Several things characterize countries of the Third Word, whatever precisely "Third World" means.
The first is corruption. America is rotten with it, but American corruption is distinct from corruption in, say, Guatemala or Thailand, being less visible and better organized.
Several major differences exist between the usual corruption in the Third World and that in America. In most of the Third World, corruption exists from top to bottom. Everyone and everything is for sale. Bribery amounts to an economic system, like capitalism or socialism. By contrast, in the United States, graft flourishes mostly at the level of government and commerce. You don’t (I think) slip an admissions official at Harvard twenty grand to accept your shiftless and dull-witted slug of a misbegotten offspring. Nor do you pay a local judge to drop dope charges against your teenager. And in the Guatemalas and Egypts of the planet, corruption tends to be personal. The briber and the bribed act as individuals.
In the United States, corruption occurs at the level of policy and contracts, between corporations, special interests, and Congress. It is done gracefully and usually legally. For example, Big Pharma pays Congress to insert, in some voluminous bill that almost no one will read, a clause saying that the government will pay list price for drugs instead of negotiating for a better price. Over time, this is worth hundreds of millions, paid by you. Yet the clause is legal. Or military industry pays Congress to buy an enormously expensive and unneeded airplane. It’s legal. Read the bill. Or agribusiness pays Congress to cough up large subsidies. Also legal.
In Mexico you pay your useless daughter’s useless teacher to give her grades she didn’t earn so that she can get into university. Corruption relies on individual initiative. By contrast, in America, corruption is a class-action industry. Large groups—blacks, women, Indians, unions—bribe or intimidate Congress into giving them special privilege: affirmative action, racial and gender set-asides, casinos, loans and preferences from the Small Business Administration according to sex and ethnicity. Corruption, plain and simple. But legal.
Second, unaccountable and often intrusive police not subject to control by the public. In America formal police departments rapidly grow more militarized, jack-booted, swatted-out, and their powers grow. A law-abiding citizen should never be afraid of the police, and a misbehaving cop should worry intensely when said law-abiding citizen records his badge number with intent to call the chief. Those days are over. Today the cops can bully, threaten, and harass, and there is precious little you can do about it.
The proliferating laws against filming the police can have only one purpose, to prevent exposure of misbehavior. Third World.
Any organization involved in controlling a population is a de facto police outfit, as are TSA, “Homeland Security,” the FBI, NSA, ICE, and so on. Against none of these does the citizen have any recourse. In principle, yes, but in practice, no. Third World, but far more efficient.
Third, lack of constitutional government. This is not the same as the lack of a constitution. The Soviet Union had an admirable constitution, and paid no attention to it. America heads rapidly in the same direction.
In America, the Constitution is largely and increasingly ignored by the government. Constitutionally the three branches of government are co-equal, but in practice the Supreme Court is of little consequence and Congress is the action arm of a corporate oligarchy. Constitutionally Congress must declare war, but now the president sends combat troops wherever he pleases and Congress reads about it in the Washington Post. The president can order citizens murdered, ignore habeas corpus, monitor and store email. The government can search you at will with no pretense of probable cause. Third World.
Fourth, impunity. In the bush world, the rich and powerful are never brought to trail regardless of their crimes. We are there. Wall Street runs a clear and thoroughly documented scam, the subprime-loan racket, doing immense damage to the country. How many went to jail? How many were tried? How many now have high positions in the federal government? Third World.
Fifth, a yawning gap between rich and poor. As the American economy declines, the middle class sags into the lower middle class. The sag takes many forms. Prices rise but incomes don’t. Houses go into foreclosure. Student loans tied to the houses of parents become backbreaking. Businesses hire people as individual contractors, with no benefits. Increasingly the young live with their parents. The ship is taking water.
Yet the rich prosper. In America they carefully remain inconspicuous, not flaunting their money. But they have it. Third World.
Sixth, a controlled press. Many Americans I suspect will insist that the press is free, because they are repeatedly told that it is, because they have nothing to which to compare it, and because the control is most adroitly managed. But it exists.
In America control does not work as it did in the USSR, by savagely punishing the least expression of undesired ideas; this would be obvious and arouse opposition. American control works on the principle of fooling enough of the people, enough of the time.
Strictly speaking, the US does have a free press. You can easily buy the books of David Duke, Karl Marx, Hitler, or Malcolm X. The trick is that few read books. Television and newspapers rule, and they are owned by large corporations concerned with furthering the interests of large corporations.
Those interests are maximizing the viewership for advertising, which is where the money comes from; keeping the lid on in a country in which various groups would be at each other’s throats if demagogues were allowed to provide the spark; keeping corporations from suffering any sort of control, and furthering the political agendas of the media.
Thus you never, ever, allow serious criticism of Israel, and you never, ever, allow an articulate Palestinian to offer his views. You do not allow any coverage of crime by blacks, which might lead to social upheaval. You do not allow distressing reportage of the wars—a little girl looking in puzzlement at her bowels hanging out thanks to shrapnel. You do not do any serious investigative reporting of corporate corruption. And so on. Keep it bland. Keep it reassuring.
Don’t let, say, a cop talk about what really goes on, or a GI to talk about what soldiers really do in Afghanistan, and don’t let political debates touch on substance. Don’t allow, for example, unrehearsed questions: “Mr. Santorum, can you name in order the countries that border on Iran?” Oh no. One mustn’t reveal to the voters that neither they nor the candidates know what they are talking about. Better to maintain the illusion of Informed Citizens Engaging in Democracy.
Mexicans know what kind of government they have. Americans do not.