The Third Worlding of America

Whether it is forest fires caused by decrepit infrastructure, the use of intelligence agencies to target domestic political opponents, growing inequality, or a rejection of our political traditions, America more and more feels like a third world country.

First, consider what it meant to be a first world country. This has always been a small club: the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and, more recently, Singapore and South Korea made the cut. 

The former Soviet Union and its satellites were part of the so-called Second World. In both material and moral terms, they were decidedly inferior: little political or social freedom, shoddy consumer goods, and a malfunctioning economic system. 

The Third World was everyone else.  

Our First World Past

First world status comes from various political, social, and economic achievements. One of the more salient is low corruption. The classic symbol of third world corruption is the shakedown for bribes by border officials and police officers. For the most part, this has been absent from American public life. There is a reason Norman Rockwell painted police officers as heroic and non-threatening, and that Americans living in the most American parts of our country still talk about leaving their doors unlocked at night. 

Low levels of corruption foster another distinct feature of America’s first world status: the dominance of the private sector and high degrees of entrepreneurialism. 

While all first world countries enjoy low corruption, Europe’s governments were always more involved in it. In the United States, the government sector was historically small, competent, and responsive. Most people made their living privately. 

To the extent anyone worked for the government, it was either true public service among those who achieved their success elsewhere, or a tradeoff of more modest wages for higher job security within the civil service. Increasingly, the government sector is both higher paying and more secure, with access controlled by nepotism and racial classifications. In other words, the private sector—other than the top echelons—is for suckers. 

Another feature of American life has been low levels of crime and disorder. 

You don’t need to be a historian to see this; you merely need a set of eyes. When you see the decaying, boarded-up facades of yesteryear—the modest and orderly row homes of Baltimore, the grandiose public works of Detroit—these are the ruins of a prosperous and orderly society. They could not have been built so sturdily or well by the current denizens of these communities. They are a window into a disappearing America of prosperous small towns and orderly and civilized cities, where a middle class could live and work. Such “normalcy” exists now, if at all, in the rings of suburbs around our cities, usually more shoddily and less beautifully built than the original cities themselves.

Political normality, compromise, and restraint are other features of first world societies. These habits of self-limitation are the products of a common culture, where the goal of preserving and strengthening an existing society is taken for granted. This is the inheritance of George Washington, who stepped down after two terms. It is reflected in Richard Nixon taking advice from LBJ, and the whole country mourning the murder of JFK. Further back, it is seen in the high degrees of trust among voters for the government and its institutions, which has been falling for decades.

Many commenters like to say the country’s historical stability and wealth are the product of its ideas and creed. That’s certainly part of it, but it’s also because of the people. 

These habits developed over a long time. Our countrymen’s common background, religion, and language limited the range of domestic political disagreement. The American people were not just an assembly of economic units with nothing in common. They were a people.  

Everything fit together. The combination of austere Christian morality, a lack of formal class system, and a predictable legal regime led to dynamism, ingenuity, and growth. America went from a colonial backwater to a world power in 200 years. Unlike France, which is on its fifth constitution, or the Soviet Union, which broke apart after 70 years, the United States and its legal order have proven to be remarkably durable. 

Even so, things feel different. In the passing of a generation or two, the features outlined above feel less prominent. Politics, morality, economics, and demographics have all undergone a substantial, engineered change. Old commitments, whether to free speech or respect for religion, are in decline. New images, new habits, and new human types have emerged following the multi-faceted social revolution since the 1960s. 

It feels, for lack of a better word, more and more like we are living in a third world country. 

Our Third World Future

What is the Third World? What are its features? It is not just grinding poverty. Some of the richest people in the world and their opulent palaces can be found in the Third World. But even as the Third World has gotten comparatively wealthier, it retains many features that make it unpleasant, particularly for the common man. This is why millions of people from that part of the world risk life and limb to come to the United States and Europe. 

One feature is a lack of public spiritedness. The public space and the commons are literally trashed. In the Third World, political office is a means to enrich oneself and one’s family. This is as true for presidents as it is for mayors and lower-level officials. The endemic corruption of the Third World both reflects and reinforces an extreme tribalism, which elevates the extended family above the public as a whole. 

Elections and parties reflect these ethnic divisions, and a winner-take-all spirit prevails. This is as true in India as Iran, in Mexico as in Mauritania. In parts of the United States heavily populated with immigrant groups from the Third World, the local politics reflects the same values. Old habits die hard. 

