At the end of the day, Norm Zeigler locks up his fly fishing shop and sits at his workbench. Securing a tiny fishing hook in the vice, he wraps a thread around the shaft, ties a white feather to the hook, plucks at it to get it just right, and weaves in two black pearls and silver tinsel.
“I owe my modest fame to this thing,” he says. “Some 68 different kinds of fish have been caught with it already.”
His shop is located on Sanibel, an island southwest of the Florida mainland. Travel brochures describe it as a paradise. But anyone who has walked Sanibel’s beaches the last couple of weeks would have been greeted by coffee-brown waves and the stink of decay. It was the stench of dead fish – and a rotting political system. Sanibel, where many residents curse what they see as crony capitalism, is place where the consequences of sleaze and corruption are palpable.
So far, 2016 has been a year in which rage has ruled America. Rage against Mexicans and Muslims. Rage against free trade and stagnating wages. Rage against President Barack Obama and the Congress. And driving people into the arms of populists like as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, is the feeling of having been excluded and left behind.
This attitude is also reflected in the findings of Handelsblatt’s global survey, which found that most Americans believe their children will be worse off than themselves. Only a minority expect the next generation will have a better life.
This skepticism is in striking contrast to that of countries in the rest of the world, many of which still see the United States as the leading world power. In the global survey’s ranking, it is far ahead of China and Russia. But while 91 percent of South Koreans, 83 percent of the British, and even 78 percent of the Germans consider the United States to be the world’s most important nation, just 76 percent of Americans believe the same.
Disheartened by the unsuccessful wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, disappointed by the expectations of its allies, but above all overwhelmed by its own problems, the world’s policeman is turning in its badge. Of all times, in an era of geopolitical tension and economic upheavals, America is turning inward. The country’s self-confidence is dwindling – and with it the willingness and commitment to act.
“The people are mad, really mad.”
It’s a scene that many wouldn’t recognize from abroad, where the United States is still viewed as both powerful and popular. U.S. President Barack Obama, so controversial at home, is considered, along with the Pope, to be the most trustworthy leading figure by the citizens of the G20 nations. Even two American business titans, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, are ranked among the most trustworthy leading figures. South Africans and the South Koreans even like the United States more than their own country.
But Americans like Norm Zeigler have less and less faith in their strength. They feel betrayed by their elite, fearing that their country is ruled by a cartel of lobbyists, rather than the people.
“Florida is notoriously corrupt,” he says, stuffing his handmade lure into a plastic bag, adding that he’s afraid America is going downhill. And for him it is clear who is responsible for this decline: “A government that doesn’t do the will of the people.” Democracy is being undermined by special interests.
Take, for example, the brown water lapping Sanibel’s beaches, which has been caused by an algae bloom that is killing fish and driving away tourists. It’s the result of the sugar industry’s influence, an industry that doesn’t have just its productivity to thank for its existence but also its power of manipulation. The government guarantees prices significantly above world market level and shields the producers from global competition with import quotas. This guarantees huge profits for the US Sugar and Florida Crystals corporations – which in part flow back as donations to politicians who are keeping the system in place.
The sweet life of the sugar barons is at the expense of American consumers, who pay artificially-inflated prices, and at the expense of the most important branch of industry in Florida, the tourist industry. The sugar farmers pump rain water into a gigantic lake to keep their cultivation fields dry. Lake Okeechobee in the south of the state has turned into a retention basin for agrarian effluents. And every time the basin is full, the authorities open the floodgates toward the east in the direction of St. Lucie, and west toward Sanibel.
The contaminated water is destroying the ecological balance of the coastal region, as the fertilizer residue feeds a toxic carpet of algae. The situation was particularly bad in January, when the climate phenomenon El Nino caused record rainfall in Florida. Big Sugar pumped for all its worth, keeping the fields dry and saving the harvest. But others paid the price, namely hotel and restaurant owners, charter boat captains and shop owners like Mr. Zeigler – and right in the middle of high season. His profits have dropped by 30 percent this year.
“The people are mad, really mad,” he says. That’s partly because the environmental disaster would be easy to deal with. The solution has been on the table for decades. The state need only buy part of the sugar industry’s fields, set up basins on the farmland, clean the water in Lake Okeechobee and then run it south into the Everglades.
With an overwhelming majority, the electorate voted two and a half years ago for an amendment to the state constitution that would set funds aside for the purchase of the fields. In spite of that, nothing has happened. Governor Rick Scott prefers spending the money to stuff holes in the state budget. US Sugar’s generous election campaign contributions appear to be paying off.
This kind of big business influence works similarly in Washington, if a bit less demonstratively, such as when Wall Street waters down the regulating of the financial market. Or when the pharmaceutical industry ensures it gets over-the-moon prices for its drugs. In a 2014 piece outlining how “rich people and organizations representing business interests have a powerful grip on U.S. government policy,” weekly magazine The New Yorker asked: “Is America an Oligarchy?”
Many Americans feel that it is, making very vote for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders is a vote of no confidence against “the system.” Both candidates represent a break with the status quo. Their protest campaigns are a rejection of the dance their rivals are performing in courting the big spenders. Mr. Trump, who, as a billionaire needs no outside financing. And Mr. Sanders, because he is filling his coffers with small donations. Mr. Zeigler had also considered voting for Sanders, but in the end voted for Hillary Clinton in the Florida primary. He believes she is more capable of getting a majority.
If the world were allowed to vote in the U.S. election, Ms. Clinton would win. She is leading in Handelsblatt’s survey in 18 of the G20 countries. Only in Russia would Mr. Trump win. And, interestingly enough, according to YouGov data, Mr. Sanders is ahead in the United States, though the left-wing populist only has a minimal chance of beating Ms. Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
No matter who ultimately triumphs, the volatile campaign is reinforcing the foreign policy weariness that set in during the Obama years as a reaction to the excesses of the Bush government. The times in which America’s allies could go along for the ride are over. The Europeans, in particular, will have to do more for their own security going forward.
Mr. Zeigler remembers a different America, one that behaved like a self-confident leader in Europe. Many years ago, he wrote for the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The paper sent him to Darmstadt, and he and his wife still speak fluent German. Mr. Zeigler has his own solution to America’s problems: “Anyone who runs for a high office should have to have lived two years abroad.” Otherwise you end up dealing with “provincial people like George W. Bush,” he says.
But the country has an even bigger problem, he adds: “Lack of education produces ignorance and ignorance produces votes for Donald Trump.”
Moritz Koch has been the Washington correspondent for Handelsblatt since 2013. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org