Can we rebuild the United States after President Trump is gone? And how would we do it?
It’s a good question, and it’s looking more important as new evidence of his criminality emerges on what feels like a near-daily basis.
You would be forgiven if watching the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump last week left you with the feeling that the constitutional system of government is on life support. Even acknowledging that Trump is corrupt and guilty of everything he’s charged with, it’s disheartening to watch Senate Republicans twist themselves into knots to justify a craven vote to not call any witnesses or see any evidence for a trial in which they’re supposed to be impartial jurors.
But if there’s anything consistent about Trump, it’s that he doesn’t see the U.S. as an example of democracy, freedom, or any other positive ideal. He said as much on national TV shortly after the election, both-sides-ing away Russia’s campaign of murdering journalists by saying, “You think our country’s so innocent?”
You could almost say he started out thinking we weren’t any better than anyone else, and since then has worked to make that statement indisputable truth.
But let’s look forward. Let’s assume that, despite his near-inevitable acquittal by the Senate, Trump loses in November (because the alternative is unthinkable), and after much complaining and pouting and calling the election “rigged,” he’s finally shown the door when Chief Justice John Roberts goes ahead and swears in a new president. This country’s systemic problems were already deep. If the constitutional glue holding the U.S. together has proven to be so brittle, what’s to stop the nation from flying off into 50 (or more) mini-nations, joined only by a flag or a common currency or the ability of federal agents to run airport security scanners and crack suspects’ iPhones?
The first and perhaps only job of a new president, after what is likely to be a very close race, is going to be to start the long, arduous process of rebuilding our corroded institutions and installing new protections against a return to Trumpism.
At this point, it’s pretty dubious to continue asserting that the U.S. is exceptional after everything this administration has done to undercut almost every norm established by the much-lauded Constitution. So let’s start with dropping all that “American exceptionalism” talk, take an industrial-strength dose of humility medicine, and start looking around the world to see how we can do better.
The nativist sentiment that permeates U.S. culture has always been rooted in a suspicion of foreignness, whether it comes from people, products, or ideas. Historically, we’ve convinced ourselves that no one was as good as us, therefore we couldn’t possibly learn anything from anyone else.
But we’ve known for a long time that wasn’t true. Consider health care, which any honest observer will admit is a complete mess: the U.S. “system” is a largely cartel of under-regulated private insurance companies that have near-monopolistic holds on their markets. (Most companies, even if they offer insurance to their employees, have an extremely limited selection of options.) Meanwhile, costs for care and pharmaceuticals skyrocket out of all proportion to their actual value, and there is little to no transparency in pricing from one market to the next, or even among hospitals within the same market.
Time to go with something else? Many would like a Medicare-style single-payer system for everyone, with the government buying most or all care for the population. That would follow the example of countries such as Norway or the United Kingdom. Or we could adopt a universal coverage program, such as the Canadian model in which the government insures everyone. For the free market crowd, the Swiss model provides an entirely private health care and insurance system that nonetheless covers everyone and is heavily regulated by the government. Switzerland has higher out-of-pocket expenses compared to other European countries, but the cost is still minuscule compared to U.S. rates.
No system is perfect, but quite a few are a lot better than the one we’ve got now.
Or let’s look at the U.S. school systems, which consistently underperform those in the rest of the industrialized world by many measures. Do we want to invest in better teacher training? Finland leads the pack in this, and the country also provides comprehensive social services to students in need, without means-testing. Are we better served by schools designed to educate future workers, or those designed to improve STEM subject test scores, such as schools in Singapore or Japan? Should we address extreme inequality among public schools and decouple school funding from property taxes in favor of a more equitable statewide or national support, as Canada has done in several provinces?
We could do the same for policy directions large and small. The EU’s privacy law has become the standard for ensuring people’s personal data isn’t exploited by technology businesses. Norway is often credited with having the most humane prison system in the world, with a correspondingly low rate of recidivism. (Or, we could act on one of the good ideas that has come from recent organizing in the U.S., and abolish prisons outright as inherently discriminatory, cruel, and ineffective institutions.)
And let’s not overlook that fundamental bedrock of democracy: elections. Ours are corrupted by billions of dollars in dark money, and the laws are inconsistent from state to state (and from year to year). Voter suppression is rife, especially for people of color, the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, and an archaic 18th century electoral system means that the presidential election is decided in one of a handful of swing states, while Senate representation is designed to give disproportionate power to less populous states.
Around the world, many nations already have a form of proportional representation, while Freedom House, which tracks free and fair elections worldwide, ranked the U.S. 53rd in the world in 2019, tied with Belize, and right behind Greece and Latvia.
Any number of things can be improved in American society. In many cases, someone else already is doing a better job. Maybe it’s time we drop the pretense that we know everything, recognize that our “traditions” can be outdated and barriers to progress, and open ourselves to the best ideas from around the world. After all, we’re going to have a long rebuilding process ahead of us once Trump exits the national stage. We might as well do it right.
CHRIS WINTERS is senior editor at YES! He covers economics and politics.