Before you read my opinion, I’d like to have a quick aside. In this piece I talk a lot about the negative consequences of “heat.” I spend a lot of time in the article criticising the institutions of the US, and thus I worry about contributing to this heat. I have no intention of blaming any single individual or group for the sorry state of US politics. I don’t desire to contribute to this heat. Instead, I hope to provide a dramatic warning and analysis of the ills that face our system. By defining our problems, and knowing how they function, I believe policymakers, civil society, and the US people at large can make sincere and effective reforms to heal and improve our political system.
The US political system is at war with itself. If one can imagine US politics as a body, then it is a person surrounded by a swarm of hungry mosquitos while suffering from a temperature of 104 ℉. Has the US ever been given a clean bill of health? No. But it’s rarely been this sick, both figuratively and—at the time of publication—literally. These pestilences, originating from a host of foreign and domestic streams, are of the body’s own creation. The US has failed to effectively address the heat created by ideological pundits, and is unable to fend off the bloodsucking mosquitos of zero-sum partisanship.
These attacks on the body are only symptoms of corrupted institutions. The US has failed to deal with the heat source that turned on the temperature, and the still waters which gave birth to the mosquitos. A gridlocked duopoly, unsustainable income inequality, unaddressed cultural conflict, perverse media incentives, and unchecked authorities have placed American politics in a bizarre, vulnerable stasis unable to deal with the symptoms these same problems caused.
I am an angry, self-righteous pragmatist watching as the unsustainable, pained body of American politics determinedly walks towards its doom. The ropes holding us above the pits of political hell are old and weary. I can even see how fanatically we cut at them, mistakenly believing that it’s the only way. How did we get here?
While the US is ruled by a duopoly of Republicans and Democrats, there are currently three main factions who exert the most influence on American political life. This troika, described broadly, are the reactionary conservatives, or Reocons, on the right, and the Social liberals and Progressive Populists on the left.
The Reocons, or at least their philosophy, almost completely controls the Republican party. Boosted by the Tea Party and President Donald Trump, they have mostly overthrown the classical liberals that once lead the party. Reocons have reacted to the liberal zeitgeist of the post-Cold War era by voting for candidates who support overturning as much legislation construed to be Obama-made as possible, are strong nationalists, and view the social policies advocated by the left as an Orwellian abomination.
The Democrats are divided between the center left Social Liberals and the far left Progressive Populists. The Social Liberals are the most moderate of the three factions. They believe in a well-regulated market, social reform, fiscal prudence, and globalism. They are the Clinton’s and Obama’s of American politics. While I will argue that they have lost their pragmatism, they advertise themselves as the pragmatists, willing to get the job done at the end of the day.
Finally, the Progressive populists represent a modernized strain of populism evoking politicians such as William Jennings Bryan. They straddle the line between social democracy and democratic socialism. They vote for candidates who advocate for a major overhaul of the US political and economic landscape, who critique American capitalism and imperialism, and who believe in radical climate and social reform. The Progressive populists spurn the elitist aura surrounding the centrists in power and place doubt in the hyper-individualistic pretensions of American society.
These factions have been generalized, and they don’t represent all, or even most Americans. However, in the current political context, they are the factions that dominate Capitol Hill. Occasionally, each faction will tactically ally themselves with another faction, but these agreements are short-term. The only loose strategic alliance is between the Progressive Populists and Social Liberals because they’re underneath the same party, but it’s a marriage of political necessity over genuine affection.
The political gameboards of the past have been reshaped as the three factions are now engaged in a tense game of Risk. All three players eye each other like vultures, prefer short-term alliances, are highly suspicious of each other, and have set the win conditions to a total or near complete destruction of all their opposition. To achieve complete victory, they need heat. It’s this heat that is burning our political system.
Whether they are malicious or sincere, many politicians have decided that to impose their agenda they had to raise the heat in the room to force their competition into submission. While they enter the ring knowing that they may also get burnt, they believe that this sacrifice is necessary to promote their long-term goals and vision. This is the foundational political noise that the media picks up on. Once the media captures this conflict, it amplifies it to sensational levels to create compelling and clashing narratives which draw more attention and money. This amplified noise is then normalized into the political system, and the media once more picks up on the noise and amplifies it. The end result is the current political situation, where the positive feedback loop between the media and politicians has gone on for so long it has created a deafening noise of extremism.
Focusing first on the media, its penchant for sensationalism and divisive punditry is the result of perverse economic incentives and relaxed cultural norms that have monetized conflict over truth-seeking. There are multiple proposed theories as to why the media went from Cronkite and Murrow to Hannity and Maddow. Maybe it was the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, maybe it was the rise of radio and the internet opening up commentary to more people, or maybe it was the American public that enthusiastically approved the pundits over the stoic news casters. Whatever the case, the face of non-traditional news are Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro, Trevor Noah, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Cenk Uyghur, David Pakman, and Candace Owens, all individuals whose programs delve heavily into destroying or mocking their opposition.
