Why there may be an American Spring this summer

Amid an incredibly febrile world with Britons voting to leave the EU, an historic flow of migrants into Europe, worsening chaos in the Middle East, lonely eyes are again turning to the perennially stable United States.

But the image that greets them now is not the calm but powerful Uncle Sam character but a simmering pot of tensions that is already displaying sudden outbursts of fury and which looks in danger of boiling over in a dramatic and horrible way.

The last year has seen a series of attacks on African-Americans by predominantly white police officers. Almost exactly two years ago on 8 August 2014, a white police officer searching for a convenience-store robber in Ferguson Missouri shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown, kicking off mass civil unrest.

In 2015 police in the US killed at least 346 black people, or nearly one a day, of whom one in three was unarmed according to a website set up to track the incidents.

In a sign of a spontaneous desire for revenge, there have been several separate incidents of black men shooting at predominantly white police officers and citizens across the country.

In the most recent one - at the time of writing - Gavin Long of Kansas City, a black man, ambushed and killed three law officers and wounded three others in Baton Rouge. This followed the murder of five officers and the wounding of seven more by a sniper in Dallas. Similar incidents have been reported in Tennessee, Atlanta and Georgia.

However one of the policemen shot in Baton Rouge was Montrell Jackson, a black officer of 10 years standing. Long, the killer, was a Marine Corps veteran who reportedly adopted combat-style movements and tactics, implying he knew that one of his victims was black. The important factor was that Jackson was police - his anti-authority violence was colour-blind.

a tinderbox ready for a spark

There is anger among the white community too, particularly among communities that find they have been left behind by a process of globalisation that has taken away the factories that provided their livelihoods and failed to provide any alternative outside minimum wage retail.

So far, their anger has been diverted into support for the billionaire Donald Trump, who has succeeded in making America’s white working classes think he is one of them.

Trump’s campaign has been accompanied by a fair amount of violence as supporters of the man have clashed with his opponents who are angry at the smears he has made against whole communities. Trump himself has resorted to the language of violence, threatening to punch opponents. A month later one of his supporters took him on his word and did exactly that.

He has spent the campaign attacking and denigrating whole swaths of Americans – from Hispanic Americans, Muslims, Latino immigrants and Mexicans in general to women he regards as unattractive, and Hollywood liberals.

Add to that the income and wealth inequality that has left both black and white communities on the heap. According to McKinsey & Company, the real incomes of about two-thirds of households in 25 advanced economies were flat or fell between 2005 and 2014.

The report, Poorer than their Parents?, found that real incomes in those same advanced economies were flat or fell for 65%-70% of households.

The compression of people’s incomes, the loss of jobs, the denigration by politicians and the perceived aggression by the police make for very angry people.

As the presidential campaign finally moves into a final hate-filled straight over the late summer and autumn, people may find that they want to reject a choice between a xenophobic and possibly racist Republican and a dry and technocratic Democrat with links to Wall Street.

Taken together this leaves a country split on racial, economic and class lines that is a tinderbox ready for a spark. That could be the election of Donald Trump - but equally be his defeat. It could the assassination of Trump, or of Hillary Clinton - neither of which is beyond the bounds of possibility or America’s history.

There is an urgent need to ensure that growth and job opportunities reach all

But given that there will be no other name on the ballot paper, the only alternative could be direct action. But it could be a minor and, from here, unpredictable incident that lights the touch paper.

In the case of the Arab Spring it was the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi who was angry at petty harassment by a local municipal official.

If there is - and one hopes strongly that there won’t be - some sort of rebellion or uprising in the US, it will be a political act and therefore needs a political response.

For too long both the main political parties have ignored the driving down of growth in wages and salaries from almost 15% before 1980 to below 5% in 2016, having fallen into negative territory during the global financial crisis.

The violence within black communities and the series of mass shootings in schools and workplaces has been met with strong and powerful rhetoric from President Obama but that has not been translated into gun control laws.

But the response needs to go higher than that. America needs to show the innovation in its political response that has made it so admired by many parts of the rest of the world.

McKinsey warn that without some strong action, this phenomenon could have corrosive economic and social consequences. There is an urgent need to ensure that growth and job opportunities reach all parts of the US, that the tax system reduces rather than exacerbates inequality, and that the financial system is reformed to remove perverse incentives to boost profits by offshoring factories.

If that is not going to come from Clinton or Trump then one can only hope there is a new potential unifier waiting in the wings.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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