What Happened to American Politics?



Let me begin by saying I’m an outsider to U.S. politics. I come from and still live in southern Ontario, on the border with New York State. Like many Canadians, I’ve always been about equally aware of the trials and tribulations of American and Canadian politics. The two political cultures are definitely distinguishable and always have been. Canadian politics is nothing glorious and I’m not about to hold it up as a model that any other country should follow. We have our problems too, but American politics right now—what happened? How did they get here? It’s too easy to point to one political party or one individual as the source of what has gone wrong. This began long before he took office and it’s certain to continue long after he’s out of office. Are we witnessing a wholesale breakdown of American democracy? My interpretation will be less apocalyptic, but I do see the situation as bleak. I’m going to mention five factors that seem to me to have driven American politics to its current predicament.

The first is the notion of American exceptionalism. This old doctrine has been a unifying force in American political culture for two centuries, and it has been dealt a death blow by globalization. Like so many other national myths, it was a dubious idea from the beginning, but it did provide the country with a solidarity that was at least notional. Conservatives try to retain this idea, but it rings hollow. America is not an exception in the world. Other forms of solidarity will need to replace exceptionalism and haven’t yet. I have no prediction as to whether they will. A democratic polity needs some kind of social glue, and the old glue isn’t holding. This leads me to my second point.

Identity politics. This has come to America in a big way. Canada and a great many other countries have been down this road, and it’s a bad road. It takes many forms, on both the right and the left, and it works by pitting every group against every other in one enormous dance of death. It claims to be about justice, and it isn’t. It’s about power and power only. The will to power, as Nietzsche pointed out, always wears a mask and it springs eternal. It takes a thousand forms, some of them baser than others. Identity politics has been gaining ascendency for a few decades now and it currently has very little opposition. The only solution to some wars, including culture and identity wars, is for war-weariness to set in, and this can take decades. It probably will. Don’t expect any great unifier to emerge. No politician or anyone else can do this alone. This is a societal phenomenon, and it’s not going to change from the top down unless it’s matched by an equal push from the bottom. I don’t see this on the horizon. Identity politics has become the only game in town.

The third point is closely related to this, and it’s hyper-partisanship. American politics has become an ugly zero-sum game and there’s no way to win except to bury the other side. That won’t happen. Both parties believe themselves morally entitled to power. The only problem is those pesky voters who insist on having minds of their own. Politics now is about power alone: getting it and keeping it. What they do with it is an afterthought. The point is to hold the reigns. Both party machines now go into full campaign mode about a day after every election. Nothing and no one is above or outside politics anymore. You are friend or foe, and if you’re a foe, you are irredeemable, deplorable. American democracy was never a bipartisan utopia, but bipartisanship today is on life support.

My fourth point is about journalism. I’ve talked about that here before, so I’ll keep this short. Don Henley and Glen Frey said it in one short line: “Journalism dead and gone” (from “Frail Grasp on the Big Picture,” Long Road Out of Eden). With few exceptions, news organizations are long past the point of being honest brokers of information, with a bit of editorializing on the side. They have become propaganda organs for one party or the other, all the while claiming a political neutrality that requires no effort to see through. There’s no separation anymore between news reporting, political activism, entertainment, intellectual manipulation, and money-making. If you watch or read a lot of news, it’s easy to get the impression the whole country is going to hell, maybe the rest of the world too. It isn’t. Plenty of good things are happening in the United States, and very few of them get the attention of news organizations because good news is bad for ratings. They make money by holding their viewers’ attention, and the formula for that is to sell a steady diet of outrage, scandal, and bad news. Their quest for profits in an industry that may be dying has exacerbated the divisions and other problems that exist and made the search for solutions still more difficult.

My last point is about economics. I could mention a number of things here, but likely no factor looms larger than the decline of manufacturing. Great nations have always built things—all kinds of things which their people use and fill their homes with. Now it’s made in China and bought at Walmart. That was a choice that Americans and many other nations made, and it was a mistake. There’s a lot of anger out there today, and a lot of it (by no means all) was caused by the loss of manufacturing jobs that for generations sustained families and whole communities. High labor costs spelled short-term gains and long-term losses, as jobs were exported to countries like China, Vietnam, and Mexico. New technologies have also rendered many such jobs obsolete in a trend that’s not about to reverse itself. Any politician who promises to “bring jobs back to America” may be closing the barn door far too late, and the anger remains. This may be a problem without a solution.

There are other points I could mention: the influence of lobbyists and special interests, gerrymandering, political echo-chambers, the hopeless division of classes and the decline of the middle class, the long-term consequences that robotics are likely to have for employment, political short-termism, government debt, the environment, the love affair with guns. The American ship isn’t going down, but it does require a dramatic course correction that neither democrats nor republicans are able to articulate right now. Both parties seem to me about equally bankrupt intellectually and morally. Democrats are lurching ever farther to the left while republicans are in a wilderness of their own, leaving voters in the sane center with an empty choice—Coke or Pepsi when we ordered a good shiraz. For American democracy to find its way, it’s going to have to go back to the drawing board on some things, and returning to eighteenth-century ideas without revision, in the manner of all fundamentalism, won’t do. Some of those ideas and attitudes, in my opinion, still ring true; others need to be adapted, with much revision, to our time, and others need to be left decisively behind. There are times when something resembling a national conversation needs to happen, and this is one of them. The lifeblood of democracy is precisely conversation, and if the prospects right now for such a conversation are dim, it’s not fated to remain that way. The American political tradition is rich and contains the resources with which to critique and overcome its own problems, but the question is whether it will. Cooler heads need to prevail, and the angry extremists on both sides, including those who dominate the headlines, need to be listened to less.

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