This post originally appeared at The Nation.
The pundit class loves to refight the last election and explain the why and wherefore of what should have happened in 2016 but didn’t because candidates didn’t follow the pundits’ script. The talking heads sound like sourpuss theater critics who wanted to rewrite the third act.
Gene Robinson, the amiable Washington Post columnist, is an honorable exception. He has lost patience with the conventional wisdom that failed so miserably last election season, and his recent column spoke the plain truth about the collapsing party system.
“I believe a political realignment is underway, and those who fail to discern its outlines could end up powerless and irrelevant,” Robinson wrote. The traditional left-right, progressive-conservative political axis has lost its validity. “I believe neither party has the foggiest idea what the new diagram looks like.” Amen to that. It has been my message too. During last year’s campaign, I described Bernie Sanders as the “high road” to fundamental change, while Donald Trump owned the “low road.” It may take several election cycles to determine which road the country embraces — if it doesn’t choose a path very different from either.
For now, our governing system resembles a kind of collective hysteria, an emotional breakdown that reflects problems far broader than our having a crackpot president. Both major parties are stuck in the past and afraid of the future. Fear and confusion have overwhelmed the establishment. They have no plan for our future — not one that speaks candidly to the troubled conditions that have emerged over the last generation.
There’s a familiar pattern in American history: When the two-party system was stalemated and radical reforms were needed (abolishing slavery or voting rights for women, for example), people organized powerful third-party challenges to advance their cause. The country is now ripe for another rump insurgency.
The long-standing presumption, at least among political centrists, has been that independent activists have no choice but to align with a major party to gain a voice in government. But digital technologies, which lower the cost of communication for ordinary citizens, have disrupted the two-party monopoly. The fruitcake election of 2016 has not generated a new third party, but it’s early days yet.
People have won the means to speak for themselves and compete directly with the official truth packaged by the two major parties. And dissenters have learned how to gain voice and power by attacking the established ranks. This is healthy for small-d democracy. Maybe party professionals will learn how to listen.
The American dilemma is deeper than mere politics. People are torn between what they have always wanted to believe about their country and the contradictions they see in real events, often in their own lives. I believe this tension is the source of our political hysteria.
Who are we really, as the American people? Where am I in the larger scheme of things? What happened to the country I loved? These imponderables are not confined to left or right, rich or poor, but obviously are felt most poignantly among people experiencing personal loss and disappointment.
This sense of loss is the psychological wound that Donald Trump picks at maliciously, exploiting the pain and despair with his self-inflated vow to miraculously restore America’s “greatness.” The slogan is brilliant. It is also Trump’s most cynical lie.
The crux of America’s conflicted feelings is this: We are a great power in decline, but one that pretends nothing has changed. The decline in our dominance of world affairs is not a tragedy, and may actually be liberating in many ways. But the so-called American Century is definitely over, mainly because so many other countries have caught up with us. Neither major party wants to talk about this, partly because they don’t know what to say, but also because whatever they say might sound vaguely unpatriotic.
This global realignment of relative economic power does not mean the United States must become weak or impoverished. On the contrary, once we recognize our changed position, it should free us from certain things. The burdens of neocolonialism — fighting half a dozen wars at once to discipline “lesser” nations — are very expensive. In fact, they have weakened us. The popular chanting of “USA! USA! USA!” sounds like false bravado to anyone who knows what’s happening. How will Americans react when they wake up one morning to discover that China is now the largest economy in the world? I doubt they will chant “We’re No. 2! We’re No. 2!”
The history of great nations in decline ought to be a cautionary tale for Americans. On their way down, declining powers have often squandered their assets on wasteful wars in vain attempts to deny the reality of new competition.
One classic example is the British Empire, which sent its army to put down a colonial upstart in North America. Washington policy-makers would doubtless deny the neocolonial comparison, but we do seem to be following the same old script — using military force in an attempt to shape the economic playing field.
What should Americans do? First, drop the nostalgic rhetoric of past glory and triumph. Instead, begin a serious analysis of our current situation, and future possibilities, and explore the options that are plausible and worth trying. Forget old political factions and labels. Ask the big questions and invite everyone to the table.
We can dispel stalemate and confusion by reopening the oldest questions Americans have always asked themselves. What kind of country do we wish America could become? And how might we get there?