Is the American century over?

A conversation with anthropologist and National Geographic explorer Wade Davis

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

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Empires fall. We all knew this one would too. But this soon? This fast?

I’ve spent most of my adult life explaining the United States to friends and strangers. It’s the joy of the foreign reporter — translating cultures, helping disparate people see their shared humanity, making the exotic universal. But how can you explain when you yourself no longer understand? I couldn’t tell you exactly when, but I figured I’d probably never live in the US again. Something broke. The easy explanation would be to point to current politics, but it runs much deeper.

I’d been grappling with all this when I came across Wade Davis’ blockbuster piece for Rolling Stone magazine, “The Unraveling of America.” It addressed much of what I was feeling, and clearly I wasn’t the only one: how often does a geopolitics essay go viral? Wade Davis — anthropologist, author, National Geographic explorer, part Indiana Jones, part Dumbledore, with a little Noam Chomsky thrown in — joined me on Borderline to unpack the essay.

Davis’s thesis: that the mishandling of covid-19 reveals an American society coming undone, where individualism pushed to the extreme has finally destroyed the bonds that keep a country together internally and powerful externally. The American century started in war and ends in pandemic. Enter, perhaps, the Chinese century.

The essay could use more nuance: Davis idealizes the state of the social contract elsewhere and forgets that the country in its majority does not support Donald Trump or his handling of the crisis. But reading between the lines, it tells a story where both the president and the virus hold secondary roles. It’s about what we each owe to the collective and whether you can catch the pieces of a society before they drift too far apart.

I know the wound is raw for those who carry that navy blue passport. For months I’ve seen my American friends grieve, bodies bent under the burden of the very real dead and spirits hollowed by a more unspeakable loss. This episode is for them. Wade Davis calls his essay an intervention: it’s not an “I told you so,” it is an act of love. I’ll echo that love (though I expect not all comments will.)

In the end, it’s not about who runs the world. We can thrive without American power, but the world will be a poorer place without American ideals.

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Read further

  • The Unraveling of America: Wade Davis’s original essay for Rolling Stone magazine
  • How the Pandemic Defeated America: Ed Yong in The Atlantic describes how everything in modern American life — from government to healthcare, racism to misinformation — combined to create the perfect environment for covid-19
  • The Californian Ideology: The internet rabbit hole took me to this early critique of the Silicon Valley mindset and its mix of libertarianism, individualism and technical determinism. It’s so on point it’s hard to fathom this was written in 1995. Until it starts referencing the Minitel…

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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.