How do you know if something is going terribly wrong with your country?
You can scan headlines and watch cable news, or you could examine how your everyday life has changed in big and small ways.
For example: Do you consider how crowded a store might be when you shop for groceries? Do you still stockpile food and other essentials, or ask your social media network where to find scarce items like cleaning supplies? Would you trust the U.S. Postal Service to deliver a time-sensitive payment? Do you now question recommendations by previously reliable federal agencies like the CDC or FDA? Are you taking steps to ensure your vote isn’t suppressed during the next election?
If any of these concerns cross your mind, you are not alone. Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world cannot rely on their country’s postal system. In those same nations it is not uncommon for grocery shelves to be bare and for people to wait in long lines for essential items and services. Residents of these countries automatically distrust statements by government officials who are often corrupt and self-serving. And elections in these countries are often shadowed by doubts about their legitimacy.
So, while daily hardships created by a dysfunctional government are new to the United States, they are very familiar to the residents of Tanzania, Venezuela or Belarus. People in those nations already know to distrust their civil society, economy and elections. They can teach us much about making sacrifices — like spending hours to buy food, avoiding political rallies, or never mailing an important letter — that cost us time, money and dignity.
In short, living in the United States is moving closer to the reality of nations where the government fails to protect the needs of its people.
Some of these disruptions, like a shortage of consumer goods and school closures, are related to the ongoing pandemic, although their impacts are worsened by our government’s inaction or ineptitude. But most of the changes to our daily lives result from the gradual but deliberate erosion of institutions and norms we thought were invulnerable to decay.
For example, last month we learned the Trump administration plotted to slow down the U.S. Postal Service to discredit voting-by-mail. This was an act of deliberate sabotage that resulted in millions of veterans and seniors running low on vital medications, food shipments rotting and thousands of baby chickens dying in shipments that previously were safely delivered.
This month we learned how two crucial federal agencies — the FDA and CDC — bowed to political pressure to alter COVID-19 study results and testing rules because the Trump administration demanded positive news about the pandemic.
Last year’s Sharpiegate scandal, when President Trump forced the National Weather Service to adjust its forecast for Hurricane Dorian to match his hand-drawn map, should have warned us that federal agencies were vulnerable to manipulation. Given more time, other essential institutions, from a free press to the promise of fair elections, could start to slip away from us.
If you believe the challenges created by political interference with the Postal Service and hurricane forecasts are minor enough to ignore, just remember they represent the tip of a deeper decay. These agencies were the first to bend because the Trump administration decided they could be sacrificed to promote his political ego above the welfare of the nation. Recent revelations about the top official at the FDA misrepresenting the effectiveness of COVID-19 treatments indicate how the danger is already rising.
Perhaps you believe there is something magical that makes our nation immune to creeping authoritarianism. But COVID-19 has shown how vulnerable we actually are to both contagion and dysfunction — falling behind almost every nation in the world.
So, if you care about where your life and your country are headed, you should take advantage of the freedoms you still have and make your voice heard this November.
Jason Stevenson is a writer and resident of Salt Lake City. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely his own.