Election post-mortem: Are we on the brink of utopia or dystopia?

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

By Marty Rochester

I drafted this commentary the day after the presidential election, before we knew the final outcome. I felt my comments were relevant regardless of the winner.  

The 2020 election has been called the most important in American history, given the huge differences between the candidates. That seems an exaggeration, since the electorate at times has been presented with stark choices, for example Johnson vs. Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon vs. McGovern in 1972. Are the options all that more disparate today?

Still, some would contend this time the country faces peril beyond anything in memory, so that the implications of the election are truly potentially seismic. However, are conditions today any worse than the combination of the Great Depression and World War II in the 1940s or, for that matter, the domestic violence and chaos in the 1960s? 

I would argue that (1) despite some weakening of our political institutions, we have enough checks and balances among the three branches that there is a limit to how much damage any occupant of the White House can do no matter how worrisome that leader might be and (2) despite many troubling contemporary problems, the American republic has shown a tremendous capacity to overcome challenges even greater than the ones we face currently.

Allow me an exercise in imagination. Let’s look forward to the year 2076, which would be the nation’s tricentennial celebration (The New York Times “1619 Project” notwithstanding).  Will we be closer to a utopian or dystopian society?

Many observers envision an ever grimmer future. Indeed, a leading futurism scholar, Lyman Sargent, stated in a recent email to me that “on dimensions too numerous to mention, we [already] live in dystopian times.” He was referring to corrupt politicians, an obscene rich-poor divide, automation replacing workers, environmental destruction, and endemic racism and sexism, among other problems. 

My response was, “What’s new? And, to the extent these problems exist, are they necessarily getting worse?”

In contrast to Sargent, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, in his latest book “Enlightenment Now,” argues, “Don’t listen to the gloom-sayers. The world has improved by every measure of human flourishing over the past two centuries, and the progress continues.” 

No fan of Donald Trump, he says that even Trump cannot stop the arc of progress. Pinker, based on tons of empirical evidence, sees pandemics, economic recessions, wildfires and other seeming catastrophes of the moment as mere bumps in the road to longer-term American and human betterment.

Picture yourself experiencing the time travel taken by the hero in Edward Bellamy’s famous 1888 novel “Looking Backward.” The hero, Julian West, having fallen asleep in 1887, awakens in 2000 Boston to find himself living in what Bellamy considered an idyllic society that was not only desirable but possible, one free of classes, war or want.

While many of Biden’s followers might well consider Bellamy’s socialist America utopian, some, like many Trump supporters, would find it dystopian for its total lack of individual freedom. Putting one’s preferences aside, instead of napping for more than 100 years as West did, suppose you suddenly were transported over a half century to 2076? What might one expect the country to look like? 

We can only speculate. My guess is closer to Pinker than Sargent. 

Even with COVID-19 and the opioid crisis, current average life expectancy in the United States is 78 years of age. When Bellamy wrote, it was roughly 40 years. Despite a slight recent dip in life expectancy, there is no reason to assume that we will not continue to live longer lives given advances in medical science.

For women, life expectancy in the United States is now more than 80 years of age. If men outlived women, no doubt the left would attribute it to toxic masculinity. But women outlive men in virtually every country. Identity politics does not explain everything. 

Although sexism still exists in the United States, clearly progress is being made, contrary to what one might hear from the media. A majority of college graduates today are women. The share of college-educated women in the U.S. workforce surpasses the share of college-educated men. While the CEOs of the largest corporations continue to be men, the number of females running Fortune 500 companies is an all-time high, and there is reason to believe the glass ceiling will be shattered in the not too distant future.

The same can be said for racism, although it is admittedly more stubborn to overcome than sexism. When Gunnar Myrdal wrote “An American Dilemma”in 1944, only 5% of Black men in the United States were engaged in nonmanual, white-collar work, while 60% of Black women were household servants. By 2000, more than 30% of Black men and almost 60% of Black women held white collar jobs, with the numbers growing substantially since. 

In 2019, the Black poverty rate was 19%, half of what it was in 1966. Before the COVID pandemic hit, African American unemployment had registered a record low of 5.5%. By 2020, roughly 20% of African Americans age 25 and over had earned a degree from a four-year college, compared with 30% of whites. The gap continues to exist, but unmistakable racial progress is being made and can be expected to continue.

There has never been greater diversity in Congress, with 55 African Americans and 127 women holding seats in the House and Senate on the eve of the November election. Where not too long ago it was unthinkable for a Catholic to be elected president, it is now perfectly acceptable to have a Black as president and a woman of color as vice president. Contrary to our WASP history, the U.S. Supreme Court has been populated almost exclusively by Catholics and Jews in recent decades. 

As for war, despite continued violence in the form of terrorism and civil conflict, the threat of inter-state hostilities has gone almost completely out of style, with virtually none occurring anywhere on the planet since the end of the Cold War (Afghanistan and Iraq are among the rare exceptions, both winding down). Great Power war has become unthinkable. 

The point is that on many important dimensions, the trends seem to be moving in the right direction and, I would contend, are likely to continue regardless of the 2020 election. Much of American history has been a work in progress — to live up to the Founders’ dreams — punctuated by occasional setbacks but inching forward nonetheless.  

I do not expect the next four years or the next 50 to be any different.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.