I am a member of the the Democratic Party. I have been active with it for about thirteen years. Lately, however, my status as a Democrat seems like more of a technicality than anything else. As actual substance goes, I no longer feel that it is a party that has any serious interest in the kinds of political policies and solutions that I want to see pursued. Beyond that, I have also lost any and all interest in defending its continuous (and avoidable) mistakes.
This owes mainly to the fact that the party seems to have accepted that my points of view are irrelevant, if for no other reason than my being a “white man.” I rather dislike the continued use of dated, racial classifiers, but what do you say to people who think like that? Moreover, what do you say to people who are convinced that white supremacy is embedded in every human interaction, without exception? What do you say to people who think the same thing about sexism? What do you say to people who are determined not to trust you, despite your good intentions, as soon as they see you? This is not something I have merely imagined. This is what people have told me, sometimes to my face.
The sad thing is that I do not find much in the way of a meaningful alternative in the Republican Party, for largely similar reasons. What do you say to people who cannot and will not differentiate between an isolated government program and totalitarian communism? What do you say to theocrats who think they are defending religious liberty (just not yours)? What do you say to people who complain that government handouts are a form of bribery, but private campaign donations present no such ethical quandaries? Again, this is nothing I have imagined. It is something I have encountered in actual conversations, several times now, and I bet many longtime Republicans might secretly harbor similar complaints.
It would be a mistake to assume that every Democrat and every Republican fit the two molds I just outlined. Nevertheless, candidates increasingly run in and win primaries by being the negative stereotype of their party. Those with nuanced or contrarian views are not going to get far. Any ideological diversity among party members means little, if the parties ultimately beget cartoons of themselves in their elected officials. Similarly, if people with more middle opinions reflexively respond to critiques with “But what about Trump/Hillary?” then their middle views have very little value anymore.
The result is that those of us who want to have honest conversations about policy no longer have a party that will hear us. A discussion about, say, reparations (for slavery/segregation) is a good one to have, but if the side you take is going to get you labeled as racist against blacks, while the other party will label you as racist against whites for taking the other position, is there any meaningful answer that we are going to get on just that one issue? What about the other myriad, important issues that are similarly polarizing? How can we do even a basic cost-benefit analysis for policies when we are too busy doing that same analysis for the conversation of policy?
Consider the fact that, as a long-time party member, I should have every bias to forgive the Democrats their indiscretions and imperfections. Consider how much I instead have grown to distrust my own party. Consider how I must feel, as a citizen in a democracy, that I have nowhere meaningful to direct my vote. Consider how I must feel that I cannot even reasonably run for office myself and try to solve the issues of the day. Consider how I am probably not the only one, especially if one counts the people who have never affiliated with either party and those who are unhappy about the rising polarization between the two parties. A large chunk of the electorate actually used to be up for grabs. This is only true for perhaps five to ten percent of voters now, assuming they live in constituencies where their votes are actually decisive.
The picture I paint here is a grim one. It is one where a large portion of the citizenry, maybe even a slight majority, is cut off from the democratic process and all the good that such engagement would otherwise do for governance. This is a context in which the benefits of citizenship, as traditionally understood in the West, fail to manifest themselves. It is a context that emerged not out of advancements of the Enlightenment but out of a depressing saga of game theory, where the short-term (and short-sighted) strategies of two sides have had negatively cumulative, degenerative externalities.
Two basic threats emerge in such a context. One is internal. It comes from the citizens of this country, who increasingly feel that they cannot use the old means (elections) as a recourse for the hurts and injustices they suffer. People who see the social contract as sufficiently warped will instead take matters into their own hands. This is why gangs kill each other over disputes. They cannot go to small-claims court to settle illegal transactions, so fear is the only enforcer of contracts that they have. Resorting to murder is problematic enough to maintain your day job. Now imagine applying it to democracy itself. Clausewitz calls this “war.”
It is probably no surprise that violent groups such as Antifa and the Proud Boys have formed and regularly engage in street combat. This is not merely a symptom of how polarized the American political parties have become but a symptom of how each is disconnected from their own base. I have actually had an opportunity to hear people from Antifa speak in person. They were pretty open in their contempt for the Democratic Party, and so long as there is a “liberal elite” that is unresponsive to its half of the voting base, you will find that more and more people find that movements like Antifa are the only way forward. The same goes for the Republican Party and its cliques at the top of its hierarchy.
I am respectful of the fact that many (perhaps most) people are not like me. They are not going to lament their lack of political representation in an essay and hope that it will provide food for thought. Instead, I expect people just to act out. When enough people have these feelings, that is when all the accomplishments of the American Experiment are at risk of vanishing, as though they never even happened. Who knows how that will go? Will it be another civil war? Will there be an ethnostate (or a fracture into multiple ethnostates)? Will we instead remain the United States but only under the iron fist of a strongman dictator? Each of these domestic threats seems more likely with each passing day.