To the extent there is a private sector in the Third World, it is intertwined with and dependent on the political one. Bribes are a necessary cost of doing business. But the real money is in public corruption, whether in the form of official or unofficial monopoly, government contracts, or the like. This is increasingly true at home, where whole sectors of the economy—health care, green jobs, aerospace, and e-commerce—are dependent on a combination of regulatory assistance, government contracts, or outright subsidies.  

As the Hunter Biden episode reminds us—along with the dozens of other well-paid relatives of politicians—self-enrichment among the political class is becoming an unremarkable feature of American life. One cannot imagine today a president ending up, like Harry Truman, near-broke at the end of a presidency. 

A related feature of the Third World is failing infrastructure. While gleaming homes, sports cars, and private affluence are well-known, public investments are often shoddy, decrepit, and obsolete. You can’t drink the water. There is little incentive to fix these things, as politics chiefly consists of individually rewarding one’s close associates, rather than benefiting the public as a whole. Complex problems remain unsolved and persistent. 

Along these lines, here at home, we see increasing evidence of both organizational and technological decline. A nation that once built skyscrapers, world-class universities, beautiful highways, and railroads from coast to coast, now finds much of it is in disrepair, with repair projects often exceeding the cost of the original construction

This does not mean money is not spent. In 2009, Obama enacted a $1 trillion stimulus. In response to COVID-19, President Trump authorized $2 trillion in spending. But what do we have to show for either? Where is the Golden Gate Bridge or Hoover Dam? For that matter, where’s our wall?

Yet another notable feature of the Third World is poverty, lawlessness, and disorder. The most jarring symbol of third world inequality and chaos are the shantytowns that surround their urban centers. 

Here at home, we now find armies of homeless and tent dwellers in our most prosperous cities. San Francisco and New York now have to deal with a public defecation crisis. There is little serious discussion of these problems. No one in power has the will to end them. At the same time, private security and gated communities are becoming the symbols of the age. 

A final feature of the Third World, now familiar at home, is high stakes politics. While democracy exists in some measure in many third world nations, it is what Fareed Zakaria has called “illiberal democracy.” Everything is on the table. Political opponents are often targeted for punishment if they lose power. Thus, every election becomes a referendum on the freedom and safety of large sectors of the populace, and thus they are often marred by fraud and violence. 

America’s traditions of a peaceful transfer of power and political decorum are disappearing. Open talk of “burning it down” and changing the rules to guarantee victories are now becoming common. There is no restraint, because the stakes are higher and the visions of America’s future come from entirely different traditions. The Left’s view is a foreign import with totalitarian implications; it is alien to the principles of due process and restraint embedded in America’s constitutional order. 

It Pays to Be a Winner

It’s all rather depressing. But the change is also undeniable. Conservatives like to talk about American exceptionalism and a silent majority, but this seems to be, especially now, mere nostalgia. America, like every nation, can undergo revolutionary change or slow decay. It’s legal forms can become devoid of substance as its people change.

The talk of tiny homes, the gig economy, and vibrancy are the coping mechanisms of a nation where a middle-class existence cannot be had for more and more people, who are weighed down by low wages, rising real estate costs, debt, and the insecurity of urban life. 

From rolling blackouts in California and millionaire “private-sector” jobs for ousted politicians in D.C., to draconian enforcement of mask mandates while arsonists shut down our streets, this is not Norman Rockwell’s America. Indeed, it’s not even the America one might remember growing up in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s changed for the worse. 

More important, the rules required to survive and thrive are quite different from those of the recent past. As in Venezuela or Iraq, politics and life are becoming “winner take all.” It’s important to know when compromise is not possible. And, under these circumstances, it pays to be a winner. 

About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: Non157/Getty Images

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29 responses to “The Third Worlding of America”

  1. When a nation countenances massive numbers of legal and illegal immigrants who are told assimilation is unnecessary, coupled with a hate-America education system, the results are not hard to imagine.

    • Trump also helped New York City and the Bay Area hire more people in tech jobs due to the low corporate tax rate. Instead of relocating to Austin or Raleigh, tech companies stay in NYC or the Bay Area due to having more cash on hand. In fact Silicon Valley median income jumped 16,000 from 2018 to 2019 Austin probably jumped only 5,000 during the 2018 to 2019 period

    • Actually it’s the teachers union’s that have made the historic assimilation radioactive along with making open borders acceptable. So I argue the 100 year+ plan they’ve been following to undermine our traditions, history and culture have succeeded .

      • Hogwash. The teachers just do what they’re told in order to keep their jobs. The problems started in the universities, then spread to the teacher’s training departments and then to the street-level.

