Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 10 January 2024




A ‘National and Global Maelstrom’ Is Pulling Us Under

A flag’s shadow on a brick wall.
Credit...Thalassa Raasch for The New York Times
A flag’s shadow on a brick wall.

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

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The coming election will be held at a time of insoluble cultural and racial conflict; a two-tier economy, one growing, the other stagnant; a time of inequality and economic immobility; a divided electorate based on educational attainment — taken together, a toxic combination pushing the country into two belligerent camps.

I wrote to a range of scholars, asking whether the nation has reached a point of no return.

The responses varied widely, but the level of shared pessimism was striking.

Richard Haass, a president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former director of policy planning at the State Department, responded, “So is the U.S. at a critical juncture? And is this juncture qualitatively different from previous difficult moments in our history?”

His answer to his own question: “I lean toward yes, as one of the comparative advantages of this democracy has been its ability to reform itself and correct mistakes, and our ability to do so now is much less certain.”

What worries Haass most is

the decline in a common American identity. Americans lead increasingly separate and different lives. From “out of many one” no longer applies. This is truly dangerous, as this is a country founded on an idea (rather than class or demographic homogeneity), and that idea is no longer agreed on, much less widely held. I am no longer confident there is the necessary desire and ability to make this country succeed. As a result, I cannot rule out continued paralysis and dysfunction at best and widespread political violence or even dissolution at worst.

In an email, Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, described the complex interplay of cultural and economic upheavals and the growing inability of politics to give voice to disparate interests as key factors driving contemporary dysfunction.

Some developments, Norris wrote,

are widely documented and not in dispute, notably the decades-long erosion of blue-collar (primarily masculine) work and pay in agriculture, extractive and manufacturing industries, especially in unionized and skilled sectors which employed high school graduates, and the massive expansion of opportunities in professional and managerial careers in finance, technology and the service sector, in the private as well as in the nonprofit and public sectors, rewarding highly educated and more geographically mobile women and men living in urban and suburban areas.

These developments have, in turn,

been accompanied with generational shifts in cultural values moving societies and in a lagged process, in the mainstream policy agenda, gradually in a more liberal direction on a wide range of moral issues, as polls show, such as attitudes toward marriage and the family, sexuality and gender, race and ethnicity, environmentalism, migration and cosmopolitanism, as well as long-term processes of secularization and the erosion of religiosity.

What kinds of political systems, Norris asked, are most vulnerable to democratic backsliding when voters become polarized? Answer: two-party systems like the one operating in the United States.

In this country, Norris argued,

backsliding is strengthened as the political system struggles to provide outlets for alternative contenders reflecting the new issue agenda on the liberal-left and conservative-right. The longer this continues, the more the process raises the stakes in plurality elections and reinforces us-them intolerance among winners and especially losers, who increasingly come to reject the legitimacy of the rules of the game where they feel that the deck is consistently stacked against them.

All of which lays the groundwork for the acceptance of false claims.

Norris continued:

The most plausible misinformation is based on something which is actually true, hence the great-replacement theory among evangelicals is not simply made-up myths; given patterns of secularization, there is indeed a decline in the religious population in America. Similarly for Republicans, deeply held beliefs that, for example, they are silenced, since their values are no longer reflected in mainstream media or the culture of the Ivy Leagues are, indeed, at least in part, based on well-grounded truths. Hence the MAGA grass-roots takeover of the old country club G.O.P. and authoritarian challenges to liberal democratic norms.

These destructive forces gain strength in the United States, in Norris’s view,

Where there is a two-party system despite an increasingly diverse plural society and culture, where multidimensional ideological polarization has grown within parties and the electorate and where there are no realistic opportunities for multiparty competition, which would serve as a pressure-valve outlet for cultural diversity, as is common throughout Europe.

Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, sees other factors driving intensified conflict. In an email, he wrote:

If the Democrats manage to win another term and can control the Congress as well as the White House after 2024, they may make an even larger turn in the direction of F.D.R.-style government support for general welfare. But if the G.O.P. wins in 2024 or even wins enough to paralyze government and sow further doubts about the legitimacy of our government and institutions, then we drift steadily toward Argentina-style populism, and neither American democracy nor American prosperity will ever be the same again.

Why is the country in this fragile condition? Goldstone argued that one set of data points sums most of it up:

From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, output and wages moved together. But slowly from the mid-1970s and then rapidly from the 1980s, they diverged. By 2023, we’ve had 40 years in which the output of the economy has grown enormously, with output per worker hour growing by 126 percent, while compensation per worker has grown only 27 percent.

In short, Goldstone continued, “a majority of Americans today are more pressured to get life’s necessities, more unsure of their future and find it far more difficult to find avenues to get ahead. No wonder they are fed up with politics as usual, think the system is rigged against them and just want someone to make things more secure.”

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an email that pessimism has become endemic in some quarters: “I find that many of my friends, relatives and colleagues are equally concerned about the future of the country. The worst part of this is that we feel quite helpless — unable to find ways to improve matters.”

That the leaders of one of our two major political parties “would support a corrupt, self-interested and deranged former president,” Sawhill continued, “is certainly part of the problem, but even more concerning is the fact that a majority of the public currently says they would vote for him in 2024.”

The biggest challenge, she wrote, “is what I have called the great misalignment between the institutions we have and those we need to deal with most of these problems.”

The framers of the Constitution, she wrote:

understood human frailties and passions. But they thought they had designed a set of institutions that could weather the storms. They also assumed a nation in which civic virtue had been instilled in people by families, schools or faith-based congregations. Over the coming year, those assumptions will be sorely tested.

The difficulties of institutions in prevailing under such concerted duress are becoming increasingly apparent.

Greg Conti, a political scientist at Princeton, in an essay published in December in Compact magazine, “The Rise of the Sectarian University,” describes the erosion of national support for the mediating role of key institutions:

The real peril to elite higher education, then, isn’t that these places will be financially ruined, nor that they will be effectively interfered with in their internal operations by hostile conservatives. It is, instead, that their position in American society will come to resemble that of The New York Times or of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Which is to say that they will remain rich and powerful, and they will continue to have many bright and competent people working within their ambit. And yet their authority will grow more brittle and their appeal more sectarian.

If universities continue to operate as they have been doing, a similar fate will be their destination. From being de facto national institutions, a valued part of our shared patrimony, pursuing one of the essential purposes of a great modern society, they are coming to be seen as the instruments of a sect. Public regard for higher education was falling across the ideological spectrum even before the events of this autumn. Without a course correction, the silent majority of Americans will be as likely to put any stock in the research of an Ivy League professor as they are to get the next booster, even as Ivy League credentials receive great deference within an increasingly inward-looking portion of our privileged classes.

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” was the most optimistic — or, perhaps, the least pessimistic — of those I contacted for this essay. He replied by email to my query:

One can always think one is in an unprecedented crisis by listing the worst things happening in the country at the time. But this is a nonrandom sample, and selecting the worst developments in a given year will always make it seem as if a catastrophe is imminent. It’s good to remember the apparently existential crises of decades that you and I lived through, including:

The 1960s, with the assassination of three of the country’s most beloved figures, including the president; urban riots in which dozens of people were killed and neighborhoods burned in a single night; an unpopular war that killed 10 times as many Americans as died in Iraq and Afghanistan; fears of annihilation in an all-out nuclear war; a generation that rejected the reigning social and sexual mores, many of whom called for a violent Communist or anarchist revolution; a segregationist third-party candidate who won five states.

The 1970s, with five terrorist bombings a day in many years, the resignations of both the vice president and the president, double-digit inflation and unemployment, two energy crises that were thought might end industrial civilization, America held hostage in Iran, a sitting president almost unseated by his own party, etc.

The 1980s, with violent crime and homelessness reaching all-time highs, new fears of nuclear escalation, a crack cocaine crisis.

