For a long time, American elites have been perpetuating the myth that the US is extraordinary and that it is a giant melting pot of immigrants from all over the world. In theory, unlike the European countries, there is no aristocratic class in the US, nor is there a tradition of paying attention to one’s pedigree. 90% of Americans consider themselves among the middle class.
Back in the day when I had just arrived in the US, I had three roommates. One of them had thousands of acres of land back home, a palace-like mansion by a lake in Champaign, and motorboats and yachts on the lake. When he invited me to his house, I was completely surprised. But he humbly said that he was from a middle class family. The father of another roommate was a Wall Street trader and earned over US$500,000 annually. Everything that this roommate used and bought could only be called luxurious, yet he also said that he was just a middle class bloke. The last roommate was a university graduate who worked as a volunteer. He earned US$700 a month and needed to plan his finances well to survive — he said he was middle class as well. That left me, a Chinese who had just arrived in the US, very confused.
... a rising number of younger people are becoming more accepting of socialism.
Class consciousness on the rise
Thirty years later, the superficial harmony of American society is being torn apart. Now, American elites are increasingly discussing class differences in an open manner. Elizabeth Warren, US Senator from Massachusetts and one of the early Democratic Party candidates in the 2020 presidential election, said that the top 0.1% of Americans own about the same wealth as the bottom 90%. Bernie Sanders, a US Senator from Vermont and also a Democratic Party presidential candidate, talked about a “political revolution” and a redistribution of wealth, winning the support of the younger generation in the primaries. He was just a step away from being chosen as the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party; his bid was only stymied by intense pressure from the heavyweights in the party. He got such a strong following because a rising number of younger people are becoming more accepting of socialism.
According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2019, 50% of younger respondents aged between 18 and 29 expressed positive views of socialism, compared to under 40% for those aged 50 and above. And while the “We are the 99%” slogan-chanting Occupy movement that swept America a few years ago was eventually subdued by the police, it made more youths aware of the deep polarisation that exists in the country.
To some conservative white people in the US, people who rely on government welfare to survive are useless.
At the same time, the US’s lower class is also coming apart. A large proportion of poor people and single-parent families in the US rely on social welfare. A New York Times report in 2015 highlighted that 1.5 million black males are “missing” in the US as they have either suffered early deaths, largely from homicide, or are serving their sentences in prison. In addition, a percentage of the immigrants and refugees who have come to the US from every part of the world also rely on social welfare. Some time ago, statistics from the US government showed that over 100 million Americans, accounting for one-third of the American population, receive some kind of social welfare.
To some conservative white people in the US, people who rely on government welfare to survive are useless. These conservative whites mostly come from poorer states, are Christians, generally do not have a high level of education, and have a relatively lower income. That said, they look down on those who live on government welfare, and are mostly Trump supporters who think that giving benefits to the poor is practising socialism and destroying the US.
This radical trend and the Republican Party’s pushback against it have helped the party hold on to their core supporter base.
Racial divides and different belief systems
Apart from class differences, racial polarisation in the US is also getting worse. For example, police brutality against black Americans and the resultant “Black Lives Matter” and anti-fascist movements. While people from all races and ages participate in these movements, they are mostly organised by the whites who are referred to as baizuo (白左, lit. white left, a derogatory term used on the Chinese internet to refer to those with Western leftist ideologies) by anti-communist activists involved in overseas democracy movements, Falun Gong, and Taiwan independence activities.
Baizuo belongs to the left-wing of the Democratic Party and considers themselves “radicals”. In addition to opposing racism, the radicals also support feminist movements, LGBT, gender-neutral toilets, the inclusion of homosexuals in military service, and so on. The Republican Party is against these ideas, even though they are accepted by more and more young people. This radical trend and the Republican Party’s pushback against it have helped the party hold on to their core supporter base.
Seeing history in a new light?
Apart from the class and culture wars mentioned above, the more radical Americans are also re-evaluating US history. When I first came to the US, whether in US history textbooks or when spoken of by American professors, the founding fathers of the nation were treated as gods. Now, people seem to have discovered that these founding fathers had a hand in slaughtering the native people. They seem to have just realised that the advances of the Industrial Revolution and the social progress of the 19th century were achieved on the backs of the slave trade.
Many universities have set up student unions for black and indigenous students and asked professors and departments to review and improve their syllabus and textbooks. They have also asked more non-white academics to publish their work and for the statues of controversial historical figures on the campus to be removed. This state of affairs has been labelled “America’s Cultural Revolution”. Thankfully, most professors responded positively and actively to the demands of black and indigenous students.
Based on the current circumstances, the two-party system is falling apart and both parties are only concerned with their own interests.
These problems have been bubbling beneath the surface throughout the US’s development history and must be resolved sooner or later. In time to come, these problems might be resolved in a peaceful manner. But if they are not, it is not impossible for the US to descend into a civil war. A further escalation of what was seen during the Capitol siege by a mob of Trump supporters is possible as well. Based on the current circumstances, the two-party system is falling apart and both parties are only concerned with their own interests. In the end, it is often the country’s overall interests that are sacrificed.
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