Externally, there is a multitude of threats. Whether we believe it is manmade or not, climate change is occurring. Unless we can think of what to do about it, several of the world’s urban centers will be underwater. Ocean currents and trade winds will shift, altering our rainfall and turning our agricultural centers into wastelands or lakes, neither of which is good for growing crops. Millions of people from around the world will flee to new homes, and many will come here (probably without asking). Old allies may destabilize in the chaos and become our enemies. Old enemies might choose to become aggressive in turn.
Even overlooking that, we have a situation where Russia is clearly attempting to meddle in our democratic processes, and we cannot unite effectively to address it. What if they get bolder in their attempts? What if they become more and more successful? What if China decides to take part as well? What if either of them get ahead not only in the related cyber warfare but in the development of AI? Do we have the means to intercept these threats, to defend the human liberty that we have been able to create and preserve up to this point, or is this where it ends?
Broadly, can we ensure positive outcomes for all of these? I have no definite answer, but as long as America continues to be bitterly divided two ways, with the elites and sycophants in each divide being increasingly unresponsive to their bases, I feel “No” is a more likely answer than any of us should want it to be. Something is going to have to change.
Before I get into that, I think it is worth noting that none of what I say is local to America. This is a concern that affects Europe as well as the rest of our friends in the “First World.” While polarization between strictly two political parties is not as much of a recurring phenomenon, Brexit and similar separatist movements across the Atlantic were born out of a general sentiment that the European Union was a democratic system that nevertheless failed to represent its people, with some outright calling it non-democratic. Brexit might stand as an opportunity where these disaffected voters were given a political option that people in Antifa feel does not exist, but even that is not certain.
Despite maintaining control of the government, the Conservatives in the UK have already ousted two of their Prime Ministers in response to the chaos borne out of Brexit’s success in the 2016 referendum. As Jordan Peterson loves to say, “The devil is in the bloody details,” and there appears to be no details for Brexit that will make even a slight majority of Britons happy. Many, perhaps even most, of those who were on the winning side in 2016 may feel like losers a year from now, and that might also be the moment that they (along with the Remain voters) feel shut out, not only from the democratic process of the EU but from that of their own country. That might be the moment that taking to the streets with violent intentions becomes the mainstream, instead of the fringe.
Even in France, where Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche party formed out of thin air and won control of the government in a historic election, we have seen unrest, particularly in the “yellow jackets” protests and the destruction some of them have caused. The French may have, for a moment, thought they had the reins of their democracy (and not the elite), but whether or not they believe that by the end of Macron’s next term will be the decisive moment.
We could run down a list of other countries, but I think the point is clear. We are hindered in the Twenty-First Century by partisan divisions and the disconnect within parties between those with power and those without. This has placed Western democracy in a bit of a crisis, to the pleasure of our rivals and to the disappointment of our fathers. A change of course, to restore the positive trends that used to be associated with it, is in order. We have to examine what we have been doing wrong and self-correct, so that we can continue to have governance that we not only need but that we also like. Thus, I will reiterate the central riddle of our time: How can we do even a basic cost-benefit analysis for policies when we are too busy doing that same analysis for the conversation of policy?
In brevity, we have to be more willing to agree with the opposite party and more willing to disagree with our own. If President Trump says something wrong (and he often does), Republicans need to be frank about that and not make excuses. By that same token, if Trump says something right, Democrats need to give him credit where credit is due. There is no reason for people — who probably know nothing about Greenland — to be automatically opposed to or supportive of purchasing it for America, just because of whose idea it is. Meaningful policy discussion has to transcend the timeframe of human synapses.
Doing this will not only endear us more to our cousins across the political aisle (and many of them are, in fact, our cousins), but it will also destabilize a system of elites that has depended on and profited from citizens being turned against citizens and not against abusers of power. We have to live between the moments, think about what we have done wrong, even if we have been in service to “the right side,” and modify our behavior to do better in the next moment.
Doing this would also make elections harder to rig, as lawmakers cannot gerrymander a nation of centrists. That is not hyperbole, just a technical statement of fact about how gerrymandering works. The more that we partition ourselves strategically, the more that those with power, on either side, will take advantage of that.
And what happens when lawmakers lose a tool like gerrymandering? Democracy becomes synonymous with meritocracy again. Whatever approaches we take to the problems of the day — whether we put our faith in democracy, in communities, in markets — meritocracy requires us to be willing to see merit in others. We cannot change the fact that someone rudely shared a political opinion on social media, but we can change what we do about it. At the very least, we could stop acting just like them. Then, over time, we might not find ourselves without representation in a gross political system.