The places where I've reported most extensively on such instability won't surprise you: Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, the occupied territories, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Venezuela. US intelligence agencies rate these areas as among the most unstable in the world.
So when I asked the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper at the Aspen Security Forum this summer if he saw any similar warning signs here at home, his answer surprised me: "I do worry," he said. Noting that the US intelligence community has metrics for measuring nations' stability, Clapper explained, "I guess if you apply that same measure against us, well, we are starting to exhibit some of them, too."
The measure he singled out as most telling is the loss of confidence in US institutions: "legal institutions, the rule of law, protection of citizens' liberty, privacy," all of which he described as "under assault," adding, "that's not being helped by a lot of the rhetoric that we're hearing."
To be clear, Mr. Clapper is not saying the US is Iraq or Somalia. But the nation's top spy, with more than four decades in intelligence, is taking the rare step of warning in public that the trend lines in the US worry him. And having spent most of my own professional life covering nations in crisis, I find myself recognizing some disturbing commonalities as well.
In Iraq, I watched Sunnis and Shias who had lived and worked together for years turn deeply suspicious, then hostile, then violent towards each other. In Iran, I watched different factions of the same Islamic-led government fight each other in the streets. In Myanmar, I watched a Buddhist government and its functionaries beat and murder Buddhist monks, the personification of their faith and national identity. That these were people not only of the same nationality but also of the same race and religion didn't matter. Seeing your opponents as fundamentally different and threatening can come to justify remarkable brutality.
Despite diverse cultures, histories, and geographies, there is a surprising uniformity when nations splinter apart. I wrote a piece several years ago called "The Police State Playbook
", on how dictators from Zimbabwe to Myanmar to Iran -- whether African and Christian, Asian and Buddhist, or Middle Eastern and Muslim -- turned on their people in nearly identical ways. The same goes for their populations.
And I'm not talking about natural political disagreement, but an us-against-them mentality that leads people to see the other side as not only wrong but unpatriotic and dangerous.
Violent division is not new to the US of course, even in modern times. Many commentators are drawing parallels between today's divisions and the upheaval of the 1960s. However, today's divisiveness -- as Director Clapper highlighted -- comes at a time of cratering trust in the laws and institutions that have overcome such discord in the past.
Today, two months away from a major US presidential election, only 11% of Trump supporters and 49% of Clinton supporters are very confident that votes nationally will be counted accurately, the Pew Research Center found.
More broadly, only 19 percent of Americans say they trust the government "always or most of the time," according to a 2015 study
, also released by Pew.
These doubts extend to a whole host of institutions. According to Gallup's latest survey, only 36% of Americans express "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the presidency, the same for the Supreme Court. The number for the criminal justice system is 23%, for Congress, an anemic 9%. As possible causes, experts cite everything from political gridlock to the increasing politicization of the supreme court. Some ratings
are the lowest since Gallup began measuring them.
The numbers for the television and print media are paltry: 20% and 21%, driven in part by the growing polarization of media outlets and the increasing influence of social media "echo chambers" where consumers view only information and analysis that conforms with their views. Such distrust in the media has undermined the very possibility of agreed upon facts. Today, one in five Americans believe the president was born out of the country and 29% believe he is Muslim, despite widely available and reported evidence to the contrary, including President Obama releasing
a copy of his birth certificate. Nineteen percent of Americans believe
the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks.
I got a personal taste of this new hostility to facts when I tweeted a quote from Alt-Right leader Jared Taylor last week in which he explicitly disputed that the races are equal. I was immediately inundated by comments expressing support for his view, many quoting as fact long-debunked "science."
Compare the surveys of Americans to those in countries we view as failing or already failed. In Afghanistan, according to a 2015 survey by the Asia Foundation, 57% express confidence
in the democratic process, still relatively high even after declining significantly in recent years. The same percentage approves of the performance of the national government.
In Iraq, a 2015 Gallup survey found 60% express confidence in the national government. These remarkable contrasts do not mean that the US is headed for civil war or on a par with the violence we see today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Negative outcomes several degrees short of that, however, would be deeply disorienting and disturbing.
The most unstable societies I've covered are ones where most believe the system doesn't work, or works only for a few. This destroys a sense of community and shared mission, and creates a carry-on effect: success becomes a zero sum game. There are no shared benefits. My betterment comes at the expense of yours, and the other way around.
Despite increasing divisions like this, the US is a country of remarkable contrasts. Its economy is growing faster than much of the world's and with far lower unemployment. Anyone who travels the country can see that local politics are far more functional, even at times heroic, than the current perception of Washington.
Again, the US is not Iraq or Somalia. A more apt comparison today could be Brazil, where economic slowdown and collapsing confidence in government has led to the impeachment of a president, a broader political crisis and popular unrest. But as with nations in crisis or approaching it, the US is not immune to peoples' worst impulses, which have led such nations down a dangerous path.
"We pride ourselves on the institutions that have evolved over hundreds of years," Clapper told me, "and I do worry about the...fragility of those institutions."
The US has suffered and survived dangerous crises and divisions in its past. The events of 9/11 were, of course, among the most challenging and potentially divisive. Still, the lesson of today's world is that the barriers between stability and instability -- the ones Americans count on -- are often more fragile than we think.