American politics can be conceptualized through two questions. The first is “Who gets what?” and the second is “Who are we?” Before and during the Cold War, the specter of fascism and then communism kept Americans aligned on fundamental questions of who we are. From the New Deal to the peak of the Cold War in the 1970s, questions of who we are were far less prominent than questions of who gets what. As Lee Drutman shows, the dividing line of politics was principally over economic issues. An unsteady class peace that took shape as “democratic pluralism”—the representation of workers throughout many realms of society—reigned. During this period unions were widely subscribed (35 percent in 1954) and served as a civic and associational pillar in American life.
However, once the Cold War peaked, the dividing line in contemporary America became increasingly cultural, and the primary question in America shifted to “Who are we?” As the fear of foreign and existential threats retreated, so too did a sense of common identity and purpose. Without something to compare, and unite, ourselves against, we increasingly lost a broader sense of shared identity and fragmented internally. At the same time, because the economic situation for the average person was stable or improving, the impetus to maintain focus over economic resource distribution, or who gets what, naturally diminished. These larger geopolitical and macro-level developments set the stage for the resurgence of cultural conflict.
Nationwide cultural conflict was ignited in the 1960s by struggles for civil rights and debates around the wisdom and morality of the Vietnam War. It would, however, take more than a generation, and the concomitant rise of several additional systemic issues, for the transition from economic to cultural issues to fully manifest in the political arena. But since the 1960s, the locus of the cultural debate—the “Who are we?” questions—has come to revolve around “a combination of open borders globalism, anti-nationalism, and radical race- and gender-based identity politics” issues.1
Economic inequality and political decay
In addition to shifting geopolitical realities, growing economic instability and political sclerosis in America facilitated this transition and ensured that the cultural conflagration that began in the ’60s would ultimately erupt into a national fire. Since the 1950s, economic inequality has ballooned. Whether judged by wealth or income, things are as unequal as they have ever been. Some academic studies have looked at the skills gap—the divergent returns accruing to those with a four-year education and those without. Others have looked at the increasing returns to capital over and above wage labor.2 Still others have looked at corporate offshoring, labor arbitrage, and employment of cheap immigrants.3
However, as Michael Lind has pointed out, a common feature undergirds these developments: the overall diminishing power of the working class in decision-making. From corporate board rooms to government policy making, the interests of median American workers (slightly more than a high school diploma and an income level around $40,000) have rarely been front-of-mind since the 1970s. The trends rose slowly, but with 50 years of historical data, the consequences of median Americans’ diminishing power have become clear: stagnating wages, communal decay, deaths of despair, and plummeting intergenerational mobility.
Meanwhile (and relatedly), the American political process and its institutions have experienced gridlock and decay. This is partly because they simply do not work as intended. The weaponization of the minority position and strategic undermining of bipartisanship—pioneered particularly (but not exclusively) by Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell—has ensured that governing the country remains incredibly difficult. Concomitantly, armies of lobbyists have descended upon Washington, D.C. to insert themselves into the political process, collectively reporting more in annual lobbying expenditures than the federal government spends funding the House and Senate combined. The vast majority, 34 to one based upon funding, serve business interests and their mission has been primarily to forestall harmful regulation, helping to create what Francis Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy”–or rule by veto.
Much of this has occurred according to the wishes of corporate and economic elites. The interrelated nature of economic instability and political sclerosis largely arises from the fact that entrenching the status quo and forestalling political-economic reforms redounds to the benefits of already wealthy elites. More broadly, the top 10–20 percent of Americans have captured policymaking at many levels, engaging in a process known as “dream hoarding.” As median Americans’ economic livelihoods have worsened, this problem has only become more poignant. The upshot is that growing economic anxiety is refracted through increasingly pervasive cultural and identity lenses. Meanwhile, as economic and policy solutions to economic woes have increasingly been precluded, the donor classes largely responsible for the above institutional problems have also been at the vanguard of explicitly hyping up cultural issues as the key area of political conflict. This donor class preference is crowding out focus on economic policy issues and exacerbating cultural fissures.
The view from above—the donor class
Wealthy donors of the Left are far more socially liberal than the average Democrat. On the Right, wealthy donors are far more economically liberal than the average Republican. For different reasons, both donor classes have converged on culture as their preferred field of conflict. One uniting factor may be that both classes are deeply unconnected, unaware, and unconcerned with what life is actually like for the average American.
