US midterms: can America survive the culture wars?

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Saturday 15 October, Church House, London


With FBI raids on a former president’s home and accusations from the current president that the conduct of his predecessor’s ‘extreme right’ supporters amounts to ‘semi-fascism’ – what the hell is happening in America? As outsiders look at the toxic domestic state of US politics, it seems difficult to see how the US will rise to its traditional leadership role on the world stage. In an unstable world, wracked by major economic challenges and a war at the heart of Europe adding to destabilising geopolitical tensions, the health of US democracy is of interest beyond its own borders.

Despite Joe Biden beginning his presidency in 2021 by declaring that ‘America is back’ – and that he’d reverse the previous administration’s efforts to put ‘America First’ – the present midterm campaign-trail is not focusing on international issues. Instead, November’s congressional election is being posed by some as a battle for the ‘soul of the nation’. Biden has ratcheted up his rhetoric against the former president Donald Trump and his allies in recent speeches, casting the modern Republican Party as a threat to America itself. MAGA Republicans, disparagingly dubbed ‘Trumpies’, stand accused of threatening ‘the very foundations of our republic’. Meanwhile, Trump claims this is a slur against the 74million who voted for him in 2020, while his supporters claim the government is guilty of egregious persecution – including hyperbolic accusations of high treason used to justify the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, or the labelling of the 6 January Capitol riot as an organised insurrection. It certainly seems that within America, politicians behave as though the enemy is at home, while world economic and political matters are a distant concern.

But even if the political campaigns ignore foreign policy, electoral outcomes will shape America’s place in the world. Outside of the US, global leaders are questioning whether America is fit to ‘lead the world’, exemplified by its messy exit from the 20-year war in Afghanistan. When first elected, Biden promised a new Cold-War narrative that would return America to its global activist role. However, nearly two years later, the US has struggled to influence any events regarding the war in Ukraine decisively. Meanwhile, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is beginning to challenge the economic influence of the US in some parts of the world. Despite these negative trends, the US remains the world’s largest economy, with a global influence far beyond that of China, and many US weapons are proving effective against Russia in Ukraine. So, to what extent is America really declining?

Perhaps, more pertinently, do Americans themselves even care about remaining the preeminent power when midterm debates focus so much on internal fights over divisive cultural questions like school choice, abortion, and voting issues? Much of the mainstream political discussion in the US is caught up in the culture wars, with rows over race, gender ideology and so-called ‘woke’ politics seeming to divide communities. Will the upcoming midterms, which crucially set the stage for the 2024 presidential elections, hasten or hinder America’s apparent international decline? Will an electoral challenge resolve or exacerbate internal divisions? What is happening in America, and what consequences will it have for the rest of the world?

Yaron Brook
chairman of the board, Ayn Rand Institute; host, The Yaron Brook Show; co-author, In Pursuit of Wealth: the moral case for finance

Jack Garland
student, University of California, Los Angeles; writer and editor, Bruin Political Review

Dr Richard Johnson
writer; lecturer in US politics, Queen Mary, University of London; author, The End of the Second Reconstruction: Obama, Trump, and the crisis of civil rights

Helen Searls
chief operating officer, Feature Story News; founder, Washington Hyenas book club; Ulysses enthusiast

Fraser Myers
deputy editor, spiked; host, The spiked podcast