Will America Become Great Again?

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Civilizations decline. And then fall. It’s happened again and again throughout history. Of course, their decline and falls don’t always follow set patterns and the course of events isn’t predictable. But what’s guaranteed is that no civilization will last forever, and everything comes to end, one way or another. This is how Allah created this world.

A lot of Americans, or people in the world generally, see the United States of America as a civilization in decline. Many of them elected Trump to “Make America Great Again,” in other words to restore America to some previous perceived state of greatness. Of course, many point out that this previous state of alleged greatness had a lot of racism, sexism and otherwise exploitation. This is true. But we can agree that America did build a civilization that’s now in decline, even if it involved exploitation.

There’s three factors to look at when discussing America’s decline: the political, the social, and the economic. I’ll discuss these one at a time. Then I’ll talk about what the implications of this decline will be and whether we can do anything to save it.

The Political Aspect

Donald Trump is our President. Imagine telling someone that in 2005, or 2010, or even 2014. Heck, until results started rolling in on election night, a majority of the educated elites thought the idea of Trump as President was an insane fantasy. Yet here we are.

The country is politically very divided. Some people read The New York Times and others watch Fox News, and they’re living in completely different worlds. Any sense of a shared set of facts has been lost. As a result, many events are interpreted by people in radically different ways based on their political orientation.

Mass shootings happen at epidemic proportions. Half the country sees too many guns, half sees too few. Yes, it’s not exactly half each, but the point stands. Confederate flags and monuments are taken down: half the country sees history being erased, half sees a symbol of a historical wrong being removed. Health insurance premiums go up: half the country blames Obamacare for going too far in its reforms, half blames Obamacare for not going far enough. An athlete takes a knee in protest at police brutality: half the country sees a disrespectful millionaire, half sees a brave dissident.

Of course, political divisions exist in any society. But when you have two things happen simultaneously: 1) everything becoming politicized, and 2) a shared sense of facts being lost, then the political divisions start becoming cultural ones. The culture itself is being divided, and these divisions could function as “cracks” along which the society collapses later on. One symptom of this is that electoral outcomes in certain areas are becoming more and more predictable. States shifted back-and-forth from blue to red and vice versa all the time in electoral college history. Now, blue states are blue states and red states are red states, with very little change.

The Social Aspect

For better or for worse, the white Christian family was the traditional social model in American society. 1 father, 1 mother, a few kids. This is coming apart very quickly and it’s already too late to go back.

Whites are now set to become the plurality rather than the majority within the next few decades. Of course, whites don’t “own” this country any more than anyone else. But regardless, a heterogeneous civilization with ethnic fault-lines is more likely to fall apart along those lines than a society with a clear majority. I’m making descriptive statements, not normative ones.

Christianity is pretty much finished as a cultural force. Trump marks the end of it. He bragged about sexually assaulting women, and a majority of evangelicals voted for him anyway. Among the citizens who do claim to be Christians, for many of them it’s become a conduit for racial identity, to contrast against the “brown and black” Muslims, rather than a religion with actual ethical teachings.

The family has declined as well, thanks to a variety of factors including the LGBTQ movement, the rise of casual sex killing marriage, and the rise of pornography killing sex. Not killing exactly, but harming it enough to make marriage lose its force as a glue that kept society together and ensured a consistent upbringing for the next generation.

The Economic Aspect

This is arguably the most important. In the past, in America, even an unskilled worker could get a job and earn enough to provide for his family and retire comfortably. Now, for the average American, getting by is increasingly difficult, whether skilled or unskilled.

People will point out that the unemployment rate is down. This only measures the number of people actively looking for a job. The real number to focus on is the labor force participation rate, which is in continuous decline, reaching its lowest points since women entered the workforce. A lot of people gave up looking for work because every good position would get dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants and the chance of being selected was so low. And working in retail or fast food for minimum-wage isn’t for everyone.

In contrast to the average person who’s struggling, the ones who have capital are doing quite well. This was documented in the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. He demonstrated how in today’s developed countries, the rate of return on capital is higher than the growth rate of the economy itself, meaning the ones who have capital (rich people) are earning nearly all the newly created wealth, creating runaway inequality. The rich get richer, the poor stay poor, and the middle class slides into poverty.

For example, a person with $3 million in assets can invest and easily get an annual return of 5% (if not higher), earning $150,000 from the capital. That’s more than enough to live lavishly, without having to break a sweat. Not to mention the fact that the capital gains tax is much less than the income tax. Meanwhile, a person without capital has to work all the time, and an unskilled person can’t expect to earn more than minimum wage, around $20,000 per year. Such a person is mired in permanent poverty and lives paycheck-to-paycheck.

