I’m not in a good place as an American right now. And I suspect many of you aren’t either. Having just completed my fourth coast-to-coast drive since August, I’ve had a lot of time to think. I mean, have you ever driven I-80 across Wyoming? What I’ve deduced is that the only thing holding the United States together is… nostalgia.
Denial Isn’t A River Anywhere
For the last few decades, I’ve been in denial about how bad things were getting. I cautioned doomsayers constantly. “Sure, things are acrimonious. But remember the Alien and Sedition Acts? We may hate our political opponents, but at least we aren’t jailing them.” Call this my own nostalgia for worse political times.
I was, however, sadly self-deluded. My outlook was bounded by the simplistic faith in American goodness I inherited from children-of-the-Great-Depression and Greatest Generation parents. One of them died 32 years ago; one just turned 93. I’ll leave it to you to decide who was luckier.
It’s true that I didn’t see this coming. That although listing badly, I believed the American ship of state would inevitably right itself again. That we already had our Civil War, so we must be all good.
If I owe Donald Trump any thanks, it’s for disabusing me of my Pollyanna-ish nostalgic belief in American political exceptionalism. We just aren’t, at least not anymore. I wonder if we ever really were?
It Pains Me Greatly
Please don’t think I’m thrilled by my sudden epiphany, being on the road to Kearney, Nebraska, rather than to Damascus. But like St. Paul, I’m inclined to writing epistles. I’m just not as ecstatic about my forced conversion as he was.
I’m American through and through, after all. My mother’s ancestors came over in 1642. The men of my family have fought every one of America’s wars, back to the Revolution. I spent 20 years in Air Force blue, adding my service in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan to the family escutcheon. My wife’s grandparents fled oppression in Poland to build a better life here. My kids and grandkids are the embodiment of the next chapters of the American Epoch.
And we’ve done OK as a family. Granddad went from a 15-year-old hobo riding the rails to a successful business owner when he passed 50 years later. My siblings and I were the first generation of Dad’s family to graduate from college. I went from the same Catholic grade school Grandma attended all the way to Harvard Law School.
We’re exactly the family all American politicians love to talk about. We snatched a slice of American Dream and have clung to it for several generations. So I don’t abandon hope lightly of saving the United States as it’s currently constituted.
It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid
So what are the sources of my newfound pessimism? They can be reduced to three.
First, most of us missed something fundamental about a large number of our countrymen and women since about the time of Nixon. With apologies to the eminent political jiujitsu master, James Carville, it’s not just the economy, stupid.
Like many other educated Americans, all of my book learnin’ led me to believe people are inherently rational actors. I mean this in the economist’s sense. Most people make rational choices that maximize their well-being most of the time. In political science terms, people vote their economic self-interest above all else.
Well, that’s just not correct anymore, if it ever truly was. One of the biggest “Ah ha!” moments I’ve had in the last 20 years was reading a quote from the son-in-law of über-segregationist, former Alabama governor and Presidential candidate, George Wallace.
A political reporter asked Son-In-Law why working-class White Southerners consistently voted Republican against their manifest economic self-interest. His remarkable reply was, “Because they’d rather poor than not proud.”
Whoa. We can debate just what kind of proud they want to be, but that’s a profound insight. Particularly with the rise of Trump, we’ve seen this observation play out across swathes of the American electorate.
The Lost Common Ground
The problem is that economic issues are mostly fact-based, measurable and quantifiable. This is how the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office earns their bread and butter, after all. Although figures and statistics can be massaged and glossed and repackaged, there’s a chewy center of accepted facts.
But the battleground of American politics has shifted away from economic issues. What Ronald Reagan added to the toxic mix was an alliance with conservative Evangelical Christians. In exchange for their sizable block of votes, the Republican Party accepted the apocalyptic worldview of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Bob Jones. Out with the core of accepted facts, in with Biblical exegesis to answer anything and everything. And in with the endless “culture wars” of recent decades.
As we’ve seen, the Religious Right, particularly in state legislatures, gives the most conservative sharia-loving Muslims stiff competition for intolerance. We’ve lost a common nucleus of facts as one of our two major political parties has become a peculiarly theocratic and anti-science assemblage. It’s incredibly difficult to strike bargains or make compromises with people who believe their causes are divinely sanctioned. All the political nostalgia we can muster for some bipartisan golden age won’t change this.
The Wheels Are Coming Off
The second cause of my pessimism is structural. Our Constitution is creaking and cracking under the strains of political polarization. It wasn’t designed for a polity that was devoid of consensus about even the most basic elements of a healthy democracy.
The problems run long and deep. We missed the chance to tear out the counter-majoritarian aspects of our constitutional structures after the Civil War, when such a root-and-branch reformation was uniquely possible. Had Abraham Lincoln survived to oversee Reconstruction, things may have turned out differently. Instead, the overrepresentation of (former) slave states that were purposefully baked into the Constitution to achieve ratification remain.
The list of these counter-majoritarian elements is familiar enough. The Electoral College, two Senators per state, allowing states to draw arbitrary Congressional boundaries, and supermajority voting requirements in Congress for everything from impeachment to amendments.
Counter-majoritarianism in our political structure has been exacerbated by the inexorable movement of population from rural to urban over the past 100 years. What we’ve inherited is a Senate stacked to better represent sagebrush than citizens. Also, an Electoral College that votes as much by empty acreage as by population.
Regrettably, there’s zero chance amendments to deal with these inequities will ever pass Congress, let alone the legislatures of 38 states.
Self-Sorting Into Deadlock
Finally, demographers note that for decades Americans have been increasingly inclined to self-sorting. This used to be along racial lines—moving to suburbs kept White by mortgage redlining and restrictive covenants. However, over the last forty years, White Americans have increasingly sorted along political-ideological lines. Immigrants have followed this trend, particularly the Latinx population.
So Red States have gotten redder and Blue States have gotten bluer. Combined with blatant gerrymandering using sophisticated statistical tools, the number of safe seats in the House of Representatives now exceeds 90%. Even with Congress’s approval rating threatening to reach single digits, precious few members are at risk of losing the next election.
This Great Sorting means a majority of Americans are surrounded by people pretty much just like them, peering over the battlements of their state and media borders. The Other Americans they vaguely discern on the other side appear an increasingly alien race.
It’s Time To Say It Out Loud
These are the sources of my pessimistic discontent. There’s really nothing substantive left holding together the Union, other than a hazy nostalgia for a time when we pulled together against a common foe. A time when Nazis were the bad guys beyond our borders, not a constituency within them.
I was one of those who swore to emigrate if Trump won reelection. Even kept the detailed immigration rules for three countries on my Mac desktop. I was serious, but it was an oath taken while enraged. And we have two grandkids from whom we’d be that much farther away. My wife breathed an audible sigh of relief when Biden won. I might have breathed a quiet one, too.
Funny thing happened this morning. Kay-Kay and I were talking, admirably calm four months into the Biden Administration and a double-Democratic majority in Congress. We both said out loud that perhaps we still should emigrate. Things are just too broken and we don’t want to be a part of the mess anymore. Our fading nostalgia for the America of our parents is no longer enough.
Now prove me wrong. Please.