In response to yesterday’s post about the Electoral College, several wise and worldly readers wrote hearteningly thoughtful emails offering different perspectives. What follows below is my response to one reader who was concerned about maintaining the nation as a nation in the face of angry separatist movements.
Thanks for your thoughtful note.
You’re certainly right that the Founders saw — correctly, I think — that it’s easier to protect minority rights in a large and diverse setting than in a small and homogeneous one. Complicating matters somewhat, their first example of protecting minority rights would have been protecting the property rights of the economic elite. Madison was quite clear on that, as was Hamilton.
It’s also clear that a system that keeps ignoring popular will — and always in the same direction — is not sustainable. Random errors are one thing; a pattern of errors that always go in the same direction is better understood as bias. The bias is getting stronger, and harder to ignore.
I disagree somewhat with your characterization of states as sovereign. To my mind, the federal government is sovereign. The Civil War (and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments) settled that question. If you take federal sovereignty as a starting point, as I do, then arguments about states’ rights just seem like excuses for bad behavior. Which, to go by the last hundred years or so, they are. On a practical level, the fact that the feds can “federalize” the National Guard definitively answers the question of authority.
All of that said, though, I agree that there’s a level of polarization going on that imperils the country. To some degree, I think that’s more a function of economics than of politics. During the postwar period when average income around the country was much more even geographically, the two parties often overlapped in terms of ideology: some Southern Democrats were more conservative than some New England Republicans (both of which actually existed). People who study Congress noted that before the mid-’90s, representatives were much more likely to cross party lines for particular votes than they are now. Gingrich’s Contract With America enforced party discipline on Republicans by replacing the seniority system for chairmanships with selection by party leadership. The GOP quickly fell in line. The Democrats kept playing by the old rules for a while, leading to pretty asymmetric politics, but a lot of the ones who came up after the Clinton years (AOC, for instance) are as hard left as the GOP has become hard right. In that respect, Biden is a throwback.
Part of what made that bifurcation possible, I think, was the polarization of wealth in society more broadly. People in economically declining areas are more likely to look backward fondly. That’s understandable on a human level, but it can be self-reinforcing. I see it in higher education, when some folks who’ve been around for decades reminisce about the Good Old Days. While I understand the temptation, it can be a real problem when rose-colored glasses prevent the kinds of experiments or adaptations that will allow for Good New Days. Think of Kodak sitting on its invention of digital photography so it can squeeze more profit out of film. It works, for a while, until it very much doesn’t. By then, it’s too late.
Middle-of-the-road politics thrive when there’s a large and strong middle class. As a country, we’ve been moving away from that. Some areas have become wildly prosperous (and expensive); others are really struggling compared to how they were a generation or two ago. In some cities, the housing crisis is that housing is too expensive; in other cities, the housing crisis is too many abandoned houses going to seed. It’s hard to find a politics that satisfies, or even reflects, both of those.
The other major factor, of course, is racism. Americans have long conditioned their support of public benefits on whether the recipients of those benefits — or the imagined recipients of those benefits — are “like me.” Race often becomes a shorthand for that. It’s a way that many people distinguish the “deserving” from the “undeserving.” It also affects seemingly neutral judgments, like what constitutes a “good” school district. What started as redlining gradually became just the way things are, which then becomes self-reinforcing.
Racism isn’t new in America, obviously. But in areas that feel like they’re becoming both culturally and economically less important than they used to be, racism provides an explanation and a catalyst for organizing.
To the extent that this is broadly correct — and the picture is way more complicated than this, of course — it suggests that part of what might help reduce political and racial polarization is reducing economic polarization. Put differently, in the absence of a widely shared frame of reference, it’s hard to maintain political unity. Having spent the last 40 years or so acceding to policies that accelerate economic polarization, we’re seeing the cultural and political fallout now. Undoing that polarization is a tall order.
That’s part of what I like about community colleges. They’re everywhere, they’re open to everyone and they help people from modest backgrounds get jobs that help them move up in the world. I’ve mentioned before that part of the reason community colleges are struggling is that they’re designed to create a middle class for a country that no longer wants one. That’s not quite right; they’re designed to create a middle class for a country that has forgotten that middle classes don’t occur in nature. They’re one of the few institutions we have that can take an adult from the economic margins to the middle class. And they’re relatively affordable, by higher ed standards.
Moving up used to be easier. My grandfather, who grew up on a farm in rural Michigan, dropped out of the ninth grade to work as a tree trimmer. He later got a job as a unionized electrical lineman for Detroit Edison. That enabled him to own his own home and send both of his kids to college. That used to be much more common. But factory and industrial jobs like those are scarce, and don’t pay new hires what they used to. Even lineman jobs now require some community college training.
At some level, it’s hard to come up with political solutions to problems stemming from changes in the mode of production. Depending on how you look at it, Andrew Yang’s universal basic income was either the next logical step or a final surrender. I’m a big fan of the idea of harnessing our lax productive capacity to deal with sustainable energy and climate change, but bringing that to scale would require a host of political choices to be made differently. That said, I haven’t seen any better ideas, and this one would have benefits going far beyond rebuilding a middle class.
I don’t know how the next several years will go, regardless of what finally happens with this election. But I know that from an ethical standpoint, I’ll side with those who work to benefit everyone. Our best moments as a country have been the moments when we’ve expanded the circle of who counts as “like me.” There are no guarantees, but to the extent we push in that direction, I think we have our best shot at a decent future.