Political decay and interest group mediated “vetocracy” have been underwritten and overseen by donor classes, who are increasingly at odds with each other and with the average person in their respective parties. The upshot is polarization emanating from the top-down.4
On the Left, the Democratic donor class has developed a zealous, quasi-religious focus on social justice and identity issues, the roots of which were put down by the “New Left” of the post-Vietnam era. Universities, to appease activists, made concessions by establishing academic departments such as Gender Studies and Race Studies. These departments are highly siloed, self-referential, and often characterized by questionable methodology. Indeed, these departments sometimes produce quite radical work, tinged with anti-system and anti-liberal zeal, that has widely penetrated the elite leftist milieu.
Endeavors such as “The 1619 Project,” which was recently validated with a Pulitzer Prize, is evidence of the reorientation towards an emotive emphasis on systemic racism, sexism, and bigotry rather than objective analysis or pragmatic solutions. John McWhorter has argued that scholar-activists are turning politics into a battleground for identity struggles that preclude constructive and pragmatic debate. And, indeed, the people most influenced by these beliefs are an elite (as measured by educational attainment), white, “progressive activist” subset of the Democratic party. In turn, Democratic politicians and the party itself increasingly cater to the religious-like cultural zeal of the democratic donor elite, shifting the conversation away from “Who gets what?” and onto the donor-elite preferred “Who are we?”
On the Right, meanwhile, the Republican donor class can still be found lionizing the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. In fact, for the elite Republican donor, free markets and deregulation are often seen as morally virtuous in and of themselves, insofar as they are seen to promote individual freedom. Elite conservative donors, while apparently as conservative on social issues as the average Republican, are far more economically liberal. Here then, the historical record elucidates a conscious trend amongst these elites, since Goldwater’s epic defeat and Nixon’s success, to strategically play-up cultural issues.
While the initial gambit was Nixon’s Southern Strategy, it has only become more pronounced since. Conservative elites are as likely to talk about god, guns, family, and country (issues that are often tinged with traditionalism and Christian morality) as they are to talk about deregulation and limited government. Indeed, it may even be that “due to the general social homogeneity of the Republican party… Republicans are more susceptible to identity‐based politics [than Democrats].” In contradistinction to the elite on the Left—proponents of a postmodern religion focusing on a diverse array of social justice issues—the elite on the Right appear to have co-opted a narrow band of religio-cultural issues linked to god and the nation. Overall, the Republican party has furthered the interests of the donor class by turning the conversation away from economic “Who gets what?” issues.
The divergence amongst the elite donors is self-perpetuating. As the Republican donor class hyped their cultural issues, the Democratic donor class become more committed to their own social justice religion. As More in Common has previously demonstrated, extremely fervent activists and donors (progressive and conservative) are commanding a focus on cultural issues. All the while, as these issues become more salient, economic issues are crowded out or refracted through cultural lenses.
Gasoline on the cultural bonfire—media and geography
The media—news media and social media—thrive on attention. Profitability under the advertising revenue model is a matter of attracting clicks and eyeballs, so sensationalist coverage has hastened a transformation from a focus on news to a focus on entertainment. Because cultural issues encourage emotional engagement, they tend to attract high levels of interest and talking heads are incentivized to gain influence and attention via short sound bites that encourage hyperbolic analysis. It is hardly surprising that, in this context, people who report watching the most cable news are consistently less informed on issues, but routinely more polarized along partisan lines, which are themselves increasingly cultural.
Social media and more tailored media (such as radio talk shows and podcasts) have a tendency to exacerbate several of the problems in the mainstream media environment. Commentators and commenters are encouraged to make rhetorical flourishes that spike engagement by appealing to emotionally evocative subjects. Just as in the mainstream media, issues that revolve around identitarian questions tend to spike engagement and attract the most eyeballs. While the Left and Right are increasingly segmenting into real life tribes, on the Internet this trend is even more pronounced. Left- and Right-leaning Twitter accounts circulate information solely amongst themselves, creating a phenomenon known as “filter bubbles.” Foreign governments exploit these filter bubbles, generating stories out of whole cloth that align with our deeply divisive cultural rifts.
