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal that Varela had offered China to build its new embassy. The idea of a giant Chinese flag waving before incoming ships at the mouth of the canal the US built did not appeal to the Trump administration. The month after Pompeo’s visit, Panama announced that plans for the Chinese embassy by the canal entrance had been cancelled.
Despite Pompeo’s warnings, Varela and Xi danced on. In December 2018, two months after Pompeo flew out, Xi flew in, becoming the first Chinese president to visit Panama. During the 24-hour visit, the countries signed 19 cooperation agreements on trade and infrastructure. In a televised address, Varela recalled that Xi had once told him that China’s economy is an ocean, adding: “I want to complement those words by saying Panama connects two oceans, and [Xi’s] visit consolidates our country as China’s commercial arm and gateway to Latin America.” A day after Xi left the country, Varela announced that Chinese firms had won a $1.4 billion contract to build a fourth bridge over the Panama Canal.
China-Panama relations were growing closer than ever. By spring 2019, the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project was rolling ahead full steam. But it hit a snag: Varela was reaching the end of his term limit. Panama elected a new president from an opposing party, Laurentino Cortizo, who took office in July 2019. By now having awoken to the threat of Chinese influence in Panama, the US wasted no time in putting pressure on Cortizo to rethink his country’s relationship with China. By September, Cortizo had scrapped the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project. In October, his administration announced an audit of Panama’s twenty-five-year contract with Hutchinson Ports, which ends in 2022. The Hong Kong firm has for decades been accused of not revealing its financial records and not paying the Panamanian government its 10% share of dividends from port operations.
Not losing a step, four months after leaving office, now ex-President Varela was again dining with Xi—this time in Shanghai at the China International Import Expo. But in December 2019, a bombshell dropped: Varelaleaks.com posted a phone chat between Panamanian officials indicating that Varela had received a $143 million bribe from China in June 2017—the moment he had switched Panama’s diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. There were calls for an investigation, which remains stuck in Panama’s bureaucracy.
Belt and Road hazards
The recent tug-of-war between US and Chinese interests in Panama foreshadows many more to come throughout the Americas in the twenty-first century. In the past decade, three of seven countries in the world to switch allegiances from Taiwan to China have been in the Americas, as El Salvador and the Dominican Republic followed Panama’s lead in 2018. (Taiwan claims China offered the Dominican Republic $3.1 billion in loans and investments to change allegiances.) Since Panama signed on to the BRI, eighteen of thirty-three countries in Latin America have done the same.
China markets the BRI as a more expedient alternative to traditional development projects funded by NGOs such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In some ways, this is true. NGOs often make project funding contingent on countries’ agreement to structural adjustment programs as well as the creation of jobs programs which allow local workers to actually do the work. China asks for none of this. Instead, it presents itself as a friendly banker-contractor making an offer at a low price—the “China Price”—to do the job, do it fast, and loan the money—no strings attached.
But China’s BRI deals do come with strings attached—albeit different sorts of strings from those of NGOs. Among them, China’s debt-trap diplomacy and its penchant for targeting corrupt regimes and bribing officials have already been well-documented. But there are many other hazards along the New Silk Road which countries in the Americas should recognize.
Creating new geographies of corruption
China ranked second only to Russia on the Bribery Players Index published by Transparency International in 2011. Does China’s culture of bribery and corruption travel along to its overseas construction projects? It does, according to a 57-page 2016 working paper entitled Chinese Aid and Local Corruption by Ann-Sofie Isaksson and Andreas Kotsadam of William & Mary’s AidData research lab. The study found that areas of Africa located within 50 km of a Chinese project showed significantly increased corruption. The results were based on matching data from 98,449 respondents to four Afrobarometer survey waves across 29 African countries with a new georeferenced dataset on the subnational allocation of Chinese development finance projects between 2000-2012.Notably, the study found that the new culture of corruption stays around long after Chinese constructions projects end—and that aid projects from other sources actually have the opposite effect:
“The results consistently indicate that Chinese aid projects fuel local corruption. Moreover, the effect seemingly lingers after the project implementation period, and does not appear to be driven simply by an increase in economic activity, but rather seems to imply that the Chinese presence impacts local norms. Moreover, China stands out from the World Bank and other bilateral donors in this respect. In particular, whereas the results indicate that Chinese aid projects fuel local corruption but have no observable impact on local economic activity, they suggest that World Bank aid projects stimulate local economic activity without fueling local corruption. Indeed, if anything, they suggest the opposite; there is some indication that World Bank health projects help reduce corruption. In line with this, suggestive evidence indicates that World Bank aid projects are successful in raising awareness of corruption. This is interesting considering that the World Bank has been at the forefront of the ‘anti-corruption movement’ among major international organizations, with explicit anti-corruption policies as part of their agenda. Comparing with other bilateral donors, who just as China might not have an equally explicit anti-corruption agenda as the World Bank, Chinese aid projects still stand out in terms of their estimated effects on local corruption. Indeed, in Uganda, Japanese and American aid projects, if anything, appear to bring reduced local corruption. Hence, the comparison of the local corruption effects of Chinese and other aid does not speak in China’s favor.”
What is especially concerning about these findings is that reducing corruption and bribery and establishing the rule of law are among the most difficult targets to attain within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They are difficult to monitor and cannot be budgeted for in a development package like funds for a bridge or a port, which can be traced to their end use. As legal scholar Katherine Erbeznik puts it:
“Money can’t buy you law… Rule of law reform efforts have stalled. One reason is that reform has focused solely on formal rule of law institutions, rather than on the informal political or cultural norms that are needed to support such institutions. Little is known, however, about how to foster such political and cultural norms where they are lacking.”In Africa, which—like Latin America—is already struggling to make progress in changing cultural norms surrounding corruption, the Chinese presence on the ground is turning the dial backwards, further exacerbating the problem—an effect opposite that of any other development source.
