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Prospects for American Renewal: Will the 2012 Elections Turn the Tide?

The decline of the US is pretty well-accepted now by all but the most fervent believers in American exceptionalism, with books and articles on the decline appearing regularly. The Foreign Policy magazine’s website features a “Decline Watch” column reporting the latest grim statistics, while Steve Pearlstein, The Washington Post business editor, asks “Can we Save American Capitalism?”

True, the US remains a global superpower, with the world’s most lethal military, the biggest economy, best college system, and some of the globe’s most innovative industries, like Silicon Valley. And with the recent new oil and gas discoveries, we are now a net energy exporter – albeit of carbon fuels that add to global warming.

The flip side, however, is that we also lead the developed world in poverty, homicides, incarceration, bankruptcies, CO2 emissions, low life spans, obesity, and mental illness. With only six percent off the world’s population, we control 90 percent of the world’s wealth and produce half of all pollution. The concentration of American wealth and the decline in social mobility is roughly comparable to the Gilded Age that preceded the Great Crash of 1929, and it only persists in a few developing nations.

What’s the cause of this decline? Pick your choice of the following supposed weaknesses, depending on your personal values and beliefs.

Gridlock between Republicans and Democrats demonstrates a deep conflict over the values of capitalism versus community. Democrats claim the wealthy now own most of the nation’s assets and have a quasi-corrupt lock on politics, while Republicans are convinced government bungles everything and is taking over our lives. Elegant solutions are available, as I have argued in a concept of “Democratic Enterprise,” but prospects look dim. Absent some resolution of this crucial stalemate, it’s hard to see how the US can move ahead.

Among industrialized nations, the US places near bottom on the indicators deemed crucial to competitiveness:   K-12 education, health care, infrastructure, social mobility, and income inequality. During past years, the top one percent of earners gained about 90% of all national income.

Polls show that many Americans are woefully ignorant. Sixty percent can’t name the three branches of our government. About half do not believe in climate change or evolution. Sixty percent of adults have never read a book since leaving school.

This growing tension between American ideals and reality cannot continue without entering a state of apathy somewhat like the Japanese meltdown of 1990 that drags on today.  The stakes are especially high with the threat of “going off a fiscal cliff ” when trillions of tax cuts take hold in early 2013. And the big challenges of our time gather disruptive powers as we fail to address climate change, alternative energy, tax reform, decaying infrastructure, research and innovation, and endless other crises

As a futurist ( and forecaster (, I suspect the national elections in 2012 could prove decisive. I think Obama will be re-elected as it becomes clear that Romney’s pledge to reduce benefits to the middle class while giving tax breaks to the wealthy no longer makes sense. Obama’s slump will not help, so It would be more accurate to say that Romney will lose rather than Obama will win.

A serious Romney loss could end the era of “Capitalism Triumphant” that started with Reagan and Thatcher in 1980, restoring a balance between the complementary poles of self-interested individualism versus collective social community.  Even leading Republicans say a Romney loss would be “The end of the Republican Party,” although it would merely mean the end of the “Revolt of the Rich Against the Poor.”

With Obama’s strong political support for being likeable, it’s possible a more balanced political environment could unleash his considerable skills at collaboration and uniting Americans in common purpose. We also forecast the US stock market will reach new highs about 2014 in anticipation of the next economic upcycle starting about 2015, driven by an explosion of e-commerce around the globe and other major innovations. Things could look very different in a few years as Americans find new sources of renewal and vitality.

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