BY NATE HAKEN
It was a rough year for the United States in 2017. It was the country’s worst year for hurricanes – Irma, Harvey, and Maria caused hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage in the Gulf Coast. It was the worst year for wildfires – over a million acres burned in California alone. It was the worst year for mass shootings – hundreds were killed at concerts and churches and schools. It was a pretty bad year for political polarization too, marked by politically charged investigations into Russian external intervention in the democratic process and a series of political scandals involving alleged corruption, criminality, and misconduct at the highest levels of government. Further, mass protests over issues like immigration policy and women’s rights took on greater energy than ever before. But not everything was bad. The economy continued to improve through 2017, with unemployment continuing to drop since it peaked at 10% in 2009 to a low of 4.1%, the best rate since 2000. The stock market also did well throughout 2017, continuing its rise since the crash of 2008-2009.
These divergent trends belie the notion that economic development automatically correlates with good governance and social cohesion. While it is probably true that in the long run, societies with lower social, economic, political, and security pressures are healthier and more resilient (certainly our operating assumption at The Fund for Peace), in the short run, trends can move in all kinds of different directions. Notwithstanding issues of inequality and relative deprivation masked by any macro-economic improvements, this means that when designing a peacebuilding strategy, you cannot simply presume that in addressing the economic concerns of aggrieved parties, conflict risks and vulnerabilities will thereby be reduced. James Carville’s famous line, “It’s the economy, stupid” may be true about winning elections, but it’s not the whole story if the goal is state resilience.
Early warning is about trying to guess the future. The temptation is to assume that current trends will continue unless some external force alters those trajectories. Certainly, in 2018, mass shootings and mass protest have continued into the new year, including a new factor: state-wide labor strikes by public school teachers across multiple states. Approval ratings of political leaders and government institutions continue to be lower than any other time in the history of modern polling. And the economy continues to do well, with the unemployment rate as low as its been in almost 20 years. But if the first quarter of 2018 is any indication, the economic outlook is far from certain, what with the rumblings of a trade war and a decrease in the value of technology companies driving down the stock market, putting added pressure on the national debt and political pressure on Congress to cut services to vulnerable and politically marginalized populations. Given this context, with midterm elections around the corner, there’s already the makings of a sharply divided electorate becoming even more so the closer we get to November.
Which brings us back to the question of agency. Policy and leadership matter. The economy is yet strong. Public services are still robust in comparison to historical levels. But unless we can agree as a society that public policy is intended to promote the public good, then we’ll never develop a common vision for what a thriving and resilient country even looks like. Tools like the Fragile States Index provide a framework that can help guide these questions and conversations. If we can agree on the goal, then we can have a constructive debate on the best way to get there.
See further analysis on the United States in 2018 HERE