The 2000s, with fears of weekly 9/11-scale attacks or worse attacks with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; plans for the surveillance of the entire American population; widespread ridicule and hatred of a president who led the country into two disastrous wars.

Pinker has repeatedly made his case in recent days on the X platform, posting “177 Ways the World Got Better in 2023” on Jan. 2, “From David Byrne’s Reasons to Be Cheerful” on the same day and “No, 2023 Wasn’t All Bad, and Here Are 23 Reasons Why Not” on Jan. 4.

Pinker, however, is an outlier.

Larry Kramer, who just retired as president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and is set to serve as president of the London School of Economics, wrote in an email that several major contemporary trends are negative, including:

(1) fragmentation of media, coupled with loss of standards, disappearance of local media and degradation of journalistic norms; (2) weakening of parties through well-meaning but misguided regulation (e.g., campaign finance) that shifted control from professionals to private, wealthy ideologues; (3) policy regimes that wildly exacerbated wealth inequality and left overwhelming numbers of Americans feeling worse off, reducing life expectancy and disabling government from addressing people’s needs; (4) a shift in the left and the right to identity politics that reduces people to their race, gender and political ideology — sharpening the sense of differences by minimizing what we share with each other and so turning a shared political community with disagreements into warring camps of enemies.

A number of those I contacted cited inequality and downward mobility as key factors undermining faith in democratic governance.

Allen Matusow, a historian at Rice and the author of “The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s,” wrote by email that he belongs “to the school that believes that our democracy has not been in such peril since the Civil War, and the easy explanation is Trump. But the real question is why such a despicable demagogue commands the support of so many.”

Matusow cited “income inequality and “the cultural resentments of those left behind.”

Trump’s contribution “to the left-behind,” Matusow wrote,

is license to focus its resentments on minorities and to make the expressions of prejudice acceptable. Since World War II, we have had two other notable populist demagogues. Both exploited a moment to attack elites, though neither was a threat to win the presidency. Joe McCarthy was careful not to stir up prejudices against racial and ethnic minorities, and for all his faults, George Wallace was not a serial liar. Trump is in a class all by himself.

Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, shares Matusow’s concerns over the detrimental impact of inequality. Cain emailed me to say:

The recent growing dissatisfaction with democracy is a reminder that people judge the fairness of their political system by how they are doing in it. Downward mobility and the loss of political and social status leads to alienation from democratic norms and distrust in government. We believe that democracy is a better form of government because it will produce better policies by being accountable to the people. But when it does not perform well, democratic legitimacy erodes across the political spectrum.

These factors, Cain continued, work in tandem with

social and political instability due to globalization, automation and social media. Much has changed in recent decades, such as the country’s more diverse racial and ethnic composition, job opportunities more strongly defined along education lines and expanded gender roles. MAGA anger and anxiety about replacement stems from the simultaneous loss of social status, economic opportunity and political power due to these significant economic, social and demographic trends.

Dissension between Democrats and Republicans, Cain argued, feeds a vicious circle:

The progressive left wants changes to happen more quickly, which only feeds right-wing fears and fervor. The cycle of political tension continues to build. Trump stirs the pot, but the tensions have been building for decades.

In the short term, Cain is not optimistic:

We can’t have effective government until we have sufficient consensus, and we can’t have consensus unless the people in government aim for effective policy rather than notoriety and a media career. Barring one party running the table and winning trifecta control, we will wallow in a polarized, divided government for another term or two. That is the design of the Madisonian system: Stay in neutral until we know where we want to go.

Perhaps the most trenchant comment I received was from Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard, who replied to my inquiry at the height of the controversy over the former Harvard president Claudine Gay:

I have thought for some time that America was suffering multiple elite-driven institutional breakdowns across the board, opening the door to a national and global maelstrom. But now I find myself so overwhelmingly distressed by it all, including the collapse of core values at my own university, that I cannot write coherently about it.

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