Why Isn’t the Center Holding?
This is the first panel from “Beyond Left and Right: Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism,” a Niskanen Center conference, held on February 25, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Moderator: Brink Lindsey
Panelists: Martin Gurri, Margaret Hoover, Frances Lee
Brink Lindsey: Good morning, everyone. I’m Brink Lindsey, Vice President for Policy at the Niskanen Center. I’m delighted to be moderating our kickoff panel for this conference, on why the center isn’t holding. We have great participants here: Frances Lee from the University of Maryland; Martin Gurri, author of the recent very important book The Revolt of the Public; and Margaret Hoover from PBS’s “Firing Line,” amongst other affiliations. For more details about speaker bios, please read the handouts, but we’ll just dive right in.
Brink Lindsey: In the famous movie Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean stares up at his parents at some point and yells, “You’re tearing me apart!” These days in our sort of national living-out of some kind of adolescent meltdown, the country, politically, seems to be yelling, “You’re tearing me apart — and in many different directions!” So what actually is driving this polarization, this galloping to the extremes, this fraying of the social fabric? (We have many ways of putting it.)
Brink Lindsey: I believe the state of affairs today is fairly massively overdetermined; that is, there is a host of causes that are centrifugal forces that are undermining unity and sowing division — most obviously, the political sorting of the two parties into ideological parties of the left and right, and the development of those ideologies toward greater extremism over time so that the two sides are drifting farther and farther apart. That’s the most obvious feature of our scene today. We’ll get there.
Brink Lindsey: I want to tackle, first off, a couple of contributing factors that get considerably less attention but that I think are very important. I want to start with Frances Lee and with institutional, game-theory dynamics. Put aside ideology, put aside the content of people’s belief systems; just the way the game is played in Washington, D.C. is changing. When I was a kid, the Democrats had reliable, stable majorities in Congress. These days both parties are within striking distance of power at all times. And that leads to what kind of mischief, Frances?
Frances Lee: Hi. Well, I’ll begin just by pointing to what a ferociously competitive environment we are in the midst of right now. The 2016 election was excruciatingly close, but we haven’t had a presidential landslide, where a presidential candidate wins all across the country, in thirty years. We’ve had divided government 75 percent of the time since 1980. Also since 1980, Democrats and Republicans have each held majority status in the House of Representatives for ten Congresses. Since 1980, Democrats have held a majority in the Senate for nine Congresses, and Republicans for eleven. So this is an even balance in a 50/50 country. So we have constant competition, where every election holds out the possibility of a change of party control of one institution or another.
Frances Lee: That is a factor undercutting incentives for bipartisanship. You can see it in terms of how it affects bipartisanship in Congress, the incentives for bipartisanship. A minority party, a party that has less institutional power than it believes it can have in the near future, doesn’t want to work productively with the majority party, because in doing so it makes the case for the status quo division of institutional power. It says, “We can accomplish things that we both support even though our party is in the minority.” Under circumstances where an out-party sees a path back in, it wants to put forward partisan alternatives. It wants to say, “They want to do this, but we have better ideas, so we don’t want to work together. We want to lay down a bright line and establish how we would do things better.” So it’s the way of making a case for your own side for why should you get power back: it’s because you have a better set of ideas. So there’s that resisting of bipartisan cooperation under these highly competitive conditions.
Frances Lee: Also, just in terms of game theory, it doesn’t make as much sense to cut a deal right now if you think you’re going to be in a better position two years from now. So there’s this constant preoccupation with the next election; as soon as an election happens, we look towards the next one. We began to speculate immediately after the 2018 elections: What will happen in 2020? There’s a preoccupation with politics in an environment of very close party competition. There’s a lot more partisan collective action in Congress than there used to be, where the parties meet continually to strategize — always, of course, looking towards their political stakes, to political opportunities that are available to make their party look more attractive than the opposition. So many caucus meetings!
Frances Lee: But this is not how Congress has always worked. It’s not how the Congress of the twentieth century worked. The Democratic Caucus was dormant for fifty years before 1970; it just didn’t even meet. Democrats in the Senate didn’t start with their weekly meetings until after the 1980 elections, until they went into the minority. You begin to see rising caucus activity among House Republicans after 1980 with Reagan in the White House and with Republicans in control of the Senate. Democrats then begin to step up their activity after 1994. So there’s this constant, escalating caucus activity where all the meetings that members have (outside of what they have to do in their own personal offices) are in partisan settings. This reinforces partisan identity. But at its root, it got underway as competition for majority control was reintroduced into American politics.
