Im not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s an election going on. Seems like a pretty dull affair, to be honest. Not much to discuss. In a country that is the shining example for governmental efficiency and democratic representation for the rest of the world, I expect nothing but continued solidarity between political parties, not to mention widespread approval of the country’s leadership. So…
…congratulations New Zealand!
You did it, kiwis. As usual, you were so functional and reasonable that we almost forgot you were there at all. Kia ora.
All right, who’s next? Let’s see—*checks notes*—Ah, yes, the United States. Okay, this one should be pretty straightfor—
(10 minutes later…)
“Holy fucking Christ. Make it stop! MAKE IT STAHP!!!”
*Crawls under the bed sobbing*
If you were to ask anyone in the US, it feels as though something imperceptible is either broken or is in the process of breaking. This brokenness gets blamed on a lot of things. People on the left predictably blame Trump, his incompetence, and his complete lack of ethics. People on the right generally point to the growing movement of “woke” social justice activists, their revolutionary rhetoric, and complete lack of sanity. Both make strong points.
Yet, I believe something more fundamental and worrying is happening. Fundamental, because I believe it’s driving the radicalization and hostility on both sides of the political spectrum. Worrying, because I don’t see how it gets resolved by any single election result.
You would never guess by looking at the news headlines, but the American people by and large agree on most issues. Three-quarters believe the government should expand its coverage of health care. Two-thirds believe there should be stricter gun laws. 79% think abortion should be legal. 76% support investing more in education. A staggering 96% support infrastructure improvements. 75% say it’s somewhat/very important to promote more racial and ethnic diversity. 76% say racism continues to be a big problem. Two-thirds see China as a threat and 83% believe the US should remain the world’s major military power.
Yet, despite all of this agreement, polarization between the two major parties is at an all-time high.
This polarization is that ineffable-yet-fundamentally-broken “something” that I think we all feel. Despite most of the country being in accord on its biggest issues—the politicians and media continue to escalate their incessant squabbling to a fever pitch that is now beginning to justify violence. In a recent survey, roughly one-third of both Republican and Democrat supporters said that if their party loses next week, they believe that violence would be justified.
Clearly, there is a major disconnect going on between perception and reality. The question is “Why?”
The Story of Institutional Decay
In 2014, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay titled, “America in Decay.” In political science, institutional decay occurs when governments and other important organizations cease to respond adequately to the population’s needs. The causes of decay can be both malicious—rampant corruption, dickhead leaders, etc.—or they can be benign—i.e., the institutions can simply become rigid and fail to adapt to new realities.
Fukuyama, after tracing the history of American institutions and their incentive structures over the past 200 years, came to a downright depressing conclusion. I will quote him at length and hope he doesn’t sue me (my italics):
“The U.S. political system has decayed over time because its traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid. In an environment of sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests and gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people.
[T]he United States is trapped by its political institutions. Because Americans distrust government, they are generally unwilling to delegate to it the authority to make decisions, as happens in other democracies. Instead, Congress mandates complex rules that reduce the government’s autonomy and cause decision-making to be slow and expensive. The government then doesn’t perform well, which confirms people’s lack of trust in it. Under these circumstances, they are reluctant to pay higher taxes, which they feel the government will simply waste. But without appropriate resources, the government can’t function properly, again creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What Fukuyama describes is a kind of downward spiral of political dysfunction. Crappy institutions generate crappier outcomes, which then generate resentment and distrust and polarization within the population, which generates worse leaders and worse policies and weaker institutions, and down the shit-spiral we all go.
In their book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson describe these institutional spirals as self-reinforcing in both directions. Countries with well-performing institutions generate economic growth and trust within the population. This then generates more support and solidarity in government, which then generates better leaders and better policies, which then creates more economic growth and social trust and so on. Run that cycle enough times and you get New Zealand. Run the cycle in the other direction long enough and you get Afghanistan.
Most developed, western nations are spiralling upward and have been since World War II. The United States, Fukuyama argues, is in many ways, no longer spiralling up, but beginning to spiral down. What’s worse, he concludes depressingly that we are unlikely to summon the courage and political capital to reverse these trends ourselves. Instead, it will require some sort of cataclysmic event to wake the country from its gridlock and stupor. He writes:
“The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country’s political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action.”
Government is Best which Governs Boring
What’s perhaps most frustrating is that the American people do not even seem to be aware of these dynamics taking place under their feet. We’re too busy fighting the people we mostly agree with.
Last week, I wrote an article about the Law of Unintended Consequences—how scary-looking bullshit often distracts us from highly abstract, slow-moving, but very real, dangers. The American obsession with 24-hour news and day-to-day hit pieces about Facebook ads and random laptops left in Delaware repair shops is a perfect example of this. We are participating in a slow-moving car crash, yet everyone is too busy passionately arguing about what’s on the radio to look up and take heed.
That’s because the business of driving and steering well (i.e., good governance) is a dull and quotidian affair. It doesn’t grab headlines. And it shouldn’t inspire millions to take the streets. In the absence of a long history and binding heritage, I worry that the American addiction to entertainment has become our Achilles’ Heel. Our politics resemble Wrestlemania more than they do actual governance. Red vs Blue has become the new national pastime—a never-ending resolution-free Super Bowl.
Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “Government is best which governs least.” Instead, I submit that “Government is best which governs boring.” If changes in the tax code seem scandalous or thrilling—you’re doing it wrong. If healthcare policy has you more upset than the last season of Game of Thrones—you’re doing it wrong. If a new finance regulation has you up in arms and ready to take to the streets—you’re doing it wrong.
By the time you read this, I will have already voted for Biden. Not because I’m particularly enthusiastic about the guy or enthusiastic about a system that consistently produces two bad options every four years. But rather, because there is nothing enthusiastic about him. He’s boring. And unlike Trump, he’s willing to do boring things, like listen to scientists and experts, like sit through the complexities of policymaking, like respect the opposition’s humanity.
He conjures less of an emotional reaction. And in this day and age, I submit that this is a good thing.