Natural resource theft: the “Chinese Takeaway”
China is also the world leader in natural resource theft, and the BRI is only exacerbating this trend. For example, for over a decade, Chinese illegal logging has been rampant in Africa—dubbed by locals the “Chinese takeaway.” China has stringent regulations on domestic logging, so it looks abroad to feed the growing demand for luxury furniture among China’s middle class—and US demand for furniture made in China. Chinese agents pay Africans by the thousands to cut down trees for them—including in protected areas—and bribe local officials to get transport permits and sustainability certifications to allow the logs to be exported. China is now building an Industrial Wood Processing Park in Mozambique, where logs will be turned into chips, facilitating “log laundering.” Chinese illegal logging is already rampant in the Americas, including timber from the Brazilian Amazon and rosewood from Mexico and Guatemala. Increased Chinese presence and control of transport linkages in the Americas will only intensify bribery and the speed at which the region’s forests are pillaged.
The same is true in the seas. China sates its immense appetite for seafood in part by being the world’s largest perpetrator of distant-water illegal fishing, and the Americas have been a prime target. The US (especially Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina regularly intercept and detain Chinese fishing pirates in their coastal waters. The Argentines have shot at and sunk Chinese vessels in the last several years. Chinese mafias collude with Latin American fishing cartels in multimillion-dollar smuggling networks supplying traditional Chinese medicine. For example, Ecuador apprehended Chinese ships poaching endangered hammerhead sharks for shark fin soup in Galapagos National Park. Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel colludes with Chinese pirates in smuggling bladders of the totoaba fish caught in the Gulf of California, which can sell for over $20,000 per kilogram on the black market in China. BRI port and rail projects in the Americas, manned by Chinese personnel, promise to facilitate more Chinese maritime piracy.
Spying by any other name
US cybersecurity firm FireEye, among others, reports that China has used BRI projects for cyber espionage many times and in numerous countries. In particular, FireEye notes that state-sponsored Chinese hackers have used infrastructure built as part of BRI projects to spy on a) foreign leaders who make BRI-related decisions, b) regional opponents of BRI projects, and c) government entities managing elections in BRI countries.
Take for example the new $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. China built it for free as a “gift” in 2012. In 2017, French newspaper Le Monde and other sources reported that China had hacked all the confidential data from the African Union’s IT network, recorded conversations throughout the building with microphones it had planted in the walls and furniture, and uploaded all this information to Shanghai every night from 2012-2017.
Chinese telecom giant Huawei provided the digital surveillance equipment in the African Union building. A 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation reported that Huawei technicians also helped African leaders in Uganda and Zambia spy on their opponents. In February, the US government accused Huawei of being able to secretly retrieve “sensitive and personal information” from users of 4G networks the company has built and maintained—in the US and around the world—via technological “back doors” designed to be used only by law enforcement. Yet the firm is already responsible for building up to 70% of the telecommunications infrastructure in Africa. Now it is building the first 5G network in Southeast Asia in Cambodia. Huawei is the leading contender to create new 5G networks throughout Latin America, including Panama.It is now seeking to build a system of security cameras in Colon Free Zone, Panama’s largest free trade zone, home to over 3000 companies from around the world. Thus the Huawei security system is a potential vehicle for Chinese spying on thousands of commercial operations in Panama.
In short, every element of telecommunications infrastructure built under the BRI—the Digital Silk Road—should be viewed as a potential instrument for cyber espionage.
A future as one of China’s somewhere elses
China today is in the early stages of attempting to transition from being the world’s factory to managing factories around the world. Chinese companies are moving to outsource manufacturing—to go from Made in China to Made by China, Somewhere Else. China is using BRI projects to create a global network of Chinese-controlled somewhere elses, where it can manufacture, transport, and sell. These include Chinese-built, Chinese-operated industrial zones overseas, where Chinese-managed factories set up shop, overseeing local workers. They also include Chinese-built, Chinese-run logistics hubs, including ocean ports and “dry ports” for rail cargo transshipment. And they include Chinese-built, Chinese-managed overseas marketplaces like malls, shopping centers, and tax-free zones, where China can sell.
The roots of China’s offshore manufacturing push precede the BRI. Having hosted foreign-owned factories since 1978, in 1999 China began its “Going Out Policy,” a push to engage in outward foreign direct investment. More recently, the explosion of China’s middle class has driven the cost of labor up sharply, prodding Chinese firms to outsource manufacturing. Many BRI projects create new spaces to do just that. To illustrate, one need only look to the experience of Africa, where China is involved in infrastructure projects in some thirty-five countries.
Take Djibouti, where China built the $3.5 billion Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) in 2018—the largest free trade zone in Africa. It was soon filled with Chinese-managed factories employing local workers at rock-bottom wages. China connected Djibouti to Ethiopia by building the 754-km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, which will be operated by Chinese managers and drivers until at least 2023. Countries in the Americas should take notice that—while not sold as such—a key purpose of the BRI is to repeat this pattern: to create Chinese-controlled logistics networks accessing cheap labor markets to which Chinese companies can outsource factory jobs.
Or take Transsion, maker of the most popular smartphones in Africa, which sell under brand names such as Tecno and Itel. Transsion is a Chinese company, but it does not sell any phones in China and most Chinese people have never heard of it. It makes all of its African phones in factories in Ethiopia run by Chinese managers.