Frances Lee: Finally, I would just flag the inordinate amount of activity around party messaging in a Congress where it’s so tightly competitive between the parties. It has become routine, standard operating procedure to stage votes for the purposes of highlighting the differences between the parties. This is the case you want to make with the messaging: “We’re a better alternative than these guys because of the following contrast we want to draw.” So, we try to stage votes to put ourselves on the right side of public opinion and put the other side on the wrong side of public opinion. You’ve seen the development of this massive infrastructure inside the legislative branch –– both House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats –– around messaging, the growth of messaging operations. Nearly half of all the staff who work for Senate leadership offices work on communications. In the House, it’s around a third.
Frances Lee: That growth has been underway in this era of party competition. It started in the Senate in the 1980s, just as competition for control of the Senate returned. It got underway in the House in the 1990s with that arms race between the parties to more effectively wage a messaging battle against the other side. I don’t think you can understand the toxic partisanship in today’s Washington without some reference to the ferocious, knife’s-edge competition between the parties that has characterized our era.
Brink Lindsey: Frances, you focused on the dynamics within the legislature. I want to back up and look as well at the dysfunctions in the relationship between the legislature and the executive. There we have another wrinkle in our system that is a source of mischief, which is that we are a presidential system with separation of powers. Political scientist Juan Linz, who spent a lot of time worrying a great deal about the inherent instability of presidential systems, observed that the problem with political science is that your sample size is always terribly small. But presidential systems generally are much more unstable than parliamentary systems. Also, presidential systems are disproportionately Latin American, so it could be that Latin America is dysfunctional because of presidential systems, or vice versa; we don’t know.
Brink Lindsey: But there is certainly a logic to the problem of presidential systems, which is that with divided government you can have the executive branch and the legislative branch both claiming some kind of popular mandate. And if they can’t cooperate, then you have the potential for showdowns, obstructionism, extra-legal flanking maneuvers, and coups. We’ve had that from the get-go, but now we have that system operating in a political game where all the players have been trained for maximal blood sport. So how do those fit together to exaggerate the problems?
Frances Lee: Cooperation across the branches is difficult, even when the same party controls the Congress and the presidency. That’s a fact of life about our system. But under contemporary pressures, you know… Of course we’ll be discussing a whole variety of other factors that play into partisan conflict on this panel, but I’ll just focus on party competition. The party not controlling the presidency looks to the presidents who have prevailed in recent years. They’ve prevailed by narrow margins. They hold their office tenuously. It’s easy to see a way in which you could defeat them for re-election, or defeat their party’s continuation in the presidency. How do you do that? Well, you can’t give the president a win under those conditions. If you give the president a win, then you’re allowing him to make a case that he’s doing a good job. You also don’t want to give him bipartisan legitimacy. If you extend support to a president of the opposing party, that’s a way of saying that you endorse that president. And so there’s a resistance to doing that. The political incentives are more contrary to doing that in the current environment than they have been in most periods throughout the twentieth century.
Frances Lee: Conventional wisdom among political scientists and commentators is that there is usually a sun party and a moon party, a dominant party and a secondary party. For decades after 1932, that sun party was the Democratic Party, but if you look back before 1932, the Republican Party was the dominant party in national government. It’s just that we’re in the midst of a very unusual period with this constantly switching majority, these narrow majorities. And that changes the incentives that affect interbranch relationships as well as the relationships between the parties in the legislature.
Brink Lindsey: So this is a sort of idiosyncratic or America-specific contributing factor to what we’re going through, but we are not unique in what we’re going through. We’re seeing polarization and populist upheaval all around the world, and certainly in advanced democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. So when we’re looking for more general causes, we need to look for factors that are common not only for us but to other countries experiencing similar kinds of turmoil. To me, the acid test is the Poland test. Here in America, we’ve got this ongoing, sterile battle over what’s driving people crazy: Is it economic anxiety, or is it cultural backlash/racism? I happen to think both are interrelated and both are going on. But Poland is in the midst of populist upheaval and democratic deconsolidation despite having been a miracle economy with one of the most rapid growth rates in Europe in the past decade or so, and with virtually no immigration or refugee crisis at all to roil the public. So what’s going on there? Martin Gurri has identified a factor that is undermining political and social cohesion that is universal, and that is the advent of information abundance. It’s social media, but it’s beyond that. It’s 500 channels, and the Internet, plus Facebook and Twitter. How does this sort of information overload translate into the difficulties we’re experiencing now?
