Is the world richest, and one of its most populous countries falling apart?
The run of Presidents from Jimmy Carter (some might say Richard Nixon) through whoever wins in November might suggest something like that.
However, an earlier run from Harding (some would say from Wilson's second term or from Taft) through Coolidge and Hoover wasn't much better.
Still in place is one of the world's most convoluted governments, meant to control the possibility of craziness at the top. There are divisions of power between the Presidency and Congress at the national level, along with 50 states, some 25,000 local governments, and another 50,000 district authorities with varying degrees of discretion over education, public safety, transportation, and other matters extending to cemeteries and pest control (including, dog catchers), with all of them under the authority of judges from the US Supreme Court to the lowest and most trivial justice of the peace.
Whatever we can say about the US is only partly true. There are wide variations between states and localities, and things change. Referenda in California and other states have popularized policymaking as party primaries have done to politics, without demonstrable improvement in quality. To the extent that money measures what governments do, the better-off Americans live where state and local governments spend twice the amount, per capita, as where the less well-off Americans live. Massachusetts is, on the whole, one of the better places to live. It is home to world leaders Harvard and MIT, but also the cities of Fall River and several others where the average adults have only a year or two of high school.
While many see too much democracy in the US, others see the US as the western democracy most impervious to lousy politicians, insofar as it is the one most dependent on the private sector.
Low turnouts in elections, compared to other western democracies, suggest Americans' disdain for politics. Americans' antipathy to taxes, and feelings that they are too high while they are actually about the lowest among western democracies completes the picture of distrust about anything governmental.
Overall tax rates (tax revenue as percentage of GDP) are 49 percent in Denmark, 37 percent in Israel, and 27 percent in the US The US rate is lower than those of any country in Western Europe, and many elsewhere.
My mailbox has been filled with notes from Americans who think that the mandatory nature of Obamacare is an affront to all that is good about their country, while it compares in extent and quality as deficient to what's on offer in other advanced countries.
Americans with the financial ability protect their good life with medical insurance purchased from profit-making corporations, send the kids to private schools, and hope they'll be accepted to one of the private colleges with fees ranging above $60,000 per year. That compares to university tuition of about $3,600 in Israel and $0,000 in several European countries. Most private colleges do not measure up academically to state universities with lower fees, but parents want what they think is better.
Around the edges of the good life are the western world's highest levels of violence, and incarceration, with trigger-happy cops who seek to protect the good people (and themselves) from those defined as others.
Americans' appetites for illicit drugs foils the capacity of government to control import and distribution, and finances corruption at home and elsewhere.
The US has the world's highest incidence of gun ownership, said to be necessary protect good people from bad, but not clearly doing more protection to damage among gun owners and their families.
Feeding Americans' sense of contentment and superiority is the historic flow of immigrants. Few outsiders may still think that the streets are paved with gold, but America has long held out the prospect of a better life.
The flows have changed. No longer are they from the European sources that provided in migrants of grandpa's generation. The European Union may attract more migrants than the US, with most migrants to both coming from the Third World. Latin America is the major source of migration to the United States, Africa and the Middle East are the principal sources of migrants to Europe.
In contrast to the 19th and early 20th century, much of the current migration is illegal. Yet both the US and Europe can use lower skilled workers to do what the locals prefer to avoid, so their efforts to curtail migration are half-hearted, as well as being affected by a post-World War II concern for human rights.
So where is the country that previous generations of immigrants called the Golden Land?
Its institutions have proven stronger than any single President, so it is likely to survive either Trump or Clinton.
Underlying problems remain, as shown by the recent prominence of racial problems.
The economy seems strong as measured by indices of the stock market and employment, but support for Trump reflects substantial frustration among those who have lost in recent decades.
"The Science of Muddling Through" is the title of a classic article about American policymaking.
It is a brief article, without a detailed recipe how to do it. Indeed, clarity is the opposite of what is meant. A bit of this and a bit of that, with little certainty about what will work.
It's far from ideal, but it may continue to work where there is substantial wealth, and lots of institutions to work against anything extreme.
Not all individuals will do well. Some will live the best life available on the planet, and some will suffer like people in the worst places. And Americans will argue as to whether the rich have too much, and if there is anything they can do, or should do, to help the others.
The same questions about doing more for the less well-off exist elsewhere, perhaps exacerbated by recent migrations. And insofar as the Muslim migration carries with it an extremist element that wants major changes on the most sensitive topics of religion and morality, that may make Europe more problematic than the US. Yet to the extent that residual tensions associated with race have their capacities to provoke violence, the US comes back into play as a place that must worry about its future.
Among the questions, especially for those of us dependent on US foreign policy in small or large measure, are the inclinations of Donald or Hillary as Commander-in-Chief. The protections that limit American craziness domestically do not work as against the President's actions with respect to national defense, as shown by Vietnam and several misadventures in the Middle East.
There's a lot to comment about.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hebrew University of Jerusalem