If politicians these days seem unusually venal or narcissistic, is it because politics as public service is now an impossible task?
The ideal lawmaker, the proverbial Mr. Smith who Goes to Washington, represents not only his voting constituents but also his country. He makes or adjusts laws for the betterment of all. He doesn’t always agree with his fellow lawmakers, but he can always resolve these disagreements with amicable compromise.
It all seems so simple. And yet lawmakers in the real (rather than the ideal) American political system are unable to make headway against even the most obvious national problems, such as the enormous federal budget deficit, the effective inaccessibility of health care to a large fraction of the population, and increasing “structural” (i.e., permanent) unemployment.
Worst of all, America is entering another election campaign, in which its two parties will make their usual noises – about the need to clean up Washington, especially – and yet after all the sound and fury and election-night confetti, the same worrisome issues will remain unresolved.
I don’t think that the reason for this is really a secret: Americans have grown apart, under consumerism, the therapeutic movement and other individualist influences. They tend to think in terms of their own needs rather than the needs of their community or society. This tendency has deepened against a background of more or less continuous large-scale immigration from the rest of the world, making America less of a “melting pot” of assimilated flag-wavers, and more of an uneasy sectarian mix.
So whereas some societies develop a stronger and stronger consensus about how they should be run, the American consensus – in my view – has been disappearing. Just to take one current example: Where are the ingredients of consensus on a question such as same-sex marriage, in a country where various ethnic, religious and special-interest groups all have deeply-held views for or against? From what shared values can these groups fashion a compromise?
Such groups and their beliefs are not going away. They appeal to a basic communitarian need in people. (And by the way, that need is in perpetual conflict with America’s constitutional individualism and libertarianism; so “something has to give.”)
Multi-tribal societies can’t manage democracy for this reason. Their space for disagreement is too large and too fundamental; they lack a sufficient base of shared values on which to make nonviolent compromises. Practically speaking, their easiest path to a democracy-capable culture and a large-scale economy lies through a dictatorial police state (often supplied at the establishment of these artificial societies) that brutally suppresses their natural sectarianism, long enough for nationalism to develop.
In a sense, America has been trending more tribal. But I don’t think that this represents a simple “regression,” or that a police state necessarily looms. America’s experiment in multiculturalism has been an amazing success in terms of technological and economic innovation. Perhaps the sclerosis of her politics is a prelude to something else that’s innovative? A radical political and social devolution, so that people form their own “micro societies” (think: the Amish of Pennsylvania, or the Hasidic Jews of NYC) with common values and purposes? Such movements were much more frequent when America was younger and freer; and even in modern times they have been swift to colonize the still-young and still-largely-free territory known as cyberspace. In the physical, geographic realm of today, much stands in the way of such a social devolution – currency and tax and defense issues, for example – but it appears to be what people really want, and to some extent, with gated communities and so forth, they are already getting. I guess that they will soon take this trend all the way, and as they do, the usual “national” politics will become irrelevant.