All eyes are turning to the imminent presidential election in the United States. Deeply divided, declinists (Americans can always mangle the language) say it's heading for failure.

And over the next two weeks I will argue that the failure is one of design: a failure in the way in which the country was originally designed, and a failure in what the country now designs. ‘How’ this week; ‘What’ next.

The ‘design’ of the USA was a failure in three ways.

The Disunited States of America

The USA should be taken to an ‘advertising standards council’ because there is absolutely nothing about it that is ‘United’. The vast sprawling nation is deeply divided in many ways: by geography, history and culture. It is not a single entity, more like multiple countries akin in diversity to East and West Europe, in parts perhaps like the Balkans.

In my travels in the US* I am continually astounded by the differences: the cosmopolitan Northeast, the racism of deep South, the rednecks of Midwest, the progressive Pacific north-west, the geriatric Sunbelt. Even Northern and Southern California have wildly differing cultures and outlooks.

The differences are driven in part by the dramatic geography but moreover by history: at the time of the 1776 revolution, there were only 13 States; at the start of the Civil War of 1861 to 65, there were 34 States; and five of the States only joined the union in the 20th century, as late as 1959.

There is little unity in this patchwork quilt: more like enmity. There is the horizontal ‘Mason-Dixon’ line, dividing ‘North’ and ‘South’ on the lines of the civil war, still not resolved nearly 160 years later. There is also vertical divide of deeply Republican states running through the centre from Texas through Oklahoma to Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakota where we can see the vicious partisanship in this election.

In 250 years, no serious attempt has been made to draw the states together: fault lines are exacerbated in the political debate. So much of what we hear in Australia is about the coast, but the vexed issues are in USAXCANY: the US except New York and California. The ‘fly-over’ states that Hillary Clinton called the ‘basket of deplorables’. She lost in 2016 for that indiscretion alone.

And it is not the only United States in North America, immediately to the south is ‘Estados Unidos Mexicanos’, the country that Trump fears the most, apparently.


If you set out to design a constitution for a society, you could not do worse than the one that the US hammered out in the 1780s. It relentlessly stresses the individual over society. The first ten amendments stress the liberty and freedom of the individual, codified from the bill of rights, but nowhere are the responsibilities to society drawn up.

The second amendment is oft-referenced as the ‘right to carry guns’. It actually says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The part about a well-regulated militia, implying an organized group rather than the individual, is forgotten. Citizens are encouraged to carry as many guns as possible. The violence that Trump threatens if he is not returned is very real.

Drafted at the same time as the French revolution which spawned the tripartite motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité the Americans got plenty of the first two, none of the last. Unlike the UK and France that were the sources of inspiration, or refutation, at that time, there is no continuing value placed on government; rather the default position is ‘small government’, taken as a tablet of faith by the Republicans and the Democrats. And Trump is lauded as the quintessential ‘anti-politician’.


The result of those first two conditions is the most unequal country on earth. It can be seen in income disparity and the all-pervasive vicious racism.

In the US the wealthiest the top 10 percent hold 70 percent of the total net wealth, whilst the bottom 50 percent have 1.6 percent of net worth. Wage practices are amongst the worst in the world: it is accepted practice to pay low wages in hospitality and for workers to rely on tips. And unionised labour is restricted to a few sectors, often run by right-wing unions (e.g. the Teamsters). By contrast the retirement conditions for some public-sector workers (police and firefighters) are so exorbitant as to have driven many municipalities broke.

The tax to GDP ratio has been below 20 percent for decades, in contrast to European nations where it is 35 percent on average, and up to 40 percent in Scandinavia. When the public purse is so deficient the country has to rely on philanthropy; a tradition that has fortunately flourished with large foundations such as the Gates, Ford, Getty, Bloomberg and Kellogg providing for the poor. So the government is further debased in public eyes.

This inequality is largely the result of the failure of the constitution to enshrine a government that has respect, and that can both regulate and intervene to balance out the inequality. America has been designed as a country for individuals who, when they succeed, can be wildly successful, but the majority can find themselves without support from the government.

Social provisions that are a bedrock in most democracies, such as universal health care, social wages for disability and unemployment and state-run social housing are at a low ebb in the US as a result of this aversion to ‘socialism’, all in preference to small, or no, government.

The obverse of the inequality coin is racism: it still divides many of the States; the civil war was never resolved: not the question of slavery, but equality for the black population. Hence ‘Black Lives Matter’ (as much as white lives is implied), but it cannot be seen by the far-right wingers who trumpet the stupidity of white power and Qanon.

The origins and development of America was a design failure, and it should come as no surprise it failed. It will take 10 years of Kamala Harris (Biden retires / resigns in 2022, Harris is elected for two terms) to put America to rights, by reducing Americans’ unalloyed ‘rights’. Even then, with a powerful, articulate black women at the helm, I’ve got my doubts.

Next week we’ll look at how this failed state also failed to design for the future. The way the country was formed, particularly stressing individualism, has led to a failure in the architecture and products it designs.

* Over many visits to the USA I have eventually been in all 50 States. Many were visited when, as a broke student, a pre-paid bus pass was my only possession. I embarked on three-month tour through the continental states, sleeping on board and in bus-stations, and many observations come from that tour, now so long ago.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]