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The J curve and why the US is becoming less stable

Thought Leader: Ian Bremmer
October 6, 2021
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By Ian Bremmer

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book called The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. My aim was to help readers understand why some emerging market countries continue to emerge while others face major political unrest. With all the divisiveness and dysfunction in today’s US, it’s now time to use this tool to take a long, hard look at what’s happening inside the world’s superpower.

The J curve describes the relationship between a country’s openness (both the openness of its political processes and the free movement of people, goods and information within and across its borders) and its stability (the ability of its institutions to absorb shock).

Countries on the left side of the curve are stable because they’re closed. There is little or no real competition within their political systems. North Korea, Cuba and the Gulf monarchies offer some examples. Those countries don’t reach the same level of long-term political stability that can be achieved by countries that are truly open, such as Germany, Canada, Japan and dozens of other democracies. Those countries are on the right side of the curve.

A country that shifts from left to right — from closed to much more open — must pass through a period of instability, the dip in the J curve. That’s what happened, for example, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to open up the Soviet Union or when SA began to relax apartheid. Some countries make the transition. Others fall apart.

But it’s also possible to move from right to left. Despite Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat in the 2020 election, the failed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, and the refusal of many Americans to accept that Joe Biden really won the election, the US remains a mature democracy on the right side of the curve. At no point during that period was the US on the brink of dictatorship. US institutions again proved their ability to absorb shocks. The military chain of command remains politically neutral. American courts have resolved election disputes according to law.

But the US has become both less open and less resilient in recent years as the legitimacy of other institutions begins to erode. Confidence in election results, the most basic element of democracy, has taken a big hit. Plausible charges of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Trump’s baseless charges that 3-million people had voted illegally for Hillary Clinton in that election, and the equally false charge that voter fraud deprived him of victory in 2020 — all of it amplified by deceptive information in traditional and social media — have done more to undermine confidence in the integrity of national elections than any event in more than 140 years.

Congress has long been unpopular, but hyper-partisan rhetoric and predictable party-line voting on important legislation further undermine confidence that Congress can and will act on behalf of the American people as a whole. So do partisan bids within state governments to redraw congressional boundaries in ways that over-represent the voters of one party at the expense of the other. The need for legislators to constantly raise money and the lack of transparency about where their funding comes from don’t help.

The flow of former legislators into jobs as corporate lobbyists stokes public cynicism, and for good reason. Extreme political polarisation has sown doubts about the credibility of any congressional effort to oversee the executive branch of government or its own members. The chronic failure of Congress to enact significant legislation has also effectively ceded power to the executive branch, as presidents Obama, Trump and Biden have all issued historically large numbers of sweeping executive orders.

Finally, there is the growing lack of public respect for the media. In any open society, honest and skilful journalists can hold public figures accountable. Unfortunately, the polarisation that infects US politics is reflected in the marketplace of ideas.

The drive for market share that’s divided into ideological segments strips much reporting of its credibility for millions of Americans, who now consider them to be the information wings of the parties with which most of their reporting aligns. Social media then amplifies partisan divides by disseminating disinformation that doesn’t meet the standards of credibility in mainstream media — until the disinformation itself becomes news that mainstream reporters ask public officials to comment on.

For all these reasons, the US’s J-curve looks different than it did 30 years ago. On the one hand, not only have American institutions proven their endurance through the Trump turmoil, but US wealth and technological advantages relative to most of the rest of the world, including its allies, have grown. These positives increase American stability at every level of openness. But the US is clearly becoming a more polarised society, which creates a higher degree of political paralysis, pushing the country down the right side of the curve.

The US is hardly the only country plagued with a bitterly divided electorate, public cynicism about politicians, wealth inequality, partisan journalism and structural racism. But among the world’s wealthy democracies, these problems are greatest in the US.  And when the world’s most powerful and influential nation becomes more divided and dysfunctional, that makes the lack of global leadership much worse. The US needs to turn around its fall on the J curve quickly … or all of us will experience the consequences.

• Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.

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