Looks like the punditry is catching up to a principle that underpins The Running Iron Report’s worldview: The Imperial Colossus is just too damn big.
Last month the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Americans are losing faith in their system of government. Only one‐fifth of adults surveyed believe democracy is working “very well” in the United States, while two‐thirds say “significant changes” are needed to governmental “design and structure.”
The 2016 election is one explanation for these findings. Something is not right in a country where Donald Trump is able to win the presidency.
But here’s another possibility: What if trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means? With a population of more than 325 million and an enormously complex society, perhaps this country has passed a point where — no matter whom we elect — it risks becoming permanently dissatisfied with legislative and governmental performance.
No perhaps about it. The editors of RIR have long since passed that point of dissatisfaction — and we’re embarked on figuring out how to step outside of the blast radius to the degree that that is possible. We have already noted that trust is the key element in a high‐functioning society, and Gross acknowledges that :
Finally, largeness can take a toll on citizen trust. The presence of a wide variety of social groups and cultures is the primary reason for this. Nearly all scholars who study country size recognize, as Madison did, that large nations are more socially heterogeneous, whether because they represent an amalgamation of different regions, each with its own ethnolinguistic, religious or cultural heritage; or because their economic vitality encourages immigration; or because population size and geographic spread promote the growth of distinctive subcultures; or because they have more differentiated class structures.
It isn’t inevitable that a large amount of social variation would undermine trust. Well‐governed societies like Canada address the issue by stitching diversity and multiculturalism into their national identities. Yet in the absence of cultural and institutional supports, heterogeneity and trust are frequently in tension, as different ways of life give rise to suspicion and animosity. Without at least a veneer of trust among diverse social groups, politics spirals downward.
Riffing off of Gross’ piece, David French at National Review advocates for a return to first principles to roll back the negative effects of our obesity: “To go forward, we must go back. Federalism’s time has come again.”
Well, maybe. French himself inserts the fundamental caveat that leads me to be skeptical that we can stuff the genies of our discontent back into the rum bottle:
Ironically enough, 18th‐century federalism is more compatible with the Information Age than 20th‐century centralization. It is not, however, compatible with the will to power that darkens all too many political hearts.
French’s piece is an interesting read, not least because he does a fine job of encapsulating all of the varied ways in which we have sorted ourselves out into sociopolitical and cultural silos — divided by race, religion, economic status, political orientation and even our taste in TV shows. Because he is a professional pundit writing for a conservative publication, French is obligated to offer at least the semblance of a conservative “solution” to the rolling crisis this division and partisanship signifies. Thus, Federalism. I’m willing to agree that a return to that principle would serve us well — but I have little faith in partisans’ willingness to tend to their own garden and leave each other the hell alone.
And while I don’t question French’s sincerity, I get the sense that his faith ain’t so strong, either:
There are an immense number of partisans who look at the facts of American decentralization and polarization — who examine the reality of our religious, cultural, and political diversity — and decide that the answer to American division is, quite simply, to win, to crush the opposition.
Each side has its theory of ascendancy. For Democrats, demography is destiny. As the nation looks more like California, it will be more like California. For Republicans, geography is destiny. As Democrats cluster in the coasts and pile on top of each other in progressive enclaves, the inexorable power of the Electoral College and the United States Senate will make it increasingly difficult for the Left to dominate American political life. Let them win California by millions of votes. Let them get 99 percent of the Brooklyn vote. Until it can once again win in flyover country, the #Resistance can knit all the caps it wants — but it won’t defeat Donald Trump.
Both of these theories are barely plausible enough to give the permanent partisans hope for permanent triumph. But their will to power conflicts with everyone else’s pursuit of happiness. How much more polarization must we endure before competing factions understand that ultimate victory is elusive, and that far more modest ambitions can secure the prosperity and unity of their own communities?
French (rhetorically, at least) assumes that the players in the competing factions actually might somehow be made to care about securing the prosperity and unity of their own communities. That is a dangerous assumption. The plutocratic insurgency that has hollowed out the economic middle class and thus the American polity cares not a whit about the prosperity or unity of ANY community. Unity is especially dangerous, since if it caught on, unity could actually interfere with the smooth operation of a globalized, monetized economy with no barriers to the flow of capital and goods. Which is, in the end, what it’s all about.
My guess is that we’re going to have to endure a lot more polarization — until the structure collapses of its own weight. Crash and reset. Until that comes, I’ll continue to strive to stay focused on my tribe and their well‐being, avoiding the psychological tarpit of the national “conversation” as much as possible. I will, however, engage fiercely to ward off the “will to power” of busybodies and social engineers — of whatever political, cultural or religious stripe — who, not satisfied with constructing their own way of life, must seek to make over mine into their image.