The five biggest problems facing the U.S. today

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Police use tear gas around Capitol building where pro-Trump supporters riot and breached the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Marty Rochester

I recently was at dinner with a friend, and the conversation turned to politics.

“Racism is the single biggest problem facing America today,” she said.

I conceded that racism remains a problem but argued that it is hardly No. 1.

What would you say are the five biggest problems facing the United States today? By problems, I do not mean merely issues or concerns, but threats to the well-being of Americans.

I would list the following in order of importance:

1. Terrorism. This is my worst worry. I am referring here not so much to domestic terrorism, but to international terrorism. Although we are told by President Joe Biden’s administration that domestic terrorists, including parents who protest loudly at school board meetings, are the main threat, I would disagree.

In the wake of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, that country has become a safe-haven sanctuary for al-Qaida, ISIS and other radical Muslim groups that have expressed an ongoing desire to attack the United States. Other such jihadist groups operate in the Middle East and elsewhere. While we have been fortunate in not experiencing another 9/11, it would seem fairly easy to wreak havoc by destroying part of the New York City subway and bridge or tunnel system, our electronic grid, the Capitol building and other vital infrastructure.

2. Nuclear war. Although this is highly unlikely, it is the most potentially apocalyptic threat. The “nuclear club” consists of nine countries: the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. The United States and Russia have 90% of the present nuclear stockpile of approximately 14,000 nuclear warheads. Israel has not officially acknowledged being a member of the club but is thought to have from 75 to 400 warheads. More worrisome, China has an estimated 350 warheads, and North Korea 30 to 40 with a growing capacity to target the United States.

There is ongoing concern about a nuclear-armed Pakistan with ties to terrorist groups in neighboring Afghanistan. Note the recent death of its chief nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, who is rumored to have considered selling nuclear technology to al-Qaida and did transfer the technology to North Korea.

There is concern as well regarding North Korea’s unstable leadership, along with worries about possible escalation in U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan.

3. COVID and other pandemics. There have been more than 700,000 COVID-related deaths thus far in the United States. Thanks mainly to vaccinations, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are now declining nationally, although tens of thousands of Americans are still getting sick every day.

According to the CDC, 81% of U.S. adults and 95% of those 65 and up have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, a recent Israeli study found the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine waning after six months, thus requiring boosters. Even if vaccines reduce the severity of the illness, there is concern about the ongoing spread of one variant after another, as well as new pandemics that may arise. Amid masking and lockdowns, it remains uncertain when our economy and life in general might return to “normal.”

4. Border control. We are witnessing the complete erosion of our southern border, with more than 100,000 migrants attempting to enter the United States each month. More than 1.6 million arrests were made at the border last year, the highest on record (CNN, Oct. 22).

Although immigrants bring many benefits to the United States, this unauthorized entry is a disaster that threatens our sovereignty and makes a mockery of the rule of law. Altogether, it is estimated there are more than 10 million illegal aliens (undocumented noncitizens or whatever you wish to call them) in the United States, many of whom are using our welfare system courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.

Most recently, tens of thousands of Haitian migrants flooded the border with Mexico, overwhelming the capacity of Border Control agents to apprehend them and process their claims to asylum. An additional 20,000 Haitians supposedly are massing in Central America, preparing to make the crossing into the United States. They are fleeing Haiti mainly due to lack of economic opportunity. As much as one might sympathize, economic deprivation has never been an adequate basis for requesting asylum.

The bottom line is that the United States cannot allow whole nations to empty into our country due to their economic problems. The United Nations has listed about 50 countries as “least developed countries,” with billions of impoverished people conceivably claiming a right to enter the United States. The survival and identity of our country could not possibly withstand this.

5. The dysfunctionality of our political system. If our political institutions were better at governing, we might be able to cope with all the above problems in a more effective manner. However, it is obvious that our political system, particularly at the federal level, suffers from severe dysfunction. The two major political parties seem unable to cooperate in passing necessary legislation and framing wise public policies.

Although it is easy to blame this on the growing polarization of the American public and our coarse political culture, the fact is that a majority of Americans indicate in public opinion polls that they are supportive of moderate positions on most issues, including abortion, gay rights, immigration, law enforcement and others. What is lacking is leadership that reflects majority opinion but has yet to be mobilized.

On one side we have a Republican Party that is still trying to recover from the erratic governance of Donald Trump. On the other side, we have a Biden administration that promised to bring the country together and govern from the middle but has caved to the far left of the Democratic Party in promoting a radical social welfare state agenda closer to socialist Bernie Sanders and a woke agenda beholden to “the Squad.”

There are other problems one might cite, such as climate change, crime, health care affordability, drug addiction, education and —yes — racism. But I submit these are not at the top of my list.

Regarding racism, in particular, I find it hard to declare it a paramount concern when we have recently elected a Black president and vice president, when approval of Black/white interracial marriage rose from 4% among whites in 1958 to close to 90% by 2020, and “a number of empirically minded social scientists have pointed out that racism seems by any objective standard to be declining” (Wilfred Reilly, “Testing the Tests for Racism,” Academic Questions, Fall 2021).

As always, feel free to disagree. One problem we do not have, at least not yet (although there are some stirrings of suppression of thought), is the freedom to dissent.


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. Rochester has written a monthly Jewish Light column since 2014.

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