As if imitating the social networks, people are increasingly sorting themselves geographically based upon highly salient characteristics, such as personality and education. A hastening divergence between ex-urban, low density areas and urban, high-density areas is taking place, termed the “density divide.” Urban and rural people report that they feel very different from each other (50 percent and 70 percent, respectively). The complicating effect of this “big sort” is that “as like people tend to vote the same way, and like people tend to cluster together, such clustering increases polarization in voting patterns.”
The personal should not be political
The culture wars revolve around highly charged, deeply personal issues that are exceedingly difficult to compromise upon. In his book God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens argued that religion poisons everything because it encourages strong yet unreasoned commitments on consequential topics. Tribalized culture wars do the same, and teams are increasingly formed and delineated on the basis of sacred values. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued, morality both binds teams together and blinds them into cooperation. Party membership has quickly become one of the most prevalent identity markers for Americans, and party identification has split along cultural lines. Deep values predispose people to adopt positions on cultural issues that in turn dictate their tribal loyalties.
Politics is an inherently contentious realm in democracies. But people must also ultimately be willing to compromise, especially in a non-parliamentary democracy like America. As the number of political issues that admit no compromise grows, the more difficult democratic politics becomes. When the dividing line of politics is culture to which the central question is “Who are we?” politics feels increasingly like a zero-sum affair. When people do not agree on issues of faith, there are only two resolutions: re-education campaigns or power-mediated imposition of one group’s preferences over another. Though one hears increasing calls for both in different guises, neither is achievable in the short-term in a way that is compatible with American democratic values.
The economy is the way
How we shift back from cultural to economic debates is far from obvious. The success the civil rights and gay rights movements had instantiating equality of opportunity and common treatment under the law provides reasons for hope. But against this backdrop, increasing inequality, declining opportunity, and decreasing mobility have made average and elite Americans, on a socio-economic or class basis, more unequal and less common than ever before. In the last 50 years, economic rifts in our society have developed into fissures. Economic issues should be front-and-center for two reasons: First, for median Americans, their trajectory over the last 50 years has been disturbing. Second, unlike the intractable American culture war, economic issues—rooted more in interests than values—may actually be resolvable. There are ways of talking about economics that unite people across broad swaths of the population, and resolving economic issues would substantially improve the livelihoods of some of the most marginalized people in society.
Adverse economic changes since the peak of the Cold War have affected vast swaths of America. As Raj Chetty and his team found, “Absolute income mobility has fallen across the entire income distribution, with the largest declines for families in the middle class.” What’s more, while all 50 states have experienced declines in mobility, the largest declines were in the industrial heartland. And, with the China shock in the late 1990s and early 2000s, these changes have only been exacerbated. Acknowledging that entire communities in America’s heartland have fallen into disrepair, that overall income and wealth inequality has grown to unprecedented levels, and that wages for the bottom 50 percent have hardly increased over the last 50 years, is a crucial first step in addressing them.
It is self-evident that economic issues in and of themselves are far less animating than cultural issues. Exploiting the rise of China in a way that avoids either racism or warmongering could galvanize a patriotic spirit that spotlights economic reforms as necessary for sustaining America’s continued global influence and leadership. Promoting American prosperity and values (defined in the broadest sense, such as freedom of speech and self-determination) will acquire a renewed verve when juxtaposed against those of the Leninist Chinese Communist Party (CCP). We should pull from the Cold War the best lessons we can and apply them, while avoiding the pitfalls and remembering that this is a very different era and very different type of rival. In a nutshell, that means focusing not on constraining and coercing China, but on competing and improving ourselves. Importantly, couching economic reforms in a national security frame can mobilize broad swaths of the population concerned with otherwise disparate issues. In short, we should argue that in order to further our worthy endeavors, from human rights to individual liberty to climate change, we have to ensure America remains more competitive and influential than the CCP. To ensure this, the American economy and economic power structure must be reformed so it can achieve its maximum potential.
Part of this strategy also recognizes that Donald Trump’s America First strategy was not entirely misguided. At a high level, we must strive to harness his populist energy and direct it toward the more benign strategic end of readjusting key institutions to better represent the interests and will of the American people. First, this strategy recognizes that donor elites have furthered globalization policies that have been detrimental to median Americans. Donald Trump and his team have already correctly honed in on the idea that the issues surrounding the CCP represent a potentially crucial political pivot, as decades of “engagement” redounded to the benefit of a neoliberal donor-class while hurting average Americans and empowering a brutal dictatorship. But, as Michael Lind has observed, “demagogues are good at channeling popular grievances and bad at redressing them.” Concerned Americans should therefore not cede the field to Trump on China. Rather, we should recognize their poignancy and co-opt them toward more benevolent ends. As the CCP becomes more powerful and increasingly threatens the elite interests it once served, the room for top-down concession also grows.