BRI projects have built extensive new transport networks in Africa to ship Transsion phones and thousands of other Chinese products now flooding the continent’s markets. (China is also using these new transport links to remove Africa’s natural resources at an astounding rate—legally and illegally—and discussed below.) In Kenya, China has already completed the Port of Mombasa—the largest port in East Africa—as well as the high-speed Mombasa-Nairobi Railway, the Thika Highway, and malls including Two Rivers Mall, the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the works is the Mombasa-Nairobi superhighway. Laying down thousands of kilometers of road and railways, China hopes to use Kenya as its primary gateway for commerce with 120 million people in East Africa. The plan is to funnel Chinese products through Kenya and on to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northern Tanzania, and South Sudan. Inside Kenya, products manufactured in Chinese-operated factories will be transported across Chinese-built highways and rail networks and sold in Chinese shops in Chinese-built malls.
China hopes to replicate this model the Americas. It wants to make Panama one of its Kenyas in Latin America, a gateway to commerce with Central and South America. The Panama-Chiriquí Railway would have opened the door for Chinese firms to outsource factories throughout Panama’s interior and ship the products easily by rail to the ports it controls on the Panama Canal. To be sure, Panama sorely lacks manufacturing and high-tech industries—which is why it could be tempted into signing on to projects that would, in actuality, yield large numbers of extremely low-paid manufacturing jobs. Panama would be well on its way to becoming one of China’s somewhere elses.
Part of China’s New World
Besides products, China unloads people through the BRI. In recent decades, over one million Chinese, mostly men, have permanently moved to Africa, as documented by Howard French in his book China’s Second Continent. Another million Chinese are currently working in Africa indefinitely, with more to come. Most came to work on Chinese construction projects and decided to stay. In Africa, Chinese workers often find blue skies, clean air, and freedom from the Communist Party for the first time. Many Chinese men have found African wives—an important factor, as China has a gender imbalance of 32 million more men than women due to the One Child Policy and families’ preference for boys, which led to the abortion of millions of girls. Many Chinese job-hop from one African country to another, gaining skills and experience and taking advantage of the vast assortment of Chinese projects—and Africa’s lax border controls. The highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time, 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2, is about Chinese who made a new life in Africa.
Chinese emigration to BRI countries also helps reduce potential social unrest in China. BRI workers often come from the poorer, more neglected provinces in China’s interior, where development lags far behind that of the coast. Opportunities for advancement there are much rarer. But in Africa, Chinese workers often find they can apply their skills far more, get promoted much faster, and make more money.
While Africa has been a new world for many Chinese, this sort of influx of millions of Chinese workers is the last thing the Americas region needs. It is already plagued by broken borders and illegal migration—from the two million escaping Venezuela’s economic meltdown to the half million fleeing drug violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America to the nearly one million arrested along the US border each year. Migrants fleeing conflict zones, disasters, and repressive regimes around the world—such as Haiti, Cuba, and Syria—are currently spilling over Panama’s dangerous jungle border with Colombia, the Darien Gap, in the hope of continuing northward to seek refugee status in the US. Yet many of these migrants end up staying in Panama, a small, poor country of four million people. The US and the UN Refugee Agency have been working with the Panamanian government to manage this migrant overload, but it has been anything but easy. For example, with some 2,000 migrants stuck in a camp in Peñitas, Panama on the Colombian border and running out of money for food and water, some threatened to burn down the shelter they were staying in. Add a few million Chinese BRI workers looking to stay indefinitely to the Americas’ chaotic migration picture and stir, and it’s a recipe for havoc.
On the receiving end of the Great Unloading
Through BRI projects, China unloads many of its own excesses—products, construction, and also people. Building malls, ports, and railways overseas involves immense quantities of steel, cement, glass, pipes, wires, tools, construction machines, and other products—all of which come from China, where they are massively overproduced by its state-owned enterprises (SOEs). At home, China unloads these products by (unnecessarily) tearing down and rebuilding buildings every 20 to 30 years, making construction the top industry in China—(artificially) driving up the GDP and helping to stave off unemployment (while destroying tens of thousands of demolition workers’ lungs through the inhalation of silicon dust without adequate protection).BRI projects provide new opportunities for Chinese firms running out of infrastructure-building opportunities in China, while unloading China’s excess construction materials all over the world.
However, the quality of Chinese construction does not always match its quantity. In China, construction is often is rushed and/or uses cheap materials and/or unqualified workers, leading to many shoddy buildings—including outright disasters such as collapsed bridges and skyscrapers. These have earned the nickname doufuzha gongcheng, or “tofu-dreg projects”—worse than the leftover dregs from making tofu. These includes the flimsy schools that fell like a house of cards during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing the students inside them. Time will tell if China has been exporting tofu-dreg construction along the New Silk Road.
Loading up and land grabs
As China unloads products and people out over the New Silk Road, it also uses it to load up on natural resources and farm products to meet the demand of its enormous population. For example, China has built new ports in a dozen countries in Africa, where it has been by far the largest extractor of the continent’s natural resources—such as oil from Angola, timber from Gabon, iron from Guinea, and cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Victoria, the only Australian state thus far to sign on to the BRI, Chinese firms bought the Port of Melbourne—the country’s busiest port—in 2016 for $9.7 billion. China also bought northern Australia’s Port of Darwin in 2015.China now owns 2.3% of Australia’s land, including cattle farms, dairies, and wineries, and it uses its new ports to connect to its rapidly-expanding “land grab” farms.