The traditional media is also a hotbed of fiery hosts and combative news segments. In the first quarter of 2020, eight of the ten of the most watched news shows were hosted by objectively opinionated pundits.
The most popular of any of the media personalities have aligned themselves with three major factions, and use their pulpit to condemn their wicked opponents and inspire righteous anger among their supporters. The problem is, how do you stop this anger from going amok? The media doesn’t really have an answer. When Chris Matthews makes comparisons between Bernie supporters and Nazis, how do you tamper that anger? When Ben Shapiro "DESTROYS" a college leftist, how do you find compromise? When the political system is burning, nobody wants to be the first to let go and suffer second-degree burns in vain. All these vicious accusations and videos made by pundits of the three factions only serves to add wood to the fire. They stab at the cohesion of the US. The heat has shoved the knife deeper into our social disunity and we have fallen apart.
Politicians have always been an insane bunch. However, egged on by a perverted media and a hyper loyal base, politicians have aligned themselves with radical ideologies and have become zero-sum partisans. Increasingly all three of the factions are or have engaged in purity purges, forcing their supporters to follow the faction or be branded a traitor.
The Jeff Flake’s, John Kasich’s, and Mitt Romney’s have been booted out of the Republican discourse for their disagreements with Reocons. The Progressive Populists shun detractors of their ideology as classist, heartless, or racist. And the Social Liberals have taken in political refugees from the other factions and built off their elitist roots to form their own static faction. They mock their left counterparts as socialists living in a fantasy and the Reocons as “deplorables.”
The fixed nature of America’s current politics creates more heat and may provide an explanation for the abnormal steadiness of Donald Trump’s approval rating. As the lines separating America’s political camps have solidified, they have come into greater conflict. Instead of factional blobs melding, America’s factional phalanxes are battling it out through extreme rhetoric, and on rare but disheartening occasions, in person. While they clash, it doesn’t result in any victory, creating more heat from the political friction. This heat raises the stakes, and makes many unwilling to budge.
This tense stalemate may explain Trump’s polling numbers. Analyzing historic presidential approval ratings, there is a sense of great fluidity as people change their opinions about the president. Truman’s approval rating shifts from 87 to 33 percent in his first term. Carter’s reaches 75 percent, drops to 29, rises to 56, and ends at 34 percent. George W. Bush’s soars to 87 and then steadily falls to 29 percent. Trump’s approval rating has hit a low of 35 and reached a high of 49 percent amid an administration that has overseen assumed popularity boons (a thriving economy before COVID-19) and busts (controversial statements, impeachment).
This lack of significant movement could be indicative of the hard borders set in place between the factions, and the heat surrounding them that makes the cost of abandoning the faction too high. Instead of changing their opinion, Americans are doubling down on their beliefs, a factor that as mentioned above creates further conflict and heat, and contributes to the weird steadiness of Trump’s approval ratings.
American politics have become a toxic brew of zero-sum battles that haven’t existed near this level in several decades. Instead of facing existential threats and challenges to the US, the political factions have decided to hunker down in their ideological trenches, and hope that their opponents get killed by the heat or humiliatingly surrender. Reform needs to happen, and the first step required to change the system is a new frame of reference.
While I would not like to recommend specific policy prescriptions to cure us of our woes, I believe that a massive increase in pragmatism and pragmatic thinking is required to make productive reform. Our society and its institutions require new policies informed by research, trained experts, reason, and data to manage the flaws in the system. Adopting a pragmatic mindset can allow for greater tolerance of thought and create larger avenues for reform that result in a net increase in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To preempt a possible critique, I’m not arguing for a centrist government. While centrism and pragmatism agree on many issues, there may be a situation when radical action is required. If there is strong evidence indicating that a radical action is likely to promote growth and prevent regression, then that action should take place. Pragmatism doesn’t lean left, right, or center, but focuses on taking informed actions that gives America’s society and institutions an escape from their hellish predicament.
The US political system is broken for multiple reasons. It’s currently being ruled by the three factions, the Progressive Populists and the Social Liberals are loosely allied under the banner of the Democratic party but all three factions eye each other like wary hawks. The leaderships of these factions have been hijacked by ideologues more intent on pandering to their base and building consensus. One prominent reason for this is a media intent on promoting an us vs. them dynamic to create conflict and increase viewership which increases revenue. This has radicalized the citizenry to support their factions zero-sum strategy. All these trends are interrelated, often form vicious positive feedback loops, and create more “heat.” This heat raises the stakes of governing, making it harder to build consensus and stalling much needed reform.
The political factions have decided to play a deadly game in the belief that if they didn’t play, they’d lose. America needs the political system to play a game isn’t a terrible hybrid of Risk and Bloody Knuckles. Pragmatism can be a guiding light towards a more inclusive, and unified path forward.
David Leshchiner is a first-year International Relations major in the School of International Service. He is an Editor for Domestic Affairs for the Agora.
Image courtesy Universal Pictures, Creative Commons