How we got here

By Ryan Streeter

None of the flaws in the U.S. political system are especially new. So why do things seem to be breaking down now? 

A protestor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11, 2018. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Political discord in the United States has reached dangerous levels. Party affiliation divides families more than at any time on record, performative politics has superseded policymaking in Congress, and support for the use of force to solve political disputes has risen on both the right and the left. The events of January 6, 2021, and the aftermath of October 7, 2023, have underscored the disquieting possibility that America’s divisions may be too deep for our basic institutions to resolve. 

One reason the growing instability of our institutions is so dangerous is because the rest of our lives can be so messy. America’s unplanned, dynamic economy is messy by nature. Families are messy. Cities, whether booming or declining, are also messy. So are political campaigns. But the institutions through which the Constitution applies itself in our lives should not be messy. Our courts should be stable. Congress needs to function according to its written and unwritten rules, even – and especially when – it is struggling with the gridlock it was designed to produce. The executive branch needs to know its place and discharge its duties accordingly. Regulatory bodies need to function according to simple, clear guidelines, free of political interference, so that Americans’ private lives can flourish.  

Other important U.S. institutions should also operate with as little messiness as possible. Primary and secondary schools should be centers of learning and inquiry based on research-backed evidence and widely shared general principles. The media needs to present reporting and analysis based on fairness and honesty. The fact that our institutions are currently so chaotic – that everything is so messy, from our politics to the embarrassing hypocrisy of our university administrators – reflects a crisis of principle, not merely confusion over procedure or process.  

Things fall apart

But why have things gotten so bad, particularly in the political realm? None of the fundamental dysfunctions in our primary system, political parties, and Congress are especially new. So why does our entire political system suddenly seem to be breaking down?  

The explanation involves a number of procedural and cultural shifts discussed by other authors in this issue. I want to focus on three problems in particular.  

The first is the migration of the culture wars from the periphery to the center of our political conversation. Today’s cultural conflicts – whether centered on race, gender, climate change, marriage, or religion’s role in society – have all become overly politicized and ideological. These divides are sometimes misinterpreted as economic in nature, but in reality, they are morally charged cultural divisions, which stir the passions in ways that economic issues do not. Take, for example, the widely held view that Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election reflected working-class economic alienation. As some political observers have noted and my own survey research has shown, Trump’s appeal actually owes far more to cultural issues than it does to protectionism or industrial policy.  

President George W. Bush calls on American businesses to join the "army of compassion" in Washington, D.C. on December 10, 2002. (Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

A seismic gap has formed between the elite left, which began to dominate the Democratic Party during President Barack Obama’s tenure, and the heartland right, which includes both college-educated main street business owners who formerly seemed like conventional Republicans, and non-college-educated workers who have not typically identified as conservatives. The growing geographic separation between these communities, and the different digital universes they inhabit, have only reinforced the stereotypes each hold of the other.  

As members of the right have come to feel increasingly condescended to by the left (think of Obama’s infamous comments about “God, guns, and gays,” Hillary Clinton’s quip about “deplorables,” or Beto O’Rourke’s promise to strip faith-based groups of their nonprofit status), the right has grown increasingly determined to find a culture warrior who will defend its interests.  

A right-wing fixation on the culture war has become mainstream in      our politics.

Because cultural conservatives do not occupy many positions of influence in America’s elite institutions – its universities, its media, its philanthropies, entertainment industry, or corporate boardrooms – they have doubled down on the one institution in which they have made gains since the 1970s: politics. Just look at Trump’s agenda for his next term, should he win one: barring federal agencies from enforcing mask mandates, investigating colleges that use affirmative action, criminalizing gender-affirming medical care for minors, and ending birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented workers. Given the lack of focus on other problems – such as the economy, healthcare, or the entitlement crisis – this agenda reveals how a right-wing fixation on the culture war has become mainstream in our politics.  

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is increasingly dominated by a minority of vocal, highly educated progressives who hew to positions far to the left of the average Democratic voter. These progressives are preoccupied with identity politics and questions involving race and gender. Like the culture-war right, they openly aspire to using the courts and federal power to achieve their aims.  

Members of the Tea Party protest in Washington, D.C. on September 12, 2010. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Forgetting federalism

The second problem underlying our current predicament follows from the first but gets less attention: the crumbling of federalism as a governing concept. Except for a brief period after Trump’s election in 2016, the ideological left has never much cared for federalism; the concept has traditionally been championed by political conservatives.   