Chinese investors have been buying up millions of acres of farmland around the world at an alarming rate. Chinese entities own roughly 200,000 acres of farmland in the US, and Chinese investment in US farming has multiplied tenfold in less than a decade. Along with South Korea and Saudi Arabia, China is one of the top “land grabbers” in Latin America today. It owns vast swathes of the South American soy giants Brazil and Argentina. Currently, China has a controversial$3.5 billion offer on the table to double the number of pigs in Argentina and turn it in to one of its main pork suppliers—a deal opposed by a petition signed by some 400,000 Argentines. The Panama-Chiriquí Railway project would have facilitated new Chinese land grabs around the hinterlands of Panama—and potentially neighboring Costa Rica and Colombia—by providing a way to easily get the farm products to ports controlled by China.
China’s land grabs help support its dietary transition, driven by increasing affluence. UCLA historian Philip Huang found that, in recent decades, China’s diet has shifted from an historical 8:1:1 ratio of grains to meat to vegetables to 4:3:3 today. However, 40% of China’s own farmland has been degraded by overuse, erosion, and pollution, forcing it to look for new farmland overseas.
Controlling the Crossroads
Chinese influence in Panama has special importance for the US for several reasons. Built in 1914 under Teddy Roosevelt, the Panama Canal is the US’ own signature megaproject. The Panama Canal Zone was a US territory from 1903 to 1979, similar to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands. US public schools operated there, and “Zonians” received US mail addressed with the state postal abbreviation CZ. Heavy and growing Chinese influence in Panama today challenges the US’ historic cultural dominance of the “Crossroads of the Americas.”China’s control of Panama’s ports, in particular, is a threat to future US trade security. Today 63% of the cargo passing through the canal is headed to or from the US. China is currently violating nine other countries’ coastal waters in the South China Sea, persecuting over a million Uyghurs in re-education camps, and breaching its treaty with the UK on the governance of Hong Kong. So it is not hard to imagine that China could use its control of three Panama Canal ports to interfere with US trade in a time of war or other conflict.Further, China has for years tried to build new alternatives to the Panama Canal. These include plans for a maritime canal through Nicaragua (which would be an ecological disaster) as well as “dry canals” across Costa Rica and Colombia, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by rail. If any of these new canals materialize, China could use its BRI partnerships to redirect shipping to Chinese-built canals.
In the Americas, China sees opportunity. And in the BRI, countries in the Americas see opportunity. Argentina is the eighth-largest country in the world, yet it has no viable train system. In 2018 it signed a $1 billion deal with China Railway Construction to modernize its cargo rail by 2025.Mexico has the thirteenth-longest coastline in the world, but its aging ports use outdated technology. So it hired China Harbour Engineering Company to build a new $1.5 billion terminal at the Port of Veracruz—now the second-largest port in Mexico since the project’s completion in 2019.Colombia, a strong US ally, has had the least Chinese investment of the major countries in the Americas. But in 2019 the city of Bogotá signed a $4 billion deal for China Harbour Engineering to build a new metro system—and operate it for twenty years.
Panama’s canal has made it one of the world’s most globally-connected countries. Yet its internal connectivity lags far behind. As a result, Panama suffers from sharp regional inequalities. The average per capita GDP of the three provinces surrounding the canal is four times that of the seven outlying provinces. China promised to help change that with the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project and future investments, which would open the door to integrated development throughout the country—something the US never did in the 76 years of the Canal Zone era. While the Chinese project fell through, Panama is stilling looking for options—and China will present more offers. “We don’t offer constricting belts or a one-way road,” said US Vice President Mike Pence. But without alternatives, warnings are not enough.
“We need, and we have asked, that [the US] look toward the region more—the region, not just Panama,” said President Cortizo. “They need to pay more attention. While they’re not paying attention, another one is making advances.”
The (Dis) United States of America, 2030: A dystopian scenario
People tend to look for watersheds in history that mark the end of an era, that unique juncture when there is no going back and the future looms disconcerted. As a new decade begins, pundits are still trying to reconcile when the US fractured to a point of no return. The turbulent 2020s certainly provided fodder for the heated debates. Some looked at the 2007-2008 financial crisis as a symbol of capitalism’s unbridled greed and lack of government oversight. Others, taking a longer-term view, blamed the increasing inequality of US society over more than half a century, or the growing polarization of politics and society in recent decades. The more philosophically inclined felt that American exceptionalism and hubris were culprits; more cynical minds felt it was more like complacency and presumption.
Those who needed numbers to understand loss looked at the dismal US performance in combating the Covid-19 pandemic. Some say the day of reckoning came when the number of deaths from COVID-19 passed the 620,000 mark -the number of fatalities in the US Civil War- and then the roughly 675,000 Americans that died from the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. In any case, the numbers kept on growing as the vaccines took longer to develop and distribute than previously thought.
Historians, though, mostly tend to agree that a pivotal moment in US history occurred in the 2010s when a perfect storm of creeping developments began to converge. A widening divide between a wealthy class that became politically adept at promoting and preserving their privileges and low and middle-income Americans whose wages stagnated became more conspicuous. Globalization and deindustrialization played a role in the largest wealth inequality gap among the most developed nations, but so did skewed policies that largely favoured the rich.
Increasing political polarization and hyper-partisanship made decision-making intractable; whereas in past decades Democrats and Republicans would cooperate on major policy issues, and even displayed camaraderie, the situation deteriorated to the extent that outlooks became irreconcilable and politics faded into trench warfare in which the opposing party was perceived not as an opponent but as enemy and traitor.
Parallelly, societal polarization also deepened as personal political identities increasingly transcended ideology to encompass topics as diverse as climate change, healthcare, gun control, the pro-life or pro-choice divide, and even the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In broad terms, two Americas emerged: one liberal, racially inclusive and egalitarian, the other socially conservative, white-dominated, occasionally prone to nativist and xenophobic overtones, that increasingly overlapped with the party system.