Martin Gurri: I guess my job is to talk about information and power. I see a flicker of panic in people’s faces when I say that. So let me start with a story. Once upon a time, I probably had the least glamorous job in the CIA. I was an analyst of global media. Early on, it was a pretty straightforward job. The amount of open information was remarkably small. Every country had some equivalent of the New York Timesthat set the news agenda, so if the principals asked questions, we knew where to go for an answer. Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the new century, the information environment went haywire. We were watching this in our little corner of CIA. Essentially a tsunami of information began sweeping over the world. That’s not just a phrase. The year 2001 produced double the information of all of previous history. The year 2002 doubled 2001. And that has gone up and down a little bit, but pretty much that trend has continued. You chart that and it looks like a tsunami, like a gigantic wave. We observed, behind that tsunami as it swept over the world, tremendous and increasing social and political turbulence; angry and mocking voices where before there had been silence. It was the first inkling or indication of this mutinous public that has since smashed political parties, overthrown dictators, and of course elected outlandish populists to office.
Martin Gurri: I learned, to my surprise, that the overabundance of information that you mention is subversive of the established order. The reasons are very complex, but the effects are demonstrable and clear. Essentially, the institutions that sustain modern society require a sort of proprietary command over the information in their own domains. When that command is surrendered, public trust evaporates and these institutions start to bleed authority and legitimacy. And by the way, I hope we take this into account in this conference. I’m not just talking politics; it’s every institution that we have inherited from the industrial age. That means of course the news media, the corporation, the university… You name it, there is a crisis of authority that is affecting those institutions.
Martin Gurri: If I were to say what the great conflict of our moment is from my research, I don’t think it’s left versus right, which I’ve heard a lot about already. I don’t think it’s authoritarian versus democrat. I think it’s the elites, who basically had managed these institutions and had much support in the public doing that, against a networked public that is now the producer of that information. It is not binary. It’s not particularly ideological. It’s not particularly program-minded. It’s not particularly policy-minded. But it is ferociously, ferociously hostile to the established order.
Martin Gurri: That public, if you look at the data, does not break easily into left and right. If you look at the Yellow Vest protestors in France, what the heck are they? And if you look at Macron, what the heck was he? It’s not that clear-cut. But there is the sense in the public that the elites and the institutions, number one, have grown too distant from them, and number two, have failed them. You can argue whether empirically that is true or not, but I think it’s a very powerful perception in the public.
Martin Gurri: The public is not a thing, it’s many things. We used to be a mass audience. If you think of the mass audience as a gigantic mirror that the institutions held up to us, that mirror has just basically been thrown on the ground and shattered. And that’s the public now. We’re all living in little shards and fragments of that. I mean, everything I’ve heard about the Niskanen Center today — that’s a shard. Donald Trump… When you are in that condition and you are so ferociously against — and again, there’s a question of why that has that happened and why the public is that way — you can only unify by picking a target and going after it. If you took, for example, the Tea Party… You could be a Tea Partier who was an extremely secular libertarian, or you could be a Tea Partier who was an extremely devout evangelical Christian. These people had nothing in common except that they despised Barack Obama and his policies. If you looked at the protestors in Tahrir Square, you could have socialists (who were probably atheists) all the way to the other side of Muslim Brotherhood youth. These people had no policies in common, no ideologies in common, no lifestyles in common, but they hated and loathed Hosni Mubarak and they were willing to put their lives at risk to see him gone.
Brink Lindsey: This phenomenon of the information age has been something that has been widely remarked on for quite some time. In particular, this idea that officialdom can’t control information like it used to has been around for a while. When this was first becoming apparent, it was generally told as a very sunny story with a distinctly libertarian spin. We talked about the CNN effect: where Stalin could kill millions in Ukraine and have plausible deniability that it was happening, dictators couldn’t do that anymore. We would see what they were doing.
