Think Tank (1/2020)
Dr Adam Garfinkle


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What Ails America?
31 Jan 2020

Dr Adam Garfinkle, Distinguished Visiting Fellow of RSIS and the Founding Editor of The American Interest, delivered the RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture on 31 January 2020. At the lecture, he presented his research on the topic of what he calls the “American faceplant” which is due to culminate into a forthcoming book. The concept of the American faceplant acknowledges that the United States has put itself into an embarrassing — but not fatal — political situation, that threatens the country’s prowess at home and abroad. Responding to the question “What Ails America?”, Dr Garfinkle shared his perspective on the root causes of the political, economic, social, and cultural strife in the United States. He also recognised that the political angle is merely the tip of the iceberg, and that only in properly diagnosing the problem can treatment begin.

While much of the existing literature on this topic acknowledges that President Donald Trump is a symptom, rather than the cause, of current ailments, Dr Garfinkle contended that the academia is disincentivised from taking a broader, synoptic approach to identifying the root causes. He saw the disincentives as two-fold. First, the trend towards more specialisation in academic literature means that cross-disciplinary generalisation is not rewarded. Second, the business model of commercialisation forces analysis to be short and punchy, which results in watered-down content. In his words, the second issue meant that the “analytical superstructure cannot support the weight of the problem.”

Dr Garfinkle’s current research pushed back against these two shortfalls of the academia by taking a “unified field theory” approach. In reviewing the literature, seven main claims can be identified. They are, (i) meritocracy gone amuck, (ii) populism, (iii) institutional decay, (iv) polarisation, (v) the haemorrhaging of social trust, (vi) turbocapitalism and industrial folklore, and lastly (vii) the tech novelty tsunami. When taken together, these seven categories compound each other. Dr Garfinkle’s analysis concluded that all seven are derivative of three root causes, (i) affluence, (ii) the erosion of deep literacy, and (iii) the end of modernity. Furthermore, he argued that the United States has come to suffer from “irrational exuberance”, or the over-pursuit of values that best serve the country in moderation.

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