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The breakdown of politics, continued

There are strong trends which shape America’s political stand-off – but other democracies increasingly have their own versions of the American crisis.

One of the pleasures of blogging is that the dialogue which it sometimes provokes, and my recent post reflecting on the health care vote and the apparent breakdown of ‘normal’ political processes produced a couple of thoughtful responses which seemed to me to take the discussion on. My Futures Company colleague Walker Smith suggested to me from North Carolina that the Republican Party was being squeezed by four concurrent trends which were all disadvantageous to them, while closer to home my sometime collaborator Ian Christie puts US politics in the wider context of responses to globalisation. With their respective permissions, I’ve used large parts of their emails to me in the post that follows, paraphrasing lightly.

The trends first. Walker sees four, which are worth spelling out in a little detail. In headline terms, they are:

  • America’s ‘enduring strain of anti-intellectualism’
  • US demographics
  • Geographic clustering
  • The effect of the economic crisis.

Anti-intellectualism, he suggests, characterizes much of American politics, and is largely a phenomenon of the right.

Americans distrust intellectuals. Period. The self-made man is more their kind of guy. Ivy Leaguers are just snobby and snotty, and not much on the kind of practical, common sense it takes to succeed. Richard Hofstadter wrote the classic text on this, and what he observed has not changed. The Tea Party movement is one example; and it’s why Sarah Palin is thought of so fondly by so many people over here. Anyhow, it is blowing as a full gale force wind right now on the American political scene.

The second trend is demographic, which is running strongly against the Republicans. They are struggling to reach out beyond white married Christians, who have voted 90% Republican for over 30 years, but all three demographic groups are in rapid relative decline. Demographic shifts in the US will catch up with the Republicans in a generation. As Walker observes, in short, demographics could make the Republican Party history, at least in its present form, so some of the current political behaviour is a rearguard action.

The third trend is geographic. Since the 1970s, Americans have increasingly chosen to live in places where everyone else thinks and votes just like them, a trend which was well-documented by Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort. When you live in a place where everyone thinks like you, social psychology shows that your beliefs become more extreme. Politics, and politicians, are affected by this because there are no votes to be won by compromising when your district is composed mostly of one type of voter. This is aggravated by the end of patronage. Sans patronage, the people who get involved in politics are mostly extremists pushing issues, rather than power brokers seeking control over resources. The result is extremist politicians.

Finally, there is the economic crisis, which has called into question the pre-eminence of markets.

Americans of all political stripes are wary of government. Extreme individualism is deeply rooted, both on the left (where it’s expressed as rights) and the right (where it’s expressed as markets). But now macro-economics has foundered, and with it, the presumption that markets always know best. This, of course, came from the University of Chicago and Milton Friedman, who, himself, was a student of Hayek and others like Schumpeter. Add in Ayn Rand and you have a triumvirate of philosophers who suffered through the worst of big government – totalitarianism – in the 1930s. Their rabid anti-government tirades were rooted in this experience, but this historical context is never remembered. All that’s remembered is the preeminence of markets, which was the translation of these ideas into economics.

The financial crisis of the 2000s isn’t a replay of the 1930s

The new historical context, though, is not a reprise of the 1930s; it is the financial crisis of the 2000s. And this context will inform the next generation of economists and thinkers, who are sure to debunk the priority given to markets for the past 30-50 years. Government will find a new footing in the future, as David Brooks has argued recently.

The combination of all four trends – each quite powerful in its own right – is creating the political chaos that we are seeing now. But it’s also worth remembering that it has been going on for some time – since the 1994 mid-term Congressional elections, in which Republicans took control of the House for the first time in decades.

Ian Christie, writing from a British perspective, sees the current American situation as embedded deeply in America’s ‘culture wars’ which have been running since the ’70s, or earlier. He suggests that the end of dialogue within politics can be seen as a political version of fundamentalism in religion. This largely a modern phenomenon, in Christianity and Islam and Hinduism, and a response to what seems to a particular culture to be aggressive undermining by others of what it holds dear.

Fundamentalism and modernisation

Fundamentalism in religion and politics (especially fascism), he writes, is what the sociologist John A Hall calls a pathology of forced modernisation, a process in which the rush of innovations in society undermines tradition and settled meanings is experienced as aggression, and in which those whose identities are threatened seek refuge in hardcore enclaves of organisation and worldview. (Although talk of fascism seems extreme, a similar argument has been made recently in a blog at The Dark Mountain project). The Republicans see much of the post-50s liberations as profoundly transgressive of religion and their interpretation of US frontier culture and have (ever since Kennedy) seen Democrat presidents as in essence illegitimate and un-American. This was bad enough under Clinton (a libertine) but is now toxic under Obama, whose legitimacy is being questioned constantly. In effect many Republicans view half the US population as ‘Dangerous Other’ and their democratic choices as invalid.

The sense of paranoia on the Right is made worse by the realisation that the Cold War triumph has been short-lived, and the balance of power is shifting to China and India, just as power has always tended to be attracted to the demographic centres of gravity.

The effects of all of this, though, are made worse by the interaction between this deep response to change, and dysfunction in the formal political system:

  • capture of Congress by lobbyists as affluence has grown and more interests have to be defended (as argued by Mancur Olson in The Rise and Decline of Nations)[opens document]
  • endemic and inherent short-termism in the House (2 year terms)
  • gerrymandering of safe seats on both sides, allowing more hardliners to be selected, and making compromise harder;
  • and as a result, increasing internal party opposition to centrist republicans and democrats; for example there are now virtually no Republicans of the Rockefeller/Elliott Richardson variety;
  • extreme difficulty in getting constitutional amendments passed;
  • mirroring of these trends in state systems, especially California, which could well become the first Failed State of the modern West;
  • extreme narrowing of the political class thanks to the demands of campaign financing;
  • lack of scope in voting system for third or fourth parties to come through.

The American political system was designed to be partly dysfunctional as a guard against tyranny, but now makes large-scale reform appear impossible. It seems to lack the capacity to be reformed from within. Roosevelt pushed through immense changes, but we forget the scale of fury he aroused in his opponents; he succeeded because he had a bigger crisis than Obama has, a bigger majority and more discredited Republicans against him, and a culture in which there were far fewer affluent voters with vested interests to defend.

The viability of democracies

Ian observes that there is a wider question about the long-range viability of democracies, and of course, quite a lot of the list above also applies to the UK. Colin Crouch’s book Post-Democracy suggests that mature democracies tend to lose civic energy as class tensions diminish and affluence grows. JK Galbraith, in The Culture of Contentment, and more recently John Kampfner, argue that mass affluence creates blocking majorities of middle class voters which resist efforts to help a poor minority, and use democracy to defend their own interests, even at the expense of democratic vitality. And of course, this raises profound questions about whether democracies can adapt effectively in the face of ecological and related social-economic crises.

My thoughts, reflecting on Walker’s and Ian’s comments, is that the US is perhaps only a particular expression of a wider breakdown in political process. In Britain, as we are seeing in the current election campaign, there are significant issues – as Seumas Milne observed this week – where the political class is on one side, and the public on the other, effectively unrepresented. Rupert Reed, of the UK Green Party, also wrote recently that despite the representational, economic, and environmental crisis facing the UK, the sense in Westminster seemed to be that “whoever you vote for, the political class will get in”. The emptying out of politics takes different forms in different places, but it’s a crisis wherever it happens.

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