There’s also the issue of the aging population. Programs such as social security and medicare are not sustainable in the long-term. Raising the retirement age is an option to mitigate this, but that only goes so far before it starts to take away jobs from the youth. Taxing the rich more is another option, but the rich are able to employ fancy tricks to dodge their taxes, and there aren’t enough rich people anyway. You need a bulk of the population working, earning a good income, and paying their taxes in order to fund these programs.

Eventually, these programs will have to be cut, or the government will default on its debt. Either way, it will cause massive social unrest.

The Implications

The future is hard to predict, obviously. But I think one thing is clear: a return to the post-WW2 era is not possible.

The likely medium-term scenario is that we will see an increasing number of citizens forced into poverty, despite having previously lived a middle-class lifestyle. In fact, this is already starting to become the case. Families will become unable to pay their debts, and will have their assets seized and their lives made miserable. Meanwhile, the rich will get richer and richer.

In this environment, radical ideologies such as communism or fascism will continue to gain ground. Whether things will lead to violence is unclear. And if violence does happen, it’s unclear if it will be an armed revolt against the government authority, a rise in organized crime, or Robin Hood-style attacks against the wealthy. Rich people in this country certainly fear that last scenario the most, and many of them are working on building shelters and bunkers in secluded areas, and stockpiling weapons, to defend themselves.

The rich will continue to have a stranglehold on politics, because according the US Supreme Court, spending money is a form of speech and therefore buying off politicians with cash is totally legal. This means we’re not going to see any policy changes to help poor or middle class Americans. And if there’s another economic crash, the aftermath of it will basically be another gigantic transfer of wealth up the social ladder, because the wealthy have the instruments of power and finance at their disposal to make sure the effects of the financial crash are felt by the poor and middle class, and not them.

Is There a Solution?

It’s difficult to say. One solution to the social issues would be for Americans to convert to Islam. For all the problems in the Muslim-majority world, their families and communities are still in tact. And the Muslim world’s violent crime rate remains remarkably low as well, especially when compared to non-Muslim countries of similar socioeconomic status.

Islam, because it’s the true religion revealed by our Creator who knows us best, provides a much better basis on which to build society than the secular ethnic nation-state. Since we have the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ preserved, we’re better able to fend off the various types of degeneracies that are becoming common in our world today. The family and the community are emphasized, leading to a more cohesive society. In our strange postmodern world, the Sunnah teaches us how to be human, and it’s still accessible, thanks to the efforts of great men and women throughout the ages.

Islam’s system of zakat provides an excellent solution to many of today’s economic problems. Zakat is applied on wealth, not on income. So the person in the example above, who had $3 million in assets and was earning a 5% return at $150,000 per annum, would actually have to pay 2.5% to the poor and needy. His or her net gain would only be 2.5%, or $75,000 per year. If he or she still spent $150,000 per year, the entire $3 million portfolio would be gone within a few decades, the wealth having been recycled to the lower classes of society. In fact, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty advocates something similar to what Islam says, a small annual tax on wealth.

Of course, zakat is done for the sake of Allah, not for the sake of wealth equality or benefiting the economy. My point is that there is wisdom in Islamic law that goes to the core of the issues we are facing today. Of course, such wisdom would even exist even if we weren’t able to rationalize or demonstrate it. Allah knows and we do not know.

The main issue with the Muslims is that we have many political problems. We’ve been struggling for over 100 years to reconcile Islam and modernity and a lot of the answers that have been put forward have been inadequate. And these discussions have not been taking place in a healthy intellectual environment; many dictatorships have “bought” Islamic scholars and used them to shore up their own power. Others have suppressed organic Islamic movements, seeing them as a threat.

Perhaps Western Muslims, in light of the political situation in the Muslim-majority world, can try to learn the Islamic tradition better and understand how it can be applied best in the modern world, instead of selling out to secular liberalism. But of course, as the rise of Trump and the alt-right shows, our political situation is far from safe either.

Either way, we’re looking at some tough times ahead. I’d recommend that everyone make as few assumptions as possible about society moving forward. Don’t assume that you will continue to receive fair treatment by society, don’t assume your comfortable middle-class lifestyle will continue, and don’t assume your children will have a better life than your own.

Salaam,

Yousuf

11 February 2018

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