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.