How did we get here?

Whether you believe that Trump incited this violence or was just defending himself against an onslaught of virulent protesters, it’s clear that something isn’t right here. But as much as President Trump is the object of these often-violent disagreements, it’s easy to feel like the consternation surrounding his presidency is really a symptom of a much deeper and more systemic disease.

And there is plenty of evidence to back up this intuition. Despite being the richest country on earth, the life expectancy rate in the U.S. is falling, trust in our civil society (and government) is plummeting, divorce rates are rising, Americans are reporting lower levels of happiness, obesity and opiod use are on the rise, the economy doesn’t seem to be working for the average American, and we are suffering from what Arthur C. Brooks eloquently describes as an “epidemic of lonliness.” These problems have been identified by researchers and pundits on all sides of the political spectrum. There’s no doubt that these problems are all very real. One might be forgiven for thinking that our two opposing ideological frameworks in the United States share less and less common ground as time goes by.

Many are left feeling like things are spinning irretrievably out of control. We have been brought up in awe of the achievements of our parents and grandparents, the challenges they were able to overcome, the changes they wrought. One thinks of Depression, World War, economic success, civil rights and anti-war movements of the 20th century.

But then things changed. We seem to have taken a wrong turn somewhere in the last 20 years: 9/11, two long wars, recession, inequality, and the rise of head-spinningly quick technological advancement that seems to be fundamentally changing every aspect of our lives.

Our golden-era biases scream at us that we’ve come from somewhere great and we’re headed down the wrong path. What happened to that sense of community, to our civic institutions that supported us since our founding? What happened to those good-paying jobs and that shared sense of American-ness that brought us through the challenges of the 20th Century?

In one way or another, we all miss these things. Liberals applaud the economic communitarianism of the New Deal and the Great Society, while simultaneously yearning to continue the individualist tendencies of the feminist or gay rights movements. Conservatives, on the other hand, miss the patriotic communitarianism that the shared experience of World War II and our once-dominant civil society fostered, while on the other hand arguing for an expansion of Reagan-era economic liberty.

What we seem to have ended up with is a system where high levels of economic and individual liberty have combined with new and novel forms of communitarianism to create a system of tribalist “identity politics” where nobody gets what they want. The result is that voters reach out for more ideological problem-solvers willing to simply cut whatever Gordian knot they think constrains them. The problem is that in doing so, they weaken the institutions that form the bedrock of our republican democracy. They do this by finding ways to bypass the checks and balances our founding fathers implemented to counteract exactly this kind of righteous ambition. In the end public trust in our institutions suffers as these institutions become more and more incapable of solving the problems we face, which in turn leads to a further graveyard spiral of frustration and polarization. Thus we end up with fights at Trump rallies (and Bernie rallies, too). But more importantly, we end up with a government in which political gamesmanship has effectively blocked the government’s ability to govern. As if to illustrate this point, a recent Gallup poll found that by far the biggest problem most Americans see facing our country is “the government/poor leadership.” The difficulties of representative democracy have become the single greatest problem out country is facing. This is not good.

Is there a pathway out of this quagmire?

For starters, there is a lot of evidence that Americans broadly agree on a set of policy stances that could move the country forward. There is evidence of agreement on both sides of the aisle on issues like infrastructure spending and the deleterious effects of single-parent households. Crucially, there is also agreement (among scholars, at least) that keeping American civil society strong will lead to better outcomes in many areas of policy concern (health, jobs, happiness, federal debt, even the environment).

There are also several surprising examples of bipartisan cooperation at the federal level. The prison reform bill that President Trump recently signed into law is a good example. Another is the Murray/Ryan teamwork that resulted in opening up access to data from more government agencies for policy researchers, not to mention their herculean efforts at bipartisan budgets in the recent past.

But there are many grave difficulties that remain. The peculiarities of living in the technologically advanced age that we inhabit present both dangers and opportunities for Americans. On the one hand, the marketplace of ideas is fully open to anyone who cares to access Google Search. Yet, at the same time, we must resist the temptation to seek out only sources of information with which we agree. Thus, we must challenge ourselves to engage with people on the “other side” in meaningful ways, both digitally and personally.

The above video notwithstanding, there is evidence that interpersonal contact often leads to a greater willingness to compromise. Happily, there are a plethora of organizations that are working to foster this type of contact. However, the onus ultimately rests on the individual to live the type of life that will not only result in his or her own flourishing, but also lead to a stronger society. The more we learn, the more we realize that what our society needs is not ambitious people ready to head to Washington or New York to “drain the swamp” or “starve the beast.” Instead, what’s needed is people ready to cross the street to engage with neighbors or volunteer with organizations that will strengthen the community bonds that ultimately make America what it is.

This blog is partly meant to reinforce the idea that despite the rancor and consistent stream of negative news coverage we see on a daily basis, things aren’t so bad after all. But I believe that the unprecedented freedoms that we enjoy as Americans also come with great responsibilities. I believe that the onus is on the individual to spend time thinking deeply about the issues that face our country and to engage honestly with others who disagree. We must read and think about how best to make the country work, how to reinforce the strength of the institutions that undergird our society. As can be imagined, I do not think that insisting on getting your way on policy is a good way to achieve this. Meaningful and thoughtful compromise must be the way forward; zero-sum approaches are the path to ruin. That’s what reading books on political policy and philosophy leads to. And this is what I humbly offer to you, my reader.

But the caveat here is that your ideas must be brought into the broader community. Not only through social media or engagement with other like-minded people, but with people of diverse backgrounds or ideological make-ups. This approach challenges us to be good listeners and put forth the best versions of our selections from the marketplace of ideas. And it provides a good opportunity to discover when we’ve missed the mark.

I leave you with this video that illustrates exactly what I’m talking about. Please watch and share.

A final note: please do not hesitate to read a few articles and leave a thoughtful comment on what you see here at political book review. Much gratitude to you for taking the time to visit.

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