Through the unifying forces of national security and ideological competition, we may be able to refocus the political debate away from “Who are we?” and back onto “Who gets what?” If the US is to muster the totality of its national strength to beat back a resurgent power, our politicians and political institutions must be able to harness the full strength of the American people. In order to do that, however, they will have to represent and compromise with them—not just with corporations and the donor class. Furthermore, to effectively counter the CCP, our congressional and other democratic political institutions must be able to function once there is majority support for a policy direction. American democracy and its institutions are deeply flawed at the moment but they are not irredeemably broken. Emphasizing national security imperatives and an impending struggle over global values may galvanize the support, and concessions, necessary to fix them. As world historical events increasingly conspire to conjoin economic and national security interests, they can also be leveraged by political entrepreneurs to increase the power of average Americans.
Rather than despair at the outsized influence that the donor class can command in politics, there are several bold steps we could take to make American democracy work again—quickly. First, fight money with money: give every American citizen a $100 tax credit to spend exclusively on political donations. If money, like water, always finds a way in, then let there be a tidal wave commanded by the people of this country. Second: every state should pass the Anti-Corruption Act, authored by non-profit represent.us, which would ban lobbyists from making political donations themselves, place limitations on specific types of lobbying activity (such as donation bundling), bar politicians from fundraising during working hours, and close the revolving door. In recent decades, the wealthy were increasingly able to wrest control of the political process away from average Americans. As great power competition reemerges, it must be taken back if we are to fight and win.
Conclusion: Remembering who we are
Cultural issues have come to dominate American discourse in the last several decades, partly because they are simply more exciting to talk about: identity discussions make for compelling viewing/listening and often get people engaged (positively or negatively). Meanwhile, our political and economic ecosystem has become increasingly complex, and cultural issues offer simple ways for people to make sense of things. This is especially the case when economic and political change has been effectively forestalled behind the scenes by a vetocracy put in place principally by wealthy donors and self-interested politicians. Overlaid is virtue and status signaling, tribalism, and polarization that have arisen as a result of an unvirtuous cycle of debate over “Who are we?” cultural issues. Amidst conditions of peaceful decadence, the wealthy have taken control of the political debate and political process. Without a grander cause for Americans to unite around, they have begun to unite into tribes to fight one another.
We need to shift the debate back to economic issues. In addition to increasing the wellbeing of average Americans, a strategy of first and foremost resolving economic problems will lower tensions on an array of other issues in American society. As economic scarcity, anxiety, and dismay over the demise of one’s community eases, people’s outlooks will brighten—whereas “material insecurity… tends to elicit a grim, zero-sum, us-or-them mindset,” so does “rising prosperity reliably produce a liberalizing, tolerant, positive-sum mood.” At the same time, as great power competition reemerges, problems stemming from what Andrew Yang has called the war on normal people comes into sharp relief, as American democracy is juxtaposed against an illiberal, undemocratic rival. The American model must once again prove its merit.
The American political and economic system is in desperate need of rebalancing. The wealthy have far too much influence, while your average American has far too little. It is only by both decreasing the influence of the donor classes and by increasing the power of average Americans that the system can be fixed. When workers once again have institutionalized power, and Congress and our democratic institutions are once again focused on the interests of average Americans, the incentives in the system can largely self-correct. In order to do that, political entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and concerned citizens must work to shift the debate from culture back onto economics. The era of pax-Americana saw cultural debates underwritten by America’s elites dominate political discussions, as we forgot who we were. Perhaps the threat of less peaceful times will seed the shift back to economics and the question of who gets what, as history once again asks Americans to remember who we really are.
Jonathon P. Sine is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @RonPauliticsJS.
1 Michael Lind. New Class War. p 81
2 Thomas Piketty. Capital in the 21st Century. 2015.
3 Tracy C. Miller. Impact of Globalization on US Wage Inequality: Implications for Policy. North American Journal of Economics and Finance. 2001. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1062-9408(01)00053-5
4 Introduction to How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
Photo by Rafael Juárez on Unsplash