The US might have survived this toxic cauldron of developments if it weren’t for the whirlwind persona of Donald Trump and his tempestuous presidency. His constant attacks on US institutions and the deep-rooted system of checks and balances at such a consequential historical juncture did irrevocable damage to the country. Trump weakened America’s democratic legitimacy and standing abroad by siding with autocrats of all stripes and deriding long-standing alliances and trade partnerships. The US has a long history of disruptive populist leaders: Huey P. Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan stand out in the twentieth century. But none of them became president. Trump was the first one that reached the pinnacle of political power. He contributed more than anyone or anything else to the polarization of politics and society, all to serve his narcissistic persona.
Historians and sociologists still ponder on how a significant majority of less-educated white Americans, desperate to preserve their eroding prerogatives, could unconditionally condone his self-serving meanderings, so contrary to their own needs; ironically, they ended up strengthening Trump’s plutocracy. More worrying was the opportunistic subservience of the Republican Party to his whims and authoritarian tendencies. Some wondered whether Trump was a symptom or a cause of the unravelling of the US. It didn’t matter; his single, contentious mandate proved to be a harbinger of the fracture to come.
A most dysfunctional election
Trump lost the November 2020 presidential election by a wider margin of the popular vote than in 2016, though nobody knows the exact count as there was no official final tally, at least not one accepted by both parties. On Election Day his call to supporters – the self-proclaimed ballot guardians– to protect the votes in critical swing states led to abuse, violence and irregularities. The situation was aggravated by the presence of armed members of far-right vigilante groups. “Suspicious” voters and election adjudicators were harassed under the guise of preventing voter fraud; some voting centres and post offices were rampaged as sympathetic law enforcement officers looked on.
Though the results coming in on Election Night slightly favoured Trump, the expected blue-shift phenomenon as mail-in ballots were progressively counted began to give the Democratic candidate Joe Biden a commanding lead. There was no legal precedent to the mayhem that ensued. Soon thereafter, Trump reiterated the election was rigged against him; without any proof, he stressed that due to massive voter fraud in the mail-in votingthe count should be suspended and tabulation be based on the results of Election Night. The conflict went from the streets to the courts; it was no less ugly.
The elimination of the decades-old consent decree in 2018 had given the Republicans ample tools to again intimidate voters and suppress votes. Litigation ensued tabulation. Republican legal teams questioned the validity of many of these overwhelmingly Democratic mail-in ballots in an attempt to disqualify as many Biden voters as possible. Under the pretext of rampant voter fraud and political and civic chaos, Republican-majority state legislatures in the six crucial battleground states appointed their own electors to the Electoral College.
It was the most dysfunctional election in US history. To all effects, the Republicans attempted to stage a coup against the will of the majority of voters. The Democrats pushed back insisting that the electors should reflect the vote count. The Interregnum came and went, besmirched by political haggling and massive street protests that sometimes turned violent. Two separate Electoral Colleges chose two different presidents. The stalemate continued beyond Inauguration Day. Trump’s refusal to accept defeat plunged the country into the worst constitutional crisis in US history; actually, it was a series of constitutional crises.
Joe Biden was eventually declared the 46th President of the US, though the situation continued being tense and confounding, even though in the mid-term elections of 2022the Democrats won a majority in the Senate and kept the one in the House. Trumps insisted in his denunciations and called on his supporters to defend him, liberty and the Constitution, in that order. There was a certain irony in all this, as the white supremacy groups that mostly heeded his calls denounced the tyranny of the Biden government, while conveniently overlooking the authoritarian nature of Trump himself.
Proceedings began to arraign Trump on grounds of criminal and civil wrongdoing. It was the first time in US history that a former president would go to trial; ample evidence was presented. The majority of the American public, fed up with Trump’s railings and hoping for catharsis, supported prosecution; his supporters went ballistic. But President Biden eventually decided to grant a pardon on the grounds of national reconciliation. It was later discovered that a secret “deal’ had been made in which Trump promised to refrain from further destabilizing actions in return for a full pardon from prosecution. Even though Trump’s self-promotion as a master dealmaker rang hollow, as evidenced by his multiple bankruptcies and accusations of financial wrongdoings, this was one deal that actually worked out well for him.
In the end, the furor didn’t matter much. Trump’s empire eventually withered amidst a massive debt load and the enormous losses many of its businesses were incurring. Trump’s offspring and associates were accused of protracted criminal conduct involving bank fraud, tax and insurance fraud. When proof emerged (through a Russian source) of questionable financial dealings with Moscow and links to shady Russian oligarchs linked to Vladimir Putin, his credibility further eroded.
A tumultuous decade
Kamala Harris lost a close election in 2024 to a tech billionaire who ran as an independent and on a platform of discontent with the political system; the Republican Tucker Carlson came in third. The victory was inconsequential, as was the one in 2028 of a retired naval officer, a hero in the “skirmish” three years earlier with Chinese ships in the South China Seas. Neither president was able to reconcile the deep fractures in American society, the ones Trump had so ably and cynically exploited.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s unfortunate comments in October of 2020 that African Americans and immigrants can live in his home state of South Carolina as long as they were conservative were prescient of developments to come. Even though the metamorphosis began long before Trump’s presidency, throughout the 2020s the Republican Party became increasingly radicalized and intransigent.
The decade was pounded by profound transformations. In the early 2020s Americans worried that the increasing and seemingly irreconcilable polarization of society would lead to civil war. It’s true that following the controversial 2020 election, violence did increase throughout the country. Political polarization evolved into societal intolerance and went from resentful to vindictive. The US lost its common identity, its moral compass. The melting pot crumbled as neighbour turned on neighbour and families broke apart.
