The Highest Priority
I want to draw on three views about the American people’s ability to work together and solve our collective problems to argue that the highest priority in America today is to fix not our policies, but rather the gears of our politics.
Idea one is from Abraham Lincoln, who served as the Christ figure in America’s Passion play, sacrificing himself in the last throes of our Civil War to try to preserve the union. He famously closed his first inaugural address by saying:
“We are not enemies, but friends…The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln was not only appealing to our better angels, he was predicting that they would actually prevail. An encouraging view about our ability to self-heal politically.
By contrast, early 1900s journalist H.L. Mencken said: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Mencken, a racist who admired dictatorships over democracies, nonetheless had a keen eye for the harsh realities of American politics. Suffice it to say, he expressed a decidedly dim view of American’s ability to sort out our messes.
The third idea was succinctly written by Paul Krugman: “people usually respond to incentives.” In other words, people don’t just do the “right” thing, they need to be nudged in the right direction with the promise of rewards or the threat of penalty. This is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just realistic, about people’s ability to make positive changes.
When it comes to today’s American politics, there is truth in all of them: optimistic, pessimistic, and realistic. People say they want to hear the voices of our better angels. For example, Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group found in their post-election survey that voters thought by a 20 point margin that Donald Trump’s pre-election rhetoric was about turning Americans “against each other” and wanted the incoming Democratic majority to be “respectful of their political opponents, even when they strongly disagree.”
At the same time, playing to our baser political instincts still seems to work, it least in the sense that it carries mixed consequences. Yes, Trump’s caustic pre-election rhetoric (and indeed, the two years of his presidency that preceded it) played like “The Rains of Castamere” immediately prior to results that were more Red Wedding than Red Wave for the Republicans…but only in the House. In the Senate, there seemed to be little price to pay from the political center. Republicans gained two seats.
Furthermore, the post-election power grabs in Wisconsin and Michigan were undertaken in full view of the public, and heedless of political consequences. And critically, it wasn’t just Republicans who sought anti-democratic advantage – New Jersey Democrats did too. Now, one can argue about whether the Republicans’ Wisconsin and Michigan actions were worse than the Democrats’ in New Jersey (it is fair to note that the Democrats dropped their plan after public outcry), but that’s beside the larger point: Donald Trump and the majorities in those legislatures had little incentive to restrain themselves from massive political excesses.
That takes us back to the truth of the realist view: incentives matter, rules matter, and if we want America to follow the better angels of our nature, we have to help people get there. The Bible (or the Koran for that matter) doesn’t just ask people to be good; it gives us a creation story (or Moses on Mt. Sinai if you prefer) about how people are tempted, fail, and are given strict tenets to follow because they need them in order to tend toward the good. If you read an economics 101 textbook, conservatives like to skip ahead to the magic of free markets and tend to gloss over what enables them — government setting up firm rules and transparency so that people can participate with confidence. If you read the Second Amendment, some people tend to skip past the well-regulated militia and get right to the everyone gets a gun part. Again, the rules matter. The limits matter. They are what makes everything else possible.
So no, no one will go broke underestimating the taste of the American public. But we don’t bet on Americans’ good taste…we bet on Americans’ ability to overcome bad taste. We’re not a great country because we’re made up of superior people, we’re a great country because we’ve got a superior system that allows us to express our best but should protect us from our worst.
At least, it should. Our country has done amazing things. But we’ve also had miserable failures when our systems were inadequate to overcome our bad impulses and baser motivations. We are in such a place now. And there is real reason to worry that our safeguards against failures are getting steadily weaker. The advance of partisan gerrymandering, voter ID laws, court packing and other US Senate institutional dysfunction, the collapse of the Federal Election Commission, and numerous other forms of partisan skulduggery are undercutting the democratic system. Donald Trump is eroding the set of norms and customs that help hold us together, or as presidential historian Douglas Brinkley succinctly put it: “He’s dynamited the institution of the presidency.” And in this age of tribal politics, fountains of dark money in elections, and social media misinformation written by our enemies substituting for public discourse or trust in news organizations, when we need a strong system more than ever, we find every line of defense breached.
Hopeful Democrats are eyeing 2020 and dreaming of holding both chambers of congress, the presidency, and an opportunity to enact an ambitious policy agenda. Their hearts may be in the right place. But if the last quarter century has taught us anything in American politics, even such ascendancy would be fleeting. We could try to enact a bold new policy in health, climate, job-creation, education…all worthwhile, but all would rest on the wobbly edifice of our political system’s ability to consider meaningful ideas and carry them out amid bitter partisan strife manipulated by those whose sole purpose is achieving political power. Our federal government is in its third shutdown in a year. And it’s far from clear that our electoral system can express the actual preferences of voters in a sea of misinformation, barriers, and distortion.
Trying to gain and briefly hold outright power and ram through an agenda is a not a winning or sustainable strategy…for either party. And nothing lasting or of any consequence will be achieved by our government to make the American people better off unless and until we strengthen the gears and wheels of our system of government that form the incentives and limits that hew us toward our better angels: our institutions, rules, norms, and mechanisms of democracy. That should be our highest priority.