A Wicked Problem

America is in existential peril. That’s no surprise; media here and abroad—including this blog—have charted the country’s decline for years. But the reason our peril is existential is less frequently noted. It is because there is no clear-cut solution for America’s afflictions, which means we are facing a wicked problem.

As Wikipedia defines it, a wicked problem is a problem “that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; ‘wicked’ denotes reistance to resolution, rather than evil.”

I take issue with the idea there is no evil involved in our present situation, though. To cite just one example, Joe Manchin, a man who places his personal wealth and power above the lives of his fellow citizens, could rationally be viewed as evil. So too could a U.S. president who urges his followers to violently attack the Capitol and overturn a democratic election. It’s likely neither man regards himself as evil, even as his actions produce starkly harmful results.

America’s backward steps have resonated loudly in recent months. Thanks to the far-right Supreme Court alone, the country has:

* Overturned Roe v. Wade—already, a raped 10-year-old has had to travel to another state for an abortion, and her provider has been repeatedly threatened.
* Dramatically expanded gun rights and proliferation, despite mass shootings on a near-weekly basis.
* Handicapped our ability to respond to climate change, even though climate change represents a growing emergency here and around the world.

These and other setbacks have caused the U.S. to drop once again in the annual Democracy Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Below, you see the top 15 democracies (click to enlarge), ranked by pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. We are not among them.

2021 Democracy Index
2021 Democracy Index, from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Instead, we come in at #26 and are labeled a flawed democracy, along with Botswana, Slovenia and East Timor. Full democracies have a cumulative score of 8.01-10.00. Flawed democracies score from 6.01-8.00. The U.S. has a score of 7.85; this score has declined with every new index issued since 2006. We were last considered a full democracy in 2015.

So how can we address our wicked problem? That is indeed the question, and it’s one we’ll grapple with this year and next as we head toward a potentially cataclysmic 2024.

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