A Paradox in American Politics and Society
I have been reading much more on domestic structural politics these days, and in many ways, things are looking grim. Yet every problem brings with it countless opportunities, and in many more ways, the future of America looks to be brighter than ever before, should the American people rise up to the challenge.
But there is one particular set of challenges which boggles my mind, appearing resolutely unsolvable. Two trends are speeding up in American political and social life, and two old ways of life are ending. It appears as though they may be joined at the hip; but the supposed policy solutions for them are quite contradictory, and it seems that nothing but the greatest amount of political creativity could bring them to workable solutions.
First, the old blue social model is breaking down and decaying. In a nutshell, this is a hybrid of what conservatives would call “Big Government” and what liberals would call “Big Business:” that sacred bond between regulatory agencies and government, and monopolistic national corporations, that for decades since the Great Depression has ensured the relative stability and tranquility of American life. Now of course, there have been tumultuous times this century, most famously in the late 1960s; but for the most part, the combination of ever-increasing wages and perpetually secure jobs, and generous entitlements and social safety net countermeasures, kept Americans enjoying a reasonably high standard of living for the better part of the Twentieth Century.
Now that model appears more at risk than ever before. Obamacare and the Stimulus Package, by some measures, represented the blue model’s dying furthest reaches, and prompted its dying gasps. For quite some time now it has been obvious that American demography cannot sustain the current design of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Most Americans reading this essay will not receive benefits from more than one of the above-listed programs, if that. Subsidized corporations and institutions have failed and failed again- witness the car companies of Detroit and the banks which fell in 2008- and while the sluggish titans of the last century fade into irrelevance, sustained only by public support, new, entrepreneurial upstarts competing with dozens of others are driving the advancement of civilization. The trend is clear- an almost libertarian spirit overtakes American politics as social programs shrink and private business booms, and corresponding political movements like the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party attain power they’d never known before. The old system’s fundamentals will be kept, but its spirit will die.
Yet simultaneously, the income divide and wealth gap are strung further apart than ever before, and rising levels of inequality threaten the institutions of our republic. It is not mere rhetoric to lament the influence of big money upon politics; ever since the reforms against corrupt political bosses made in the 1960s and 1970s, the time-old tradition of patronage has been subverted in favor of the ultimately more fair system of campaign fundraising- a fairness which has resulted in the victory in politics of consistently the most ideological candidates, who have in turn granted favors and concessions to those elites whose funds put them in office. The quality of statecraft has receded as the stain of money blotted out entirely the smear of favor.
But it is not only in high politics (and correspondingly, policymaking) that the ascendency of the elite is felt. For politics and policymaking tend to exert influences upon every aspect of society, from education systems to banking trends to zoning to foreign investment to civil rights, and there are those who dedicate themselves (wrongheadedly in my opinion) to seeking out all the invisible strings implicating the ultra-rich in the degradation of the environment, the erosion of civil liberties, the contamination of justice, and any number of other important and emotional issues. With these, I am not particularly concerned. What worries me is the increasing clarity that American politics grows more tumultuous, less predictable and homogenous; it is in periods of great tumult that new eras are forged, and with one faction of Americans demanding the heads of the rich, another singing the praises of elitism, the prospects are not good for the old middle-class lifestyle in which we all grew up. The problem is not so much that some Americans have very much and is getting more, while a great majority have less and are losing some. This is a basic fact of life. Rather, the problem lies in the fact that, as Madison counseled, these two kinds of factions are ever at arms against each other, to the detriment of the state and society as a whole.
The ensuing chaos must be managed so that class warfare does not spiral out of control. And it is quite clear how governments have, in the past, managed tensions between declining middle classes and decadent elites- through government interventions which some might call social engineering.
What a paradox, then! Let’s recap: On the one hand, an old way of doing things- the blue model- is ending, and the forces of innovation are rising to fill the gap. On the other hand, one of the results of that old way of doing things- the middle class- is also declining and being replaced by an incredible polarization of wealth, a problem which the government is best fit to remedy. Government activism must shrink to allow natural forces to do their work; government action must grow to prevent natural forces from upsetting the system. What madness hath Man wrought!
Truth be told, I have no idea how this paradox might be resolved. It will take a generation in office with greater political creativity than we have seen in any since the beginning of the Cold War to lay down a sufficient domestic strategy to overcome these challenges.
This is an example of our need to transcend bipolarity in politics and establish another bipartisan coalition or single-party dominance upon principles of vigorous, efficient government in pursuit of economic growth and physical security. America has seen her greatest eras of expansion under such governments, and the problems presently facing the republic would seem best resolved in that time-tried method.
Perhaps I ought not be so shocked that a paradox is evident here. For paradoxes and contradictions can, at times, be the most certain truths. The Paradox of Balance and Progress comes to mind; it is a truism that all things must be in their proper places and proper amounts, balanced each against all others and against itself, for the universe to know harmony; yet it is equally a truism that time wears down all things, including all orders, and that this process of continuous change is at work upon all things and against all things. Thus balance is eternally upset by progress, while progress is eternally contained by balance. These forces- forward and to the sides- counteract each other obviously, yet both exist in each other’s universe, in fullest harmony.
Just as the master priest- the prudent statesman- the wise individual- must invariably harmonize these opposing forces in his life and work in order to maximize success, so the statesmen of the upcoming generation must work with a reforming society with less a need for the institutions of the blue model, and a shrinking government, yet a polarizingly unequal society with a need for greater management and regulation in an uncertain era. This is one of many great dilemmas they will have to resolve, as they lead our country into its next exciting chapter as a nation.