America’s Scary Politics

In the interests of brand differentiation, I’m eager to seize the opportunity to disagree with Ryan Avent who I think badly underrates Edward Luce’s brief new book Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent in two recent blog posts (1, 2).

I’m not without my disagreements with the book, which I think somewhat oversells “industrial policy” and undersells some of the problems with the American past, but which I think does mount a reasonable case for alarm about the medium-term trajectory of the country. The key point here is that the book is not simply a laundry list of present-day policy failures (of which there have always been many) but as hinted at by the title of a political system that’s stopped constructively engaging with policy challenges. Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi have recently been writing about “cognitive democracy”, and the circumstances under which democratic politics are the best available institutional mechanism for tackling certain kinds of problems not just from a perspective of ethical fairness but from a practical information-processing standpoint.

And traditionally, American democracy for all its considerable flaws has truly been a world leader. US politics circa 1875 were a travesty of injustice by contemporary standards, but were very genuinely among the fairest and most egalitarian to be found on the planet.

Today, however, a lot of the world has done a lot of “catch-up” in terms of political institutions and our own institutions, though purged of horrors like large-scale racial disenfranchisement, seem increasingly ill-matched to one another. In particular, American political parties (and especially the Republican Party) have evolved into the sort of well-disciplined ideologically coherent movements dominated by strong policy-demanders that the country has traditionally lacked. Parties of that sort are a perfectly plausible part of the institutional mechanism of a democratic republic, but they’re an extremely poor match for other aspects of the American institutional setup. A key premise of the U.S. political system is that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”, but that requires ambitions more nuanced than to make the incumbent a one-term president. Ugliness, venality, and stupidity are not new to American politics but today’s ideologically cohesive political parties are.

I think Americans should be disturbed rather than comforted by the realization that most Europeans now seem to have gotten an even worse case of poorly designed institutions.

Think seriously about it and you’ll see that it just can’t be that everyone in Frankfurt and Brussels and Berlin and Madrid and Athens is incredibly stupid. Rather, the eurozone has blundered into a set of institutional arrangements that can’t process the issues correctly and the rest of us can just stand and watch the wreckage unfold. Our problems are completely different in origin but similar in some important respects. Luce’s book is the story of a United States that’s suffering from a variety of fairly well-known problems that intellectually seem far from unsolvable. And yet our political system, for some fairly profound reasons, just isn’t working on solving the problems. Instead, it’s leaping toward another terrifying and pointless debt ceiling slowdown even as political punditry remains excessively focused on personality conflicts rather than the structural roots of this dysfunction. It’s time to start thinking.