White supremacist groups and ANTIFA members fought pitched battles in the streets of cities. Other groups from across the political spectrum sometimes joined in, though less vehemently. The abundance and easy availability of arms, even automatic weapons normally used in wars, facilitated the carnage. Scores of thousands of Americans lost their lives. There were violent attacks on Democratic politicians in Republican bastions, and several members of state legislatures, mayors, and even two Governors were killed. Some more radical Democratic factions responded in kind. The police were unable to stop the spread of civilian violence as they too sometimes fractured and identified with one side or the other. The same occurred with the National Guard. Many Americans watched in disbelief and wondered how did it come to this. The liberal democracies of the world watched aghast.
But there was no civil war. Instead, there was a great migration. As the decade progressed, tens of millions of Americans left their homes seeking a better life in regions more in tune with their beliefs, aspirations and political identities. In some cases, harassment and intimidation contributed to forced departures. White educated, liberal urban professionals, blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans left the Midwest and South towards the Pacific, or to the northeast. Meanwhile, less-educated, conservative working-class whites fled these bastions of liberalism to find solace in Middle America- some nostalgically called it Trumpian America.
With states purging themselves of ideological opponents, violence has gone down. Very different territorial entities are emerging. The great reckoning is having an irrevocable impact on US society. Some say it’s almost inevitable the US will fracture into two or even three different countries. The exhaustion and deep mistrust on either side diminished the will to unite.
The Great Divide
The United Western States of America (UWSA), an area that includes the Pacific states but also Arizona, Colorado Nevada and New Mexico, are strengthening their common identity and increasingly challenging central authority. They no longer recognize the decisions of the Supreme Court, whose conservative majority rulings are overturning the liberal foundations of the country on everything from abortion and education to immigration and health care. They have taken paradiplomacy to the next level, opening up Economic and Cultural Offices throughout Asia, Latin America and other parts of the world that for all practical purposed function as embassies.
The UWSA has unilaterally joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and have intensified their economic and political relations with Canada and Mexico, as well as with the economies of the Pacific Alliance, a Latin American regional integration initiative. There’s even hearsay of a more formal agreement with Canada, maybe even a confederation, as that country defends and promotes the values that once made the US so exceptional. The interest is buoyed by the lobbying of millions of highly skilled Americans that moved to Canada during the tumultuous 2020s, and that contributed to Making Canada Great.
The UWSA has also welcomed talented immigrants in large numbers, predominantly from Asia, and mostly from China and India -these two countries are confronting their own existential dilemmas. The immigration and the higher domestic fertility rates in the UWSA have contributed to demographic growth and an economic boom. By the mid-2030sthe region will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. The heavy toll of climate change and water shortages have made the UWSA a global leader in mitigation and adaptation. They are rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. Interestingly, shared challenges have increased cooperation with the increasingly autonomous Chinese coastal regions. The UWSA is the fifth largest economy in the world.
The Eastern American States, encompassing most of the Great Lakes region, New England and Virginia, though more geographically constrained and scattered is also pursuing an active paradiplomacy, focused mostly on Canada, Europe and Latin America. In the late 2020’s they unilaterally signed a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement with the European Union.
Middle America has not fared that well. Whereas in the UWSA the Democratic party splintered and new parties emerged that are transforming the region into a vibrant multiparty democracy, in Middle America the Republican Party became the dominant, sometimes the sole political force. The party that erstwhile advocated free-trade and fiscal discipline -whose Congressmen shared with Democratic colleagues a sense of institutional patriotism– became withdrawn and mistrustful of the world, hostile to immigrants, and incredulous of climate change.
The message of Donald Trump resonated among the fervent populists who took over the party and used his playbook to stoke mostly imaginary fears and sow tribalist viewpoints. They pandered to the reactionary evangelicals and white supremacists that constituted the party’s core militancy. Its adherents, though, were mostly white Americans unwilling to accept a changing country and acquiescent of the party’s backsliding into chauvinism to keep their historical prerogatives. An ugly legacy of racism that goes back generations resurfaced, reassured by Trump’s earlier attacks on a liberal, inclusive society.
The country’s de facto dismemberment has weakened Middle America. Segments of white Americans continued suffering from a devastating opiate epidemic that reduced their productivity and life expectancy. The epidemic grew as the economy stagnated. Such was the heavy human toll that some compared it to Russia’s demographic decline in the 1990s. The refusal to transition towards renewable energy sources is impacting its fossil-fuel-based economy, whereas climate change is curtailing agricultural production in the Midwest and damaging vital infrastructure throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
The resilient hegemon
There was nothing predetermined about the decline of the US. Quite the contrary; no other major power is so blessed by providence. The US had considerable strategic and competitive advantages over foes and allies alike that would have allowed it to be a key 21st-century global power. Its privileged geographic location shielded it from immediate rivals and made it both an Atlantic and a Pacific power. It had more navigable waterways -and major ports- than the rest of the world combined, with the Greater Mississippi Basin overlaying the largest contiguous piece of farmland in the world. The US became the largest fossil-fuel producer in the world, and with the proper policies and incentives could have led the global transition towards renewable sources.
As opposed to most other major powers who in the next decades will experience demographic declines, its population was due to grow steadily in large part due to immigration -thus guaranteeing economic growth and military preparedness. In addition, it held sway over the global financial and monetary system and had consistently dominated each new generation of technology. Its capacity to project hard power and the appeal of its soft power was without rival. Though the US had embarked on a process of global strategic retrenchment long before Donald Trump’s solipsistic resolve, it was still an energy, agricultural, economic, financial and military powerhouse, and could have continued being so. Few foresaw the fracture that was to come.
