Is America is in decline?
It certainly is, to hear the Republican presidential candidates tell it. The current frontrunner, Donald Trump, has built his campaign around the proposition, and his pitch to voters is that only he can “make America great again.”
Trump’s vision of the national emergency is America inundated by criminal foreigners — Mexicans mostly. His only explicit policy proposals so far — building a border wall and deporting undocumented immigrants — if carried to fruition would make America decidedly ungreat, ballooning the budget deficit and tanking the economy, not to mention the humanitarian outrages that would accompany mass deportations. Which is why they will never happen. But Trump’s selling the sizzle on a steak that isn’t there.
The rest of the Republican candidates have a song and dance about national decline, too, more or less following the same script. Obamacare is job-killing tyranny. Obama’s a weak leader, not tough enough with Russia, China and the various bad guys of the Middle East. Social Security is going broke; we need to act now to trim benefits. High taxes and regulations are choking the economy.
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Yawn. Nobody believes this drivel except other Republicans, and a good number of them don’t buy it either. Polls have shown, for example, that more Republicans prefer increasing spending on entitlements to cutting them. A recent Pew poll found that half of Republican respondents thought free-trade agreements have hurt American jobs and driven down wages.
No one on the Republican stage has taken notice of these contrapuntal sentiments within the party — no one, that is, except Trump. Which is another reason why he is currently killing it in polls.
He has very frankly called out the corrupting influence of big money in American politics. He has denounced bad trade deals. And he had this to say about entitlements: “All the Republicans are talking about, ‘We’re gonna cut, we’re gonna raise the age, we’re gonna do this, your Medicare, your Medicaid, your Social Security.’” His plan? “All I want to do is make us rich, save your Social Security, (and) stop having everyone rip us off.”
This isn’t how Republicans talk. It’s not even how most Democrats talk. Martin O’Malley, the Democratic former governor of Maryland, has put together a Rebuild the American Dream platform with 15 impressive proposals to repair the economic and social havoc wreaked on Americans since the recent Great Recession. Not found among them is a word about what he would to preserve entitlements from the current mania in Washington for “reform,” much less to bolster them.
The establishment types of each party would do well to acquaint themselves with the state of the nation as the average American experiences it. They could start by consulting a rather grimly titled analysis released in July, Is the United States Still the Best Country in the World? Think Again.
The paper, by two New York business professors, assessed how the United States measured up on various indicators such as median wealth, education and skills, Internet speeds and access, health, poverty rates and income inequality.
The picture they compiled isn’t pretty. The United States is no longer the world’s largest economy when adjustments are made for purchasing power parity. China overtook us in 2014, but not by much. We rank 35th out of 157 countries in poverty rate.
We are first in the world for incarceration rates, ahead of China and the Russian Federation.
But the biggest indicator of our problems, the one that Republican candidates tend to only nod at, is that the United States is the fourth worst in the world for income inequality, right behind Chile, Mexico and Turkey.
Wealth has been concentrated in fewer hands, thanks largely to the political influence of the rich. The United States ranked No. 17 in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Government policy has consistently favored elite special interests over the majority, the authors note, “transforming the United States into an oligarchy that is concerned only about the needs of the wealthy.”
So, yes, voters are right to feel a sense of despair, to suspect that no matter what they do, how hard they work, they’re being “ripped off.” A nation as rich and powerful as the United States ought to be doing more for them. It’s failing.
Voters must judge the 2016 candidates by their policy proposals. But the first test is how honestly they account for how the nation reached its sad state of affairs.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.
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