The 1994 Republican Revolution was rooted deeply in the idea of devolving authority to states and local areas, a concept that remained dominant through the George W. Bush administration. From reforms to welfare, schooling, policing, and public housing in the 1990s to President Bush’s “armies of compassion,” (the last significant policy effort to empower grassroots organizations to combat poverty and other social ills), the greatest domestic accomplishments of conservative leaders of this era were rooted in a tradition of thought focused on devolving power from the federal government downward.  

But then something curious happened during the Obama years. Despite its grassroots origin, the Tea Party revolution of 2010 lacked a theory of devolution and local agency. For all its emphasis on reduced federal spending, its members were just as opposed to entitlement reform as were mainstream voters. They were more interested in opposing the left, embodied for them by President Obama, than in altering the government’s fundamental power structure.   

The abandonment of the federalist intuition by the political right has resulted in a harmful power-struggle over the levers of federal power in Washington.

Then the Trump years gave rise to a new wave of Republicans, who embrace unconservative approaches to a range of topics, such as antitrust, industrial policy, the regulation of the media, and school curriculums. The abandonment of the federalist intuition by the political right has resulted in a harmful power-struggle over the levers of federal power in Washington as the chief mechanism for achieving social change. This approach is simply un-American. Many of our policy debates and our social and cultural disagreements should be resolved at the state and local level, as the Founders intended, as well as through private civic and commercial enterprises – not on the national political stage. As conservatives have long argued, and many liberals have repeated when faced with top-down threats from the political right, the insights and resources required to address most big challenges can never effectively be centralized in Washington. Innovation happens best when it springs up locally and is subsequently adopted elsewhere. From school reforms to welfare reform to housing policy, progress over the past half century has mostly followed this local-first pattern.  

A man uses his cellphone in New York City on March 5, 2020. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

America online

Important as the first two features of our current discord – politicizing our cultural disputes and abandoning federalism – are, they are insufficient explanations for our troubles. Understanding a third problem – how we have come to use digital information – is necessary to fully explain how conditions have grown so bad.  

Highlighting the toxic nature and impact of online social media and the like has become so commonplace that it scarcely requires repeating. But the phenomenon is so important that it’s impossible to fully understand our political crisis without it. About a decade ago, when the level of smart-phone ownership among the American population hit about 50%, we reached a tipping point, and our ability to organize and weaponize our tribal instincts rose to a historically unprecedented level. Human beings have always been tribal. But suddenly we gained the ability to spend our days and nights marinating in a digital concoction of our own choosing, reinforcing our views of our opponents and our explanations for what is wrong with the world. At the same time, most of us lost or abandoned physical venues like a local town hall where we could actually meet our opponents in the flesh and be forced to deal with their challenges to our views. Spending too much time in the digital world at the expense of the real one has been shown to contribute to increased anxiety and mood disorders in young people. While the phenomenon has been less studied in the context of politics, the effects are surely similar. We know from survey research that while most forms of volunteering correlate with low levels of loneliness and social isolation, political volunteering is associated with the opposite.  

The good news in all of this is twofold. First, as apocalyptic as our politics can feel, most Americans are still more interested in bread-and-butter issues such as the quality of their kids’ school, crime, the cost of housing, and the quality of jobs in their community. The loudest voices on the right and left still represent a minority in our politics. During the last, tumultuous years, while political leaders have fanned the flames of paranoia and anxiety with ideological fuel, basic household concerns have continued to top the list of Americans’ priorities in poll after poll.  

The majority of Americans are exhausted by the polarization of the culture wars, and are united by a lot of common, everyday concerns.

Which leads to a second point: people are tired of extremism. The majority of Americans are exhausted by the polarization of the culture wars, and are united by a lot of common, everyday concerns. Repelled by progressive ideologies, Hispanic and Black voters have moved rightward. Temperatures have been coming down in the academy (albeit unevenly), and after the disastrous testimony given by the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn before Congress in mid-December, they were condemned by the same media that typically has their backs. Americans across all demographic divides still care more about the American Dream than they do about hot-button issues, and they remain optimistic about achieving it.  

That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet. Illiberalism continues to rise around the world, and here in the United States, it retains far too many advocates on the right and left. So long as our political institutions allow – and even encourage – our national politics to serve as the main arena for ideological and cultural warfare, those of us committed to liberty and prosperity must remain vigilant and keep fighting to bring sanity and civility back to our politics. 

The Catalyst believes that ideas matter. We aim to stimulate debate on the most important issues of the day, featuring a range of arguments that are constructive, high-minded, and share our core values of freedom, opportunity, accountability, and compassion. To that end, we seek out ideas that may challenge us, and the authors’ views presented here are their own; The Catalyst does not endorse any particular policy, politician, or party.

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