Today, the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson offers a bleak assessment of the speed at which America’s fragile social compact is fraying. Gerson proffers that, to the extent anything unites right and left, it is a passionate loathing for America’s perceived shortcomings.
The activist left, he writes, sees the nation as a virtually irredeemable matrix of oppressive power structures and myths designed to keep the oppressed from recognizing their hopeless conditions. For the right, the country is “ruined by secularism and moral relativism.”
Unmentioned in Gerson’s column, however, is anything having to do with the structure of American government. He deals with race, technology, social alienation, and individualism, but the word “Constitution” does not appear in the piece. Governmental policy prescriptions of any kind are peripheral to the all-consuming conflicts he inventories. The kind of separatist, ethnographic language that would typify conflicts like these in other nations is utterly absent from respectable American political discourse.
Gerson has hit on exactly why politically active Americans (as opposed to those who shrewdly ignore the fractious day-to-day on cable news) are at one another’s throats. He has also, though, identified why this factionalism is shallower than it appears. None of it is really about government.
In identifying two divergent “trends,” Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro incisively identifies the extent to which America’s political dialogue has become divorced from actual politics:
One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.
Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.
Voters are responding to social trends—both the piddling and unfathomably complex—but nothing that the U.S. government can or should do anything to address. Barro notes that some prominent Democratic elected officials are trying to make public policy relevant again and to set benchmarks they can actually meet. The dirty secret, however, is that neither activist voters nor the arbiters of cultural-political discourse are interested in recoupling politics and public policy. That’s a failed business model.
Politics and public policy have become divorced in the public mind, in part, because the best public policy is boring. Legislation that survives the scrutiny of the courts is circumspect. A dispassionate analysis of disparate impacts vis-à-vis a proposed law doesn’t pique general interest, and it doesn’t provide revenue-starved media outlets with the eyeballs they so desperately need. Race in particular, and identity, more broadly, are the lens through which media and political activists alike have chosen to whip their respective audiences into a pitch. The barrier to entry into a “political” discussion centered on issues of race is low enough for anyone to clear. In a numbers game, the upside is clearly larger when policy is translated into identity and culture. This approach allows for broader participation in political discourse, even if that discourse is dumbed down considerably in the process.
Even on matters where the federal government does have authority, American expectations are not aligned with realizable objectives. The most recent and clarifying example of this phenomenon has been the federal government’s approach to disaster relief on the island of Puerto Rico following two terrible hurricanes. Twenty days after the last of those storms made landfall, 84 percent of islanders are without power. Thirty-six percent have no potable water in their homes. Nearly half the island’s 3 million plus people have no phone service, and 44 percent of Puerto Rico’s banks remain closed. Given the president’s dismissive attitude toward the crisis (fixating on the island’s public debt, calling his critics there “ingrates,” and initially refusing to waive a protectionist law hindering relief efforts citing the objections of the “shipping industry”), it’s easy to frame this sluggish relief effort as a matter of race. A predictably vast subset of the politico-entertainment class has done just that.
Even the mainstream press has latched on to the simplistic to explain the complex. At the end of Monday’s press conference by FEMA chief Brock Long, he noted that political divisions and no unity of purpose among island residents are hindering the relief process. This aside made headlines, but the main reason Long cited for a slow relief process—the utter collapse of communications infrastructure on an island where telecommunications systems were already atrophied—was relegated to lesser paragraphs.
According to Puerto Rico’s government, the disaster relief hurdles it set for itself in terms of restoring water, power, housing, electricity, transportation, and public health have all been met. Life is far from normal, hardship remains, and some municipalities are still without the supplies waiting at island transport hubs. But that is a discussion about logistics, infrastructure, bureaucratic and procedural standards, and political corruption (both on the mainland and most certainly on the island). That requires background, and background requires time—precious time that broadcast and print outlets cannot afford to lose. Race and culture are easy.
Josh Barro suggested that it should be policymakers’ mission to make politics about government again. I would add that a consequence of that mission’s success would be to make politics boring again. It would help Americans to have a realistic understanding of governmental functions in a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics. It would also allow the press to neutralize the efforts of politicians to incite controversies that exacerbate these tensions. In the process, however, that approach would murder a lucrative industry that has turned societal divisiveness into a sport.
On the basic structure of their government and the conduct of public affairs by its civil servants as outlined in the Constitution, Americans might find more common ground than they’d suspect. Unfortunately, we’re too busy arguing over the racism in football.