Polarized politics is a formula for public failure, a downward spiral of distrust and greater paralysis. Pulling out of this spiral is difficult because polarization is good business for politicians and pundits. Political coffers fill up with contributions from people who loathe the other side. President Trump has a unique genius for sowing division — playing to people’s fears and attacking the weaknesses of his opponents. Social media fans the flames of the latest outrage.
Some think the cure to polarization is more moderate politicians. By fixing electoral machinery that appears to favor extremists, such as gerrymandering and restricted primaries, reformers hope to return to the happy days when leaders from both parties could sit down and work things out. They long for Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Moderation is just happy talk, however, without a new vision of how to govern better. How would moderate leaders fix schools, or reduce health care costs, or issue permits within a year’s time instead of a decade? None of the candidates in the 2020 presidential election offers a cure to the alienation that Americans feel towards Washington.
Washington, meanwhile, plows forward, a giant bureaucratic state crammed with red tape and obsolete programs. Democracy has degenerated into a kind of legal perpetual-motion machine, taking upwards of a decade to approve vital infrastructure projects. Bureaucracy is everywhere. According to the World Bank, the U.S. ranks 53rd in ease of starting a business. Practical choices throughout society are stymied by overbearing law — whether maintaining order in the classroom, being candid with an employee, or letting children walk to school alone. Is your paperwork in order?
Reformers have confused cause and effect: Paralyzed government, not polarization, is the original sin of modern government. Bureaucratic densification since the 1970s has made government beyond human control. Government’s inability to respond to public needs is the chicken that laid the egg of polarized politics. The inability of Americans to roll up their sleeves and fix things leads inexorably to extremism. Political leaders who can’t get things done compete instead by pointing fingers and screaming louder.
Populism thrives on fear and anxiety. A collective sense of powerlessness spawns the instinct to vilify “the other.” Government is toothless to deal with dislocations of global commerce, new technology and waves of immigrants. Self-reliance is stymied by faceless bureaucracy. Unresponsive government prompts anxious citizens to embrace populist solutions.
In 1939, the organizational expert Peter Drucker wrote that fascism had taken root because the establishment had offered “no new order” to counteract the dislocation of the Great Depression. But fascism was doomed to fail, Drucker argued, because its popularity was based on attacking scapegoats, not a positive governing vision. The solution to a destabilized society in which people feel powerless, Drucker argued, must be “built upon a concept of the nature of man and of his function and place in society.” People must be able to help themselves and their society.
The way out of America’s downward spiral is not moderation but a radical spring-cleaning of government to re-empower Americans at every level of responsibility. Liberating people to act, not top-down solutions, is the cure to paralysis.
The only cure for alienation is ownership. This requires not wholesale de-regulation, but rebooting government with simpler, open frameworks that set goals and governing principles. Simpler codes will allow Americans to understand what is expected of them and afford them flexibility to get there in their own ways. Only then will officials and citizens have the freedom to make sense of daily choices.
Action, not moderation, is the salve for polarization. Conventional wisdom is that letting individuals use their judgment will exacerbate social conflict. Evidence suggests the opposite: A study in Britain found that professionals with opposed ideological views generally arrive at similar solutions when confronting concrete problems. Studies of American judges and of German bank regulators also found remarkable consistency.
Local communities must be able to run schools in their own ways. Health care providers must be accountable for overall quality, not to compliance police playing “gotcha.” Officials must be empowered to set up and give permits in “one-stop shops.” Governors must have freedom to try new ways to manage unemployment relief and other public services. Citizens must have someone to call, and to blame, when things aren’t working.
Reviving human responsibility does not solve societal challenges such as income stagnation, climate change, or immigration. But it reinvigorates a culture of practical action that is the antidote to corrosive polarization. Empowering people to be practical in their daily challenges will likely rub off in their political views. Polarization will fade away when Americans, waking up each morning, feel that both they and their officials in Washington can make a difference again.
Philip K. Howard is chair of Common Good and author of the new book Try Common Sense (W.W. Norton, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @PhilipKHoward. He’s also a friend and occasional colleague of New England Diary editor Robert Whitcomb. This piece first ran in The Hill.
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