An im­par­ti­al, dis­pas­si­o­na­te ob­ser­ver of the Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal scene -- if such a per­son could be found -- would pro­bab­ly re­port both good news and bad.

The good news is that the bre­adth and in­ten­si­ty of the sil­li­ness of this ye­ar’s sil­ly se­a­son have been bles­sed­ly mo­dest. Co­ve­ra­ge of Cong­res­s­man Matt Ga­etz’s dep­lo­rab­le se­xu­al mo­res, First Son Hun­ter Bi­den’s du­bi­ous ar­tis­tic pre­ten­si­ons, and Rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ve Mar­jo­rie Ta­y­lor Green’s ver­bal transg­res­si­ons against truth and de­cen­cy not­withs­tan­ding, se­ri­ous news has in fact been get­ting re­por­ted. Whole days now go by wit­hout for­mer Pre­si­dent Do­nald Trump’s cu­ri­ous­ly de­lu­si­o­nal ramb­lings being the lead news story.

The bad news is that, as usu­al, Ame­ri­ca’s po­li­ti­cal at­ten­ti­on re­mains my­o­pi­cal­ly fo­cu­sed on the dai­ly Sturm-und-Drang, chest-thum­ping, and fin­ger-poin­ting that pass for po­li­ti­cal de­ba­te. To be sure, the is­su­es no­mi­nal­ly un­der dis­cus­si­on -- vo­ting rights, co­vid po­li­cies, and Cong­res­si­o­nal fi­li­bus­ter and bud­get re­con­ci­li­a­ti­on ru­les, for examp­le -- cer­tain­ly do mat­ter. And it is al­wa­ys con­cei­vab­le that, in the very end, ac­ti­on of some sort will ac­tu­al­ly be ta­ken. There are, ho­we­ver, two costs to the me­dia’s and pub­lic’s fi­xa­ti­on on the dai­ly po­li­ti­cal cir­cus.

A false sense of crisis

The first is the cre­a­ti­on of a fal­se sen­se of cri­sis. On­ly a na­ti­o­nal pub­lic as blis­s­ful­ly unin­for­med about its own his­to­ry as Ame­ri­ca’s could be­lie­ve that the par­ti­sans­hip, grid­lock, and ge­ne­ral dys­func­ti­o­na­li­ty of Ame­ri­ca’s cur­rent po­li­ti­cal life is at all out of the or­di­na­ry. (Any Ame­ri­cans ap­pal­led by what is being said or done in Was­hing­ton in 2021 should go back and take a look at what the Re­pub­lic’s foun­ders had to say about each ot­her and each ot­her’s po­li­cies.)

Cont­ra­ry to what news re­ports might lead one to be­lie­ve, the gap bet­ween the po­li­ti­cal par­ties to­day is qui­te mo­dest. Again, this is not to dis­miss the dif­fe­ren­ces bet­ween par­ty agen­das. (To pa­raph­ra­se the late Se­na­tor Eve­ritt Dirk­sen, “a tril­li­on here and a tril­li­on there, and pret­ty soon we are tal­king real mo­ney.”) But no one who ac­tu­al­ly knows what Jim Crow was like re­al­ly be­lie­ves that the Re­pub­li­can Par­ty is pro­po­sing a re­turn to it, and no one who ac­tu­al­ly un­ders­tands what the word “so­ci­a­lism” me­ans re­al­ly be­lie­ves that the De­moc­ra­tic Par­ty is emb­ra­cing it. Un­for­tu­na­te­ly, ho­we­ver, the hy­per­bo­le of ima­gi­na­ry cri­sis tends to ero­de com­mon sen­se – a re­sour­ce in short sup­p­ly even in the very best of ti­mes.