A world bereft of leadership
Alas, no country or region could muster the will, nor had the capacity to take the helm. The Union European (EU) mostly stumbled in the 2020s, as demographic decline set in and right-wing populism further encroached on the region’s politics. The governance challenges of such a heterogeneous block led to a multi-tier structure of interactions in which different members cooperate on matters of common interest. Economic divergence, anaemic growth and political squabbling limited the EU’s global ambitions, though the region maintained its allure as the world’s foremost cluster of freedom, prosperity and peace.
Japan’s economy fell from the third biggest in the world in 2020 to ninth place in 2030, due largely to sluggish economic growth, and a rapidly shrinking population and workforce. Automation and innovation, though, helped maintain the country’s high quality of living. Despite US retrenchment from the world and particularly from Asia, Tokyo actively maintained its commitment to an open rules-based international system. However, its diminished economic and geopolitical heft limited its global influence.
By 2030India had the third largest economy in the world and had overtaken China as the country with the biggest population. Despite arbitrary attempts at imposing Hindutva nationalism on the country’s mosaic of religions and ethnicities, it remained the world’s most populous democracy, albeit a flawed one. New Delhi has struggled to provide employment to its huge youthful working-age population, leading to social discontent. Large demographic imbalances, regional disparities and alarming levels of pollution and groundwater depletion have dampened India’s prospects, forcing it to cast its gaze inwards.
Russia is still governed with an iron fist by Vladimir Putin. Its raw commodity-based economy has been unable to modernize and transition. Russia is suffering from a fast-aging population and rapid demographic decline that’s affecting its industries and armed forces. There was an exodus of young talented professionals fleeing the stagnant economy and the stifling regime. Popular uprisings against personalist, authoritarian rulers in its near abroad left Moscow even more forlorn. The country never recuperated the Soviet-era geopolitical grandeur that Putin so vehemently promoted.
No did China become the global hegemon many had forecasted. The sum of its challenges exceeded the sum of its accomplishments. With its demographic dividend over, China faces a fast-shrinking population, one of the reasons it could not transition from an export-led economy towards a focus on domestic consumption. The extent of its Orwellian surveillance state reduced China’s appeal as an alternative governance model. There was a global backlash throughout the 2020s at Beijing’s systematic repression of its Uighur and Tibetan minorities and the emasculation of Hong Kong; developing countries sometimes criticized its economic policies as neo- colonialism.
The decoupling was not only with the US, as the more prosperous, historically outward-looking coastal regions demanded greater leeway from Beijing and the Communist Party’s suffocating rule. As the US reduced its presence in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad expanded its scope to include not only Australia, India and Japan but also Vietnam and South Korea, with some Southeast Asian countries showing interest. This reduced Beijing’s quest for strategic depth.
Even countries that were previously critical of America’s hubris look back in nostalgia and grief at its decline, and what became of the global community. For all its failings and moral contradictions, the much-vilified Pax Americana contributed to an unprecedented era of economic growth, as well as one of relative stability and peace. The globalisation it helped spur lifted more than one billion out of poverty and improved the lives of billions more. For decades democracy around the world flourished.
The waning of the US came at the worst possible time. The 2020s proved to be a ruinous decade. The liberal, rules-based international order is fraying; no alternative has yet emerged. Multilateralism in its many forms weakened. Globalisation, already in retreat, further receded as the wide-ranging consequences of Covid-19 led to a fractured and regionalized world and economic nationalism brought a decrease in global trade and investments. The world went rudderless. Prosperity and stability are frail things. There is no greater pain than to be aware of what was and what was lost.
The crisis of positivist, “evidence-based” political science in US
Right from its birth in the 18th century, the United States of America emerged as one of the most advanced countries, or even the most advanced one in terms of government organization and the ideology of state building. The newly independent British colony got a chance to shed off the past and start from the ground up, and the Founding Fathers, as they are called in the US, used this chance to the max, erecting the three pillars of the American political order – the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which laid out the most progressive ideas of their time: human rights, democratic procedures, separation of powers, trial by jury, broad state autonomy, social contract, free speech, and many others.
The period of the rapid development of these ideas, akin to the French Enlightenment, has since been known in America as the “Age of Reason.” This time period, just like the ideas and principles it generated, is closely associated with empiricism and positivism – the two dominant philosophical streaks of that time, which denied philosophy as such and prioritized a scientific fact, an observed phenomenon, an experiment, logic, and ignored theoretical philosophical constructions, complex models and hypotheses not supported by scientific data. Back then, this new philosophy was the philosophy of science and was conceived as something that would replace the outdated classical philosophy with its interweaving of worldview, morality and faith, and remove ethics from the speculative structure of society, with its characteristic disregard for experiment as a method of cognition.
Today, almost 250 years since the adoption of the US Constitution, many elements of the American state system have not only lost their original progressive meaning but even look downright archaic. The most vivid examples of this are the life-long appointment of Supreme Court justices, who maintain their positions for decades, the electoral system of voting, whereby members of state electoral colleges are not obligated to vote according to the will of the people of that state, and the decentralized legal system, where precedents are superimposed on precedents, and the passage of a new law does not entail a revision of the old one.
Even though this archaism is obvious to any unbiased observer, not only are there no active discussions about constitutional reform or at least new amendments to the fundamental law of the land, but there are heated discussions going in Congress, the media and universities about how to interpret provisions of the ancient document in such a way as to better reflect the founding fathers’ ideas.
