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The State of Our Union
(desifoto/Getty Images)

The State of Our Union

Walter Russell Mead

The state of our union can be summed up pretty easily: Democratic policy ideas don’t work, and the Republican Party is melting down. From New York state, where Democratic power brokers are beginning to be herded into prison, where so many of them belong, to Chicago, where a civil war between Democrat-run public unions and the Democratic mayor rages even as the city’s finances fall apart, to the collapsing cities of Detroit and Flint, and on out to the high-speed rail boondoggle in California, the country is covered in the ruins of decades of “progressive” governance. Take Obamacare itself, a “reform” that is already making health care more bureaucratic and less affordable. Even as premiums and deductibles rise and the provider networks shrink, special interests like labor unions, insurance companies and hospital chains seek to rewrite its rules and regulations to achieve windfalls for themselves at the public expense. They will almost certainly succeed, and over time, Obamacare like other programs will become increasingly encrusted by sweetheart deals, carve-outs and other provisions that reduce its positive qualities while making it ever more expensive and bureaucratic.

The more “Democratic” an institution is these days, on the whole the less well it is working. What institution in the United States has been under Democratic control longer and more thoroughly than the failing public school systems of major cities? Or their police departments?

Yet against the backdrop of failing Democratic policies and institutions, the collapse of the Republican Party into political and intellectual incoherence is all the more striking. The Democrats, for all their inability to achieve their stated end of social progress through their chosen means of good governance, are clearly more competent at the essential business of party management than their GOP rivals. The failures of Democratic governance are so apparent, and the public unhappiness with the cronyism and inequality of interest group liberalism so deep, that organizing an effective opposition should be a fairly easy task—but even that basic objective has eluded the contemporary GOP.

The biggest deficits in the United States these days, however, are not the ones grabbing the headlines. The multi-trillion dollar deficit stalking the nation’s public sector pension plans, the fiscal meltdown bankrupting Puerto Rico and threatening half a dozen major cities, the deferred infrastructure deficit that leads to problems like the Flint water crisis, the disastrous military underinvestment, the federal budget deficit and the organizational and managerial deficits that make key public institutions like schools, police departments and prisons to perform so poorly: these are all terrible things that will wreak great harm in due course.

But they are not the prime cause of our troubles. They are symptoms of an underlying deficit of social and intellectual vision. Our society has grown too big, too complex and too diverse for the ideas and institutions on which it runs. This is partly a religious and cultural problem. American culture was originally shaped by a set of Christian and Enlightenment ideas, sometimes in tension with each other, that nevertheless provided a framework for common social and political discussion. We’ve moved away from this classic American synthesis without finding an effective replacement—if indeed a replacement can be found—and both the spiritual and intellectual roots of American life are growing more and more attenuated.

Up until now, at every similar crisis in American history, a wave of religious revival like the colonial-era Great Awakening, the Kentucky Revivals of the early Republic, and a series of successor movements has renewed and refreshed this source of national coherence and strength. Without something like this today, it’s not clear that American culture will continue to support the kind of republic that we’ve come to think of as eternal and unchanging.

But our deficit is not simply a spiritual and cultural problem. It is also an intellectual one. Democratic progressives remain locked into the assumptions and categories of 20th-century progressive thought. This involves things like the administrative state, the career civil service, the role of the upper middle class professional in limiting the tendency of both the plutocratic elite and the unthinking masses to wreck society by their short-sighted and selfish demands. The progressive professionals are no longer able to do that job as the plutocrats are too powerful and too clever for the regulators—and the masses are less and less willing to submit to the increasingly ineffectual tutelage of their self-appointed administrative and academic mentors and guardians.

Meanwhile, the sources of mass affluence and security that stabilized American life in the 20th century—large-scale manufacturing and clerical employment in big, stable corporations and government institutions—have been declining for decades, and the new forms of information-age economic activity are not well-developed enough to take up the slack. And these internal crises are shaking American society at just the time new challenges to the Pax Americana are rising worldwide. Old orders are breaking down everywhere, and ambitious powers are seeking their “place in the sun.”

Against this grim background, we have three presidential candidates still standing. Two, Trump and Sanders, are reactionary. They stand for a rejection of the present in the name of an imaginary alternative: a blue socialist utopia in Sander’s case, a braying ethnic and nationalist triumphalism in Trump’s. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is the status quo candidate: she aims to keep the ship on as steady a course as possible while water continues to pour through the hull breach. None of them have a platform or represent a movement that can solve the problems that perplex and frighten us.

There has been and will be much frustration in this bitter campaign, and a Trump-Clinton campaign will be one of the ugliest—and most unpredictable—in American history. November will not be the end of the bitterness, the division, and the frustration; the next President of the United States will have a difficult job. The consequences of unsolved problems will proliferate, the international challenges will become sharper, and public unhappiness with the status quo will likely continue to rise. Political passions will run high, and the polarization will run deep.

But the message of 2016 should be clear: the answers to America’s most critical problems lie at the moment beyond the realm of electoral politics. We have plenty of partisans; what we lack are platforms. People who care about the United States, and about the world that desperately needs a strong and forward-looking America, need to think a lot less about the partisan choices of 2016 and a lot more about how to ensure that in 2018 and 2020 there are better ideas to run on—and a stronger society in which those ideas can be debated.

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