The tectonic transformation of the physical and economic realities of daily life

The se­cond cost of fi­xa­ting on what is (or is not) hap­pe­ning on the Was­hing­ton stage is that it dist­racts at­ten­ti­on from the truly ext­ra­or­di­na­ry pro­cess that is hap­pe­ning off stage – the pro­found, tec­to­nic trans­for­ma­ti­on of the phy­si­cal and eco­no­mic re­a­li­ties of dai­ly life for or­di­na­ry pe­op­le. With both bangs and whim­pers the mo­dern, in­dust­ri­al world is dra­wing to an end in Ame­ri­ca. In its place, a new post-mo­dern, post-in­dust­ri­al one is ta­king form.

Trans­for­ma­ti­ons like this have oc­cur­red be­fo­re. The hu­man world has mo­ved from hun­ting-and-gat­he­ring to fi­xed ag­ri­cul­tu­re, and from fi­xed ag­ri­cul­tu­re to in­dust­ry. In this lar­ger con­text, to­day’s trans­for­ma­ti­on is stri­king on­ly by the comp­res­sed time frame wit­hin which it is ta­king place. So­cie­ty-shat­te­ring pro­ces­ses that took cen­tu­ries be­fo­re may now be comp­le­ted wit­hin the span of one or two ge­ne­ra­ti­ons.

In a trans­for­ma­ti­on like this, the ba­sic “gi­vens” of life are re­de­fi­ned. For a mo­ment con­si­der the last great trans­for­ma­ti­on, from tra­di­ti­o­nal, ag­ra­ri­an life to mo­dern, ur­ban-in­dust­ri­al life. That trans­for­ma­ti­on eli­mi­na­ted self-suf­fi­cien­cy and for the first time em­bed­ded or­di­na­ry pe­op­le wit­hin the un­for­gi­ving lo­gic of mar­ket for­ces. It emp­tied the count­ry side and cre­a­ted ci­ties, le­a­ving in­di­vi­du­als ab­so­lu­te­ly de­pen­dent on ins­ti­tu­ti­ons bey­ond their im­me­di­a­te cont­rol for the ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties of life – wa­ter, food, shel­ter, fuel, and even se­we­ra­ge. It dra­ma­ti­cal­ly we­a­ke­ned tra­di­ti­o­nal sour­ces of po­li­ti­cal aut­ho­ri­ty, inc­lu­ding re­li­gi­on. It em­po­we­red the mo­dern bu­re­auc­ra­tic, wel­fa­re state.

It re­sul­ted in the cre­a­ti­on of en­ti­re­ly new po­li­ti­co-eco­no­mic clas­ses – ca­pi­tal and la­bor -- and so­ci­al di­vi­si­ons and iden­ti­ties. It un­der­cut the pri­ma­ry so­ci­al ins­ti­tu­ti­on of ag­ra­ri­an so­cie­ty – the ex­ten­ded fa­mi­ly -- and en­cou­ra­ged the nuc­le­ar fa­mi­ly. It upen­ded de­mog­rap­hic pat­terns, dis­cou­ra­ging lar­ge fa­mi­lies and en­cou­ra­ging small ones. It chan­ged the at­t­ri­bu­tes and skil­ls and be­ha­vi­ors that were va­lu­ed and re­war­ded.

Trans­for­ma­ti­on like this is not a con­se­qu­en­ce of pub­lic po­li­cy. Neit­her De­moc­rats nor Re­pub­li­cans – nor, for that mat­ter, any frin­ge mo­ve­ments of the left or the right – can speed up or slow down what is ta­king place to any sig­ni­fi­cant deg­ree, much less halt it en­ti­re­ly. As Marx ob­ser­ved, “men make their own his­to­ry, but they do not make it as they ple­a­se.” The pub­lic po­li­cy qu­es­ti­on is not whet­her Ame­ri­ca will be­co­me a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fe­rent so­cie­ty than it is at pre­sent or even how quick­ly this will hap­pen: the qu­es­ti­on is how best to ad­just to the new re­a­li­ties and, in the con­text of these al­te­red re­a­li­ties, to cre­a­te the so­cie­ty and world in which we would most like to live. We can­not hold back his­to­ry, but we can al­ter the fu­tu­re. 