Any liberal arts education in the United States, from the high-school level up, includes a detailed study, not critical, but apologetic, of the history of the founding of the United States, the adoption of the Constitution and the early period of the US as a country. The personalities of the founding fathers and their philosophical views are front and center in most of these courses, and the higher the prestige of the educational institution, the more diligently the knowledge of the “essential foundations” of American statehood is implanted in the students’ minds.
As a result, the overwhelming majority of America’s intellectual elite leave their universities with deep faith in the sacredness of the US Constitution and the principles embedded in it. They are also steeped in the very spirit of empiricism and positivism of the Age of Reason. These are exactly the philosophical doctrines that shaped the development of humanitarian sciences in the United States and continue to do so today, even though they have long been considered in Europe as limited, to say the least.
This is also why scientific psychology has been reduced to behaviorism and the theory of historical stages has been dismissed, replaced by a civilizational approach and the so-called “evidence-based” or “fact-based” political science, which is the centerpiece of this article.
The seeds of political science and sociology, which fell into the fertile American soil in the first half of the 20th century, were soaked in the juices of the developed political class, their young shoots basked in the rays of a fleeting electoral cycle and an all-pervading electoral system, and their flowers were brighter than anywhere else. Election managers have never experienced any shortage of money and resources, and experts, who were able to predict the voters’ reaction, awaited universal respect and cushy jobs.
Now, in the run-up to the 21st year of the new century, America has a whole army of sociologists and political scientists, with regiments and divisions “deployed” in every state and in every district of each state. This army is big enough to simultaneously serve the election campaigns of two presidential candidates, dozens of candidates for state governors, hundreds of congressional and senatorial hopefuls, and thousands of candidates for elected positions in local administrations. This 300,000-strong army has its own soldiers – street agitators, and its generals – campaign managers. It also has its own intelligence – sociological institutions and political spin doctors, trying to analyze the voters’ preferences and work out the best strategy and tactics.
It would seem that all this multitude of people, endowed with almost unlimited resources, should have long ago studied the political landscape of every single corner of America and provided an accurate forecast of the locals’ reaction to statements made by a politician, or steps taken by his opponent. This doesn’t happen, however, and forecasts made by political scientists are disproved by reality. The biggest such flop ever was Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 presidential election.
This discrepancy between spent human and economic resources and the results attained has much to do with the culture of science and positivism that still prevails in American science. The positivist approach to science focuses on the search for objective truth, which can almost exclusively be achieved with the help of empirical facts and formal logic. This logic for centuries prevailed in physics, but even there it has been a subject of scathing criticism as it eventually turned out that the research method can affect the result of the research, and that one and the same object can have mutually exclusive properties, depending on how it is measured. This means that the fact obtained with so much effort is no longer absolute, and formal logic is simply insufficient in its toolbox.
These are the conclusions reached by physicists who study laws that are not subject to rapid change and are independent of human culture – a discovery that seems to have been completely overlooked by US political scientists, who still conduct public opinion polls as if the question never predetermines the answer, even though this is almost always the case. They avoid making assumptions, because they do not know all the facts, and try to objectively measure the immeasurable – the constantly changing moods of the mass of people divided into thousands of groups according to geographic, gender, age, educational, professional and other factors. And each of the millions of people polled represents a mixture of cultures, religions and ideologies and can change his or her opinion on a given issue every day, even a dozen times a day.
Such a system of studying the electorate and the related forecasting method are doomed to failure. Even if the combined forces of sociologists and political scientists were a hundred times larger and at a certain moment in time could collect data on the people’s preferences that would meet the strictest scientific criteria, the next day this information would be no longer relevant, and the whole work would have to be done again… In real life, however, this does not happen either.
Thus, US political scientists, who have always been taught not to invent theories, but only generalize the available facts, are chasing these facts and use them indiscriminately. Can an ordinary Biden election campaign expert run a scientific check on and compare multi-page descriptions of survey methods, when dozens of surveys are conducted each week, and sometimes, each day? Of course not, and so experts rely on the authority and decency of the organization that provides the “facts.” At best, they summarize the results of several surveys, and at worst, they use the one that suits them best.
This is the case at the level of data synthesis and forecasting, based on this generalization, but things are even worth when it comes to research and data collection. In an ever-changing environment, when precious “facts” become irrelevant in a matter of hours, research teams have to rely on the speed of research, rather than its coverage, representativeness or accuracy. This constant race leads to the emergence of such Frankenstein sociological monsters as a poll, where the difference in the candidates’ ratings is less than the margin of error allowed by the researcher, or a methodologically flawed survey, deliberately presented as an All-American poll that less than 1,000 people took part in.
And yet, US sociologists and political scientists still stick to positivism, because positivism is the true-blue American way. Never mind that these principles and methods, invented to study the eternal laws of nature, are now used to “study” the ever-changing mood of the crowd.
The bigger the process that the American system of public opinion research tries to study or predict, the worse the result: while it works almost impeccably in local elections, at the level of elections to Congress it starts to fail, and during presidential elections things get real bad. A positivist analysis is impossible where you have no positivist facts, which means that the winner will be the one who better applies different methods of analysis. However, such methods are nowhere to find in the American universe, and those who successfully apply them are said to have “guessed.”
According to the American elite, in 2016, Trump “guessed” exactly what the conservative voter wanted. He is “guessing” again this year, while Democrats, also forced to engage in guesswork, use their favorite tactics of “identity politics”: they nominate those who they believe best relate to their typical supporter in terms of demographic indicators – an elderly white middle-aged male, and an African-American woman.
Which of them guessed better the whole world will know very soon.
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