Stop Risking Our Republic Over Nothing
While we rage at our neighbors over nothing, we have created a terrifying political vacuum—one those with ill intent are exploiting to rise to power.
We’re ripping our republic to shreds. American politics is bathed in hate and contempt. All anyone can talk about is that the country is coming apart. For what?
What precisely are we fighting about that’s worth tearing our country down?
The last time America was this dangerously divided was before the Civil War. Politics got vicious, often violent. People could no longer stand their neighbors. Old political coalitions unraveled. Eventually the nation came apart. It happened because something important was at stake.
Slavery was an unsustainable evil. It had to be eradicated. Those whose livelihoods depended on enslavement would do anything to resist its end. Those gazing on in horror would no longer look away. So the republic unraveled, and it took hundreds of thousands of shattered lives to put it back together. Risking our republic to stop enslavement and brutalization was worth it.
What’s at stake now with this same heroic gravity? What exactly are we achieving to make this horrible era worth its terrible cost?
It’s certainly not the same old battle between liberalism and conservatism, even if the translucent ghosts of the terms continue to haunt our politics. That fight, after all, was about how to govern a mid-twentieth century industrial economy. In light of the Great Depression, Roosevelt and his New Dealers believed we had to adapt America’s institutions for a new complex world of factories and motorcars. They developed New Deal liberalism, which sought to empower experts to manage the complexities of the industrial economy to drive national progress while helping working people, the marginalized, and the least well off. That ideology has motivated the party ever since.
Conservatism, on the other hand, emerged from the New Deal’s opponents who believed America could adjust without the centralized management New Deal liberalism prescribed. Conservatives worried that FDR’s liberalism would erode political liberty and alter the culture of America. In short, that it was dangerous “big government.” As this new coalition gradually took over the Republican Party, it created a counter-ideology to FDR’s.
This fight over the size and role of government then ruled over all our lives. First, liberals and conservative fought over economic policy like labor regulation and taxation. Then around the 1960s they expanded into social and moral questions. Liberals launched social New Deal projects like the Great Society and conservatives started worrying about social “big government.” Going back to the days of Art Deco and radio plays, we’ve been essentially having the same fight. Liberals proposed using expertise to manage progress for the benefit of working people and the least well off. Conservatives pushed at the expansion of what they believed a dangerous use of government eroding liberty and virtue.
Whatever we’re fighting over now, however, it certainly isn’t this stale fight over twentieth-century industrial-era government.
After decades of spirited but reasonable debate, we didn’t suddenly decide to tear America apart over the well-trod ground of tax rates, social programs, and the minimum wage. What’s more, the parties built around that fight are collapsing and never coming back. The Republican Party is all but dead already, with many former ideological conservatives now despising their former home. The Democratic Party is also at the cusp of its unraveling, with many working people the Democrats presume to represent now holding the party in contempt.
Obviously, America is under assault from a hailstorm of frightening problems with real stakes worthy of a fight. Some are problems we let fester to the point of malignancy. Others are new, unleashed by the churning of new technologies, a shifting world, and social change. Americans also have real and serious disagreements about the direction of our country. We don’t all share the same values, priorities, cultural beliefs, or material interests. We don’t all agree on the sort of country we hope to build.
We have plenty to fight about in politics. But this current war between Red and Blue America isn’t actually about those things, despite our sincere beliefs it is. We’re not really waging a battle over the future of our country worth plunging America into instability since we’re not fighting over implementing policies, ideas, or a national direction. In fact, this ferocious national war we’ve launched is over nothing of substance at all.
Ask yourself, what exactly is the agenda of this new Republican Party? What about the Democrats? Not the small-ball poll-tested policies that sound nice but barely matter. Not the sweeping utopian proclamations everyone knows are half-baked and will never happen. Not the slogans. Not the big picture dreams of where we hope to go. The actual agendas of concrete ideas that can improve or affect people’s lives. What specifically is each party trying to do, or what bold ideas specifically are they blocking? What precisely are they attempting to get done in government, and how exactly do they propose we address this changing world?
If you look past the empty political speeches or the chatter on cable news, you quickly discover there’s little there. Certainly nothing so important or threatening it’s worth tearing America apart. It’s not that America doesn’t face real problems, or that politically active Americans don’t sincerely care. It’s that none of that is actually what politics is now about. It’s all just shouting and anger and demands and blame with no true significance.
So why does it still feel to so many Americans that our country’s future is at stake when, in reality, little is at stake at all?
Because our country actually is in danger. It’s just not coming from where people think.
American politics used to work in a stable and systematic way we took for granted. Citizens engaged in politics. They joined a party and campaigned for candidates. They read newspapers and watched the news and followed what was happening in Congress. They got involved in local issues and wrote op-eds. They protested. They donated to groups who shared their priorities. And, as if by magic, our well-oiled system channeled those actions and desires into results. Americans pushed and pulled their parties towards a preferred direction, and those parties engaged in a stable national debate that made things happen in the world.
That no longer works.
Americans pull the same levers today but nothing happens. They get involved in campaigns. They post on social media. They protest. And nothing happens in response. Policies don’t get written. Bills don’t move through Congress. Officials don’t react. Instead, government bumbles and officials ignore the people in the streets. America is like a little boy frantically pushing a button on an empty box.
What are Americans to conclude? Naturally, a lot of them presume nothing must be happening because their opponents have become a malicious force intentionally working to make things worse. They must be terrible people who like things broken, or who resent watching others thrive. If only we could drive this evil band from government, people think, the good guys could rule without interference and miraculously solve our problems.
Our politics thus centers around misplaced blame. Americans on all sides believe the source of our decline is some evil cabal of fellow citizens intentionally sabotaging America. In reality, it’s the opposite. Nobody is doing anything, and nobody plans to do anything, because nobody knows what to do. People have lists of priorities and problems they want solved. Nobody has a plan.
There’s no longer a stable system of Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals, to discover and debate solutions. The old Republicans and Democrats are dead and never coming back. Twentieth-century liberalism and conservatism are no longer suited to solving twenty-first century problems. The stable system we took for granted, that converted citizen action into politics, is gone. Nor has anything new arisen to replace it capable of wrestling with this changing world. Americans are pulling the same levers but nothing happens because those levers are no longer connected to a working machine.
That’s why politics is broken. The system that used to connect politics to results is gone. The inevitable result is stagnation, chaos, and corruption. Which is exactly what we’ve got.
We’re not really polarized, as the media likes to claim. How could we be? There aren’t two clashing agendas to polarize around. Nor have our Republican and Democratic Parties as institutions fallen prey to idiocy or radicalism. Rather, they’ve become weak and broken things standing for almost nothing, sitting abandoned as vehicles for the crazy, the ambitious, and the corrupt to hijack.
That’s not polarization. That’s a terrifying political vacuum that those with ill intent can gleefully exploit.
Americans wonder how we allowed charlatans, radicals, selfish careerists, the mediocre, and the corrupt to seize control of politics. It’s not that we all went barking mad. We’re not stupid, and we’re not all clueless marks. We didn’t become a pack of frothing radicals out of the blue. While we’re hardly perfect, we’re not immoral, much less evil. America didn’t suddenly become corrupt, or radical, or crazy. Nor is it that our neighbors want this. What happened is, while we were raging at our neighbors and ripping apart our republic over pipe dreams and symbols, reacting in frustration as the roofbeams of the system came tumbling down, we opened a door that corrupt, radical, and crazy people can use to get to power.
Let’s slam that door closed now.