  2. Well, we have a third world president already, so this should be no surprise.

    • Oh how insightful and edgy. The author clearly makes the case for a century of decline, but Percy just knows it is all Trump’s doing. This ignorance and the intellect vacuum it creates assures the downward spiral.

      • What more can you expect from an aNTIFA supporter?

      • You should know better than to confuse America-hating TDS-suffering tapeworms with logic or reason.

    • Does he pay rent or is he living in your head free of charge?

  3. Th open borders 10’s of millions illegals, unlimited asylum and the current immigration policies have caused the middle class untold harm as wages are suppressed and costs have risen and no one addresses the issues.

    The 3rd world, you bet just go to a major city and view it yourself.

    We are no longer the united states or even a united state we have competing issues and the tyranny of the majority is in full force as we see in our politics today.

  4. The Forbes piece about Harry Truman’s post-presidency income notes that the 33rd president made about $13,500 in 1954. This is the equivalent of more than $108,000 in today’s money. Leaving aside the extent to which inflation has ravaged the dollar over the years, that’s still a substantial salary in anyone’s book.

    • Was it after or before Congress voted him a salary? Because before his only retirement consisted of his military retirement . He used to be a captain in the army.

  5. America is “third-worlding” because since 1965 virtually all immigrants (multiple millions) have come from
    there. It was impossible to remain strictly first world.

  6. In the late 1980s my brother, a Lt. in the Coast Guard at the time tried to get me into doing seminars and workshops for the Military. I was interviewed by a Lt. Cdr. in the Navy. After the interview we were talking. I don’t recall what we had been discussing at the time but it had something to do with the loss of jobs to foreign countries (thanks to Reaganomics). I’ll not forget what the Lt. Cdr. did and said. His voice got very thoughtful and quiet as he said, “I can see this country slowly turning into a 3rd world country.” This was from one who was a career military man. Some people were able to see this happening decades ago.

  7. Wow, you skillfully skipped all around the most important factor by far…race. Racial biology is the monster looming over us and White Americans deny this at their peril. Time to wake up, figure out who our Ancestors were, look at our racial enemies as what they actually are and fight the war.

    • Thanks for having the honesty to state the obvious. Different races have different innate needs and priorities not to mention culture. We are a fish bowl intended for homogeny but filled with competing dangerous species with no common ground. All is tribal All is race but as you said only caucasians are in denial

    • Yes. If the millions of immigrants had been White Europeans, things would still be the same. The truth is that none of these groups ever can, or ever will, ‘assimilate’. Assimilation worked for Europeans and that’s it. Even the ‘good immigrants’ — the Asians, East and Far East — don’t assimilate. They still organize around their race and their racial interests even when the embrace ‘the American way’.

  8. @eckbach
    but most of american people are immigrants the locals are red indians

    • Abie, what kind of immigrants founded America?
      Mostly white European Christians?
      Did they completely integrate into the society as unhyphenated Americans?

  9. import the third world, become the third world

    there are no exceptions

  10. Actually, the designation of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Would Countries came about during the Cold War. 1st World was the US, NATA and it’s allies, 2nd World was the USSR, Warsaw Pact and their allies, 3rd World was countries that were not aligned with either. Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland were considered 3rd World Countries. The designation of 3rd World had nothing to do with levels of poverty or corruption.

  11. The “third worlding of America” will be due to the this reason:

    “Denial of Science and common sense”

    a: National debt: During crisis we borrow and during good times we replay (common sense). Reality: During good times we do a Tax Cut. Result: Ballooning debt typical of third world countries

    b: COVID-19: Wear facemasks (science). Reality: Presidents and his cohorts refuse to obey. Result: Republican states are down with increased surge. ALSO THE PRESIDENT HAS COVID-19 [Third world countries are doing a better job]

    c: Climate Change: We have some 10-15 years to the save planet earth (world body of scientists). Wildfires in the Arctic (truth). Reality: Trump exits out Paris.

    [However, private organizations and universities are doing a good job. Rise of electric cars and everyday discovery of alternative energy supply are handling this crisis. They are the new “Silicon Valley”]

  12. This a sad, but fairly accurate description of our current world situation. Civilizations begin, grow, flourish, disintegrate, decline, and disappear with remarkable regularity. We thought would break the mold the but it is starting to look like we were wrong. George

  13. John Jay in Federalist #2 noted the foundations of a first world country:

    “With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.”

    • The last few decades have seen religion, language, customs and history of the United States eviscerated. The country is running forward on the momentum of these things, but the inevitable halt will happen then a 3rd world trend will be the future.