It seems odd to ask whether politics is fading away while we are in the midst of a hotly contested Presidential election between two wildly divergent candidates, but I am beginning to wonder if we are on the cusp of a fundamental paradigm shift regarding how we manage our nation.
First of all, we must recognize that American-style democracy is an aberration—albeit an incredibly wonderful one. For most of human history, government was in the hands of the biggest man with the bluntest weapon. You took office by crushing your predecessor’s skull with a club, which circumvented the need for pollsters and consultants, and you ruled until your own death, which was likely to be equally violent.
However, as tribal leaders and hereditary royalty have faded away in Europe, America, Canada, and other parts of the world over the past couple of centuries, we have moved toward systems for selecting leaders who derive their legitimacy from the consent of voters. Of course, the many questions regarding who has been allowed to vote have always dogged the baby steps made toward more representative democracy, but we have seen welcome progress toward broadening the electorate, which has also tended to usher in a much wider array of candidates and elected officials.
However, the innate human tendency to seek unfair advantage and punish those who are perceived as enemies is still entwined into every strain of our DNA. The street clashes that are startling so many Americans today can easily trace their ancestry back to 20th mobs in communist Moscow and fascist Berlin who were ready to bust a few heads to make their respective political points—debate be damned.
American history has also seen its own share of vigilante justice and bare knuckle brawls to determine dominance over the herd. Not every question facing America has been decided through reasoned discussion conducted under Robert’s Rules of Order, which is a rough reality that must be acknowledged. Our democracy has functioned well and produced countless benefits for a great number of Americans—except when it has not.
However, even while acknowledging our nation’s flaws and failures, there is no doubt that America has been an amazing example of democracy in action. It is, of course, easy to be wearily cynical when we consider how often mendacity, manipulation, and misrepresentation have been the tools of choice during election campaigns, and we certainly have put more than a few dimwits into elected offices over the centuries, but the American experiment of empowering the citizenry to choose our own leaders and regulate their behavior through subsequent scheduled elections has been an incredible and enviable success that has outlasted a great many other systems of government around the world.
However, there are legitimate questions now being asked about the size and scope of America’s many governmental structures, which often seem on a runaway mission to both expand their already gigantic footprint and empty our pockets with new taxes, fees, and surcharges that never seem quite enough to sate the beast.
The stupendous growth of government has neatly paralleled the increasing complexity—and danger—of the world we now inhabit. The framers of our Constitution did not need to worry about huge petrochemical plants exploding in a fireball of poisonous fumes, nuclear war, vulnerable electrical power grids, bandwidth auctions, safety requirements for pesticides, cyber-terrorism, fire codes for high rise buildings, inspection and operating standards for commercial jets, plastic pollution in our oceans, and other daily challenges we delegate to countless government agencies that are too numerous to list in a lifetime.
The problems that now arise from the complexity and interdependence of so many systems are not unlike those of a house of cards—if just one falls, the entire structure collapses in a flash. As a result, various forms of government oversight and regulation have sprouted like dandelions in order to mitigate risk in an ever more risky world.
The eternal promise of modern politicians—that we are just one more tax increase (on someone else) from our elusive utopia—is both beguiling and an impossibility. There is simply no way to exert sufficient control to eliminate all risks, and more and more restrictions and regulations tend to produce far more problems than they solve, which we are now learning the hard way as the lockdowns and shutdowns in our age of Covid-19 panic cause despair, debt, and death to spread—like a virus.
New and unexpected risks, as we are learning today, are guaranteed to occur, and government solutions might well turn out to be a blunt instrument that crushes Americans rather than protecting them from harm. The mirage of absolute safety under a benevolent and infallible bureaucratic state where we are gently herded to secure and sunny pastures by the enlightened elite is now crashing into a cruel reality of burning cities, an epidemic of mental health problems, empty classrooms, emptier bank accounts, and terrified citizens snapping up guns and ammunition at a record pace. The premises and promises of the modern liberal welfare state are facing an existential crisis of their own creation, and Americans are bearing the brunt of these widespread and extraordinarily expensive failures.
The equation that is now pushing our nation to the financial, political, and societal brink is basic: (Complexity + Regulation) X Partisanship + Special Interests = Catastrophe.
Progress grinds to a halt because increasingly legalistic consultation and confrontation becomes the enemy of all progress. Just building a road or cutting down a single tree now often turns into a never ending opportunity for interest group lawyers to run up their billable hours, grandstanding politicians to shill for votes, partisans to sow hate and distrust, journalists to inflame debate in order to attract an audience, and experts of every type to make predictions that are as reliable as the daily horoscope.
As a result, more decisions than ever turn into extravaganzas featuring highly theatrical displays of emotion that are divorced from provable fact. Endless speculation about what “might” happen if a certain course of action is adopted readily hijack debate and result in (my apologies to Shakespeare) tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—but ready to be posted on Twitter.
Say hello to political paralysis and hyper-partisanship producing endless governmental processes that produce few tangible results but provide ample opportunities for ill-informed people to share their half-baked thoughts and fears. As a result, the lofty ideals of a democracy enlivened by thoughtful debate are dragged down by social media and the 24/7 news cycle to the level of a middle school cafeteria at lunchtime. The shouting, histrionics, and fragile egos are on full display—all that is missing now are the cheese sticks being gleefully launched through the air.
Given that our political systems are producing poorer results at a higher cost, one has to wonder if fundamental change is closer at hand than we might like to think.
Unfortunately, the middle school level of discussion that now rules our nation is going to make any efforts to reduce the size and cost of government a steep, ugly, uphill climb. Democrats always see this as both a loss of a loyal constituency—a.k.a. government workers—and, given their predilection for centralized control of our lives, a direct attack on their foundational ideology.
Expect a rush to the ramparts of The Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, and MSNBC to defend against the loss of even one federal job because any reduction in government spending will—wait for it!— inevitably lead to deaths, hunger, disease, hatred, ignorance, homelessness, and a dying planet spinning listlessly upon its desiccated axis. The state government cutbacks that will result from the pandemic-related (and government-created) economic catastrophe now upon us will be forestalled for as long as investors can still be convinced to purchase state bonds.
Politicians will find politics far less fun when their ability to magically create new bureaucrats to do their bidding is constrained by grim financial reality, so resistance is to be expected. However, we are seeing a massive turning of a wheel that will grind on toward a new balance point in the months and years ahead. Where exactly this will rest is an open question, but we will see the role of politics—and politicians—begin to ebb.
Democracy in America will survive—and even thrive—but we could need to learn to care a lot less about federal governmental institutions that will recede to a relationship with us that is less central and less centralized as power slides away from the imperial city upon the Potomac.
Some government will, of course, be needed to fulfill traditional federal roles in terms of public safety, national defense, public health, and infrastructure maintenance. However, we are likely to see many other functions and roles of America’s post-WW II super state simply fade away as some move to the state and local levels and others disappear altogether. The fantastic—and profoundly damaging—Faustian bargain of total security in exchange for total control that has been the premise for the incredible growth of government and government oversight over the past century is coming to a close both because we cannot afford it and its false promise has been exposed.
This shift will be a shock for many. However, this will be a huge blessing to our nation and our citizens as we move toward lives less encumbered, more free, and less likely to result in the subtle (and not so subtle) tyranny that defines our lives today.