Two challenges that America faces

There are two im­me­di­a­te chal­len­ges that Ame­ri­ca fa­ces. The first is enor­mous, but re­la­ti­ve­ly straight­for­ward: cre­a­ting the inf­rast­ruc­tu­re for this new world. Just as in­dust­ri­al so­cie­ties re­qui­red fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fe­rent phy­si­cal and so­ci­al inf­rast­ruc­tu­re than ag­ri­cul­tu­ral ones, stab­le and he­alt­hy post-in­dust­ri­al so­cie­ties have dif­fe­rent phy­si­cal and so­ci­al inf­rast­ruc­tu­ral re­qui­re­ments than in­dust­ri­al ones.

The se­cond chal­len­ge, more comp­lex, is ac­com­mo­da­ting the pro­cess of the cre­a­ti­ve dest­ruc­ti­on of the world we know. The be­ha­vi­ors and ac­ti­vi­ties that are va­lu­ed or re­gar­ded as me­ri­to­ri­ous by so­cie­ty are be­co­ming un­fi­xed and unc­le­ar. Sour­ces of aut­ho­ri­ty – mo­ral, so­ci­al, le­gal, cul­tu­ral – are in flux. What a just so­cie­ty looks like and what cons­ti­tu­tes “the good life” or a life well-li­ved is a mat­ter of de­ba­te. Ge­og­rap­hic mo­bi­li­ty me­ans that phy­si­cal­ly se­pa­ra­te com­mu­ni­ties de­fi­ned by their dif­fe­rent ans­wers to these qu­es­ti­ons will emer­ge. (In­deed, in Ame­ri­ca this pro­cess is al­re­a­dy cle­ar­ly vi­sib­le, as cul­tu­ral­ly “like-min­ded” in­di­vi­du­als move to re­gi­ons of the count­ry where they feel most at home and where de­moc­ra­tic pro­ces­ses are re­sul­ting in norms and re­gu­la­ti­ons that they find most com­for­tab­le.)

At the same time imp­ro­ve­ments in com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on tech­no­lo­gy are re­sul­ting in phy­si­cal­ly in­ter­ming­led com­mu­ni­ties that are, qui­te li­te­ral­ly, not spe­a­king to each ot­her. Ma­king the in­vest­ment and ad­just­ment pro­cess more chal­len­ging, of cour­se, is that Ame­ri­ca has to deal with three cri­ti­cal, un­sol­ved, left-over prob­lems from the in­dust­ri­al-age -- pro­li­fe­ra­ti­on of we­a­pons of mass dest­ruc­ti­on, cli­ma­te chan­ge, and pan­de­mic di­se­a­se – and with the fact that, out­si­de of Eu­ro­pe most of the world is not yet ma­king the jump to post-in­dust­ri­al so­ci­al or­der.

There is real news hap­pe­ning in Ame­ri­ca. And the news being re­por­ted from Was­hing­ton may even catch some par­ti­al, dis­tor­ted, poor­ly fo­cu­sed ref­lec­ti­on of this real news. But the real news is not the mo­ve­ment of the winds and storms, or even the oc­ca­si­o­nal hur­ri­ca­ne: it is that, like the mo­ti­on of tec­to­nic pla­tes on the sur­fa­ce of the globe, Ame­ri­ca it­self is mo­ving.


Ed­ward Rho­des is a pro­fes­sor of Go­vern­ment and In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Af­fairs at Ge­or­ge Ma­son Uni­ver­si­ty. Rho­des is best known for his re­se­arch in­to the phi­lo­sop­hi­cal and cul­tu­ral roots of Ame­ri­can fo­reign and na­ti­o­nal se­cu­ri­ty po­li­cy. Rho­des re­cei­ved his A.B. from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and his MPA and Ph.D. deg­rees from Prin­ce­ton Uni­ver­si­ty.