Note: This paper is the first in our “political foundations of state capacity” essay series. You can find the full series here.
In 2022, it is no longer difficult to envision the downfall of American democracy. To a growing number of commentators and analysts, this demise almost feels inevitable. If “January 6 was practice” for an authoritarian takeover (as the headline of a December Atlantic article warned us), next time could be for real.
This essay makes the case for resisting the prevailing pessimism. While the threats are obviously real, the prevailing zeitgeist of a downward spiral should, counter-intuitively, be seen as a sign for optimism. Before we can rebuild our democracy, we first have to acknowledge that it is, in fact, falling apart. And we are indeed starting to realize this – hence the pervasive panic, that repeated prerequisite for reform. This is why I am ultimately optimistic. And why you should be, too.
In this essay, I will seek out some lessons from history that should inform our optimism. Though much is unique about our current impasse, much is also familiar. All democracies have ups and downs. American democracy has had ups and downs. We are in a “down.” And some “downs” last a long time. But they never last forever. Thus, the first lesson of history ― “the inevitability of course change” ― is perhaps the most obvious. Each generation is a reaction to the previous generation.
But if the first lesson of history seems obvious, we keep forgetting it. Thus, the second lesson is “the illusion of course continuation.” That is, just as course change is inevitable, so is it almost equally inevitable that we forget this, and delude ourselves into thinking we have somehow escaped the broader patterns of history.
Time and again, we mistakenly predict that we have reached some new stage that will somehow last for centuries (e.g., we are at the “End of x” or “This time is really different” or Yale economist Irving Fisher’s September 1929 conclusion that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau”). Time and again, we mistakenly make straight-line projections about markets or demographics or politics, assuming that whatever trends have led us to this moment, they will continue indefinitely. But they never do.
One way to think about this is that history never moves in straight lines, but in waves, undulating in inevitable though unpredictable ups and downs of varying magnitudes. Yet, we as humans have a difficult time understanding exponential change. In calculus terms, we think in terms of first derivatives (steady rates of change), rather than second derivatives (changing rates of changes).
Thus, in periods in which change is slow, we should expect it will eventually speed up. And when change speeds up, we should expect it will eventually change direction. Or put another way, it is in periods where things seem all too quiet that we should expect trouble ahead. And it is in periods where it feels like we are rapidly careening towards trouble that we should expect a much more fundamental change ahead. But mostly we don’t, because our brains are not hard-wired to think this way.
But precisely because most of us don’t think this way, the future belongs to those who can squint ahead a few years and invest their time and energy towards productive and creative disruptions – just as those with the courage to buy during wild market sell-offs can get rich.
Thus, a third lesson: “The disrupters write the future.” That is, when a political system is ossified and atrophied and ready for change, those who force the change get to define the future. Those who have the change forced on them wind up like the ancien régime. But to disrupt the status quo requires both a bold optimism about longer-term possibilities and a commensurate willingness to gamble on the shorter term. This, in particular, is far too rare in our contemporary politics, so focused on always winning the “next” election.
We are in a destructive cycle, what I’ve called a “doom loop” ― and unless we take some forceful but thoughtful actions to break that, it will get worse.
Any disruption of the status quo will feel risky, but whether we like it or not, it’s already being done. It’s just a question of how, by whom, and with what goals in mind. The MAGA faction is disrupting our political order. This is their stated goal. They are willing to suffer short-term losses by running radical candidates in order to heighten the contradictions for long-term gains. And they are succeeding. The events of January 6 only strengthened their hold, because it showed how far they were willing to go, and it forced fellow Republicans to choose sides. Which they clearly have. As of February 2022, the official position of the RNC is that the events that led to January 6 were “legitimate political discourse” and that the two Republicans who have participated in the House committee investigating the day’s events (Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger) should be repudiated by the party because they were engaging in “the persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
The MAGA faction has no vision of what it wants to build. It just wants to tear it all down. This is disruption for the sake of disruption. But it may serve one positive function – it may destroy the status quo beyond repair, thus opening up the potential for real transformation.
So what does positive disruption look like? I will make proposals for changing our existing electoral and party system ― I favor a more proportional, multiparty system. This may strike some as radical. But I would ask those who think of themselves as conservative to ask what they are trying to conserve at this point. If the goal is to renew liberal democracy in the United States and bolster its resilience against future threats, preserving the now-pathological status quo is the surest path to failure.
Others may ask, why not focus on economics or culture or media? These are important as well, and there are plenty of valuable proposals in these areas. However, these domains are all shaped by partisan political conflict. And though electoral institutions are difficult to change, they are still easier to change than these other forces, and offer the greatest points of leverage.
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