Brink Lindsey: I remember Esther Dyson, the Silicon Valley guru, giving a talk at the Cato Institute where I worked once, on the end of the “official story.” Once upon a time, the elites had an official story that they then conveyed to a passive, receiving public, and that was it. But now that official story has broken down — and, in Esther’s telling at the time, yay! The officials we had in mind were bad guys that we wanted to see having less authority. What I think a lot of libertarians didn’t see in all of this kind of dynamic, particularly when it came to declining trust in institutions… We thought, “Okay, this is great! This is awakening people and bringing out their inner libertarian. If they’re distrusting authority, that means they’re discovering principles of decentralized and smaller government.” It didn’t turn out that way at all. There was no ideological coherence to this sort of force of negation at all. It was just, “The establishment is rotten.”
Martin Gurri: I talk about a “bonfire of the narratives.” I think that has very much happened. I think it’s very hard… Essentially, the old narratives assumed, “You trust us. Yeah, many pieces of this narrative probably you can refute, but the whole thing is going to take you to a place that you want to be at.” We in the olden days signed on to that. I think today there is, as you say, a tremendous force of negation, of every narrative. It’s not just the official narratives, it’s the unofficial ones as well. If you are al-Qaeda and you’re sitting around talking about “the far enemy,” all your dictators are falling in “the near enemy.” So, everything that tries to cohere as a story immediately gets attacked. I’m with David [Brooks]: We cannot, as human beings (and there’s a lot of evidence for this), exist without shared stories that begin with “Who am I?” and end with “Who are we as a nation?” There’s a kind of embedding all the way up. Without those, we start to tip into what I think is the peril, which is not authoritarianism — I think we are as far from authoritarianism (in this broken, shattered environment that I’ve described) as you can get — it’s nihilism. It is the sense that… There are people who define the nihilist as somebody who believes that destruction is a form of progress –– destruction of an institution, for example, but sometimes it’s just a person who picks up a gun and destroys human lives.
Brink Lindsey: So in this nihilistic environment, which can create great openings for demagogues and authoritarians if they’re clever and opportunistic… The way I understand the logic of your argument is that in this nihilistic environment, nobody trusts officials. And why is that? There’s a story. Well, you don’t trust elites anymore because elites have really screwed up. They’ve made one failure after another — and not just political elites, but social elites generally. Chris Hayes’ book Twilight of the Elitesjust marches through the ‘00s and tells one story after another of beloved social institutions disappointing us, not only in politics with the Iraq war and the financial crisis, but in Major League Baseball with the steroids crisis, and the Catholic church with the child abuse scandal. So in one place after another, the elites have let us down. It isn’t necessarily, though, that they are letting us down any more than in the past. It could simply be that when they let us down, it’s much more apparent than it was in the past.
Martin Gurri: That’s an argument that I make in the book. Of course, it’s hard to tease apart. I’ve been accused of criticizing modern government for having failed. Well, I haven’t really. I’m trying to explain that people perceive this. It’s hard to draw the line between empirically what’s correct in these critiques of elites and institutions, and what is just a kind of visceral dislike of the way things are right now — which I think in part is derived from what David mentioned, which is that we’re demanding existential rewards from politics. That’s never going to happen. We want politics to make our lives meaningful. Well, that’s never going to happen. You look at the Indignados and the Tent Protest in Israel, and there was this longing: “You people in government are not giving us meaningful lives.” Part of it I think is empirical. You can make a case that the industrial elites have a particular way of dealing with crises which is top-down, and these eruptions therefore invariably shock and surprise them. It’s amazing, almost funny, to watch, time after time after time. Emmanuel Macron had no idea of what hit him. He was looking up, he wasn’t looking down.
Brink Lindsey: I want to wheel around to what is mostly in the headlines… We’ve been talking about sort of subterranean factors that are more subtle and less obvious. It’s quite obvious that the two political parties hate each other and that we are in this age of toxic partisanship. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, if polls asked someone, “How would you feel if your child married someone from another race?” — that question would produce a kind of reflexive terror. Now the racial fear has subsided dramatically, but it has been replaced by partisan fear. If your daughter was to marry a MAGA hat wearer — well, that would be just as bad as it could possibly get. And likewise on the other side. We know this is going on. It’s a very unusual state of affairs for American politics — not to have conflict, but to have ideologically polarized conflict. Our parties used to be these weird sort of grab-bags of regional identities with not a lot of principled difference between them. Margaret, walk us through this generation-long march of polarization and political sorting. Was it purely inevitable? Did somebody make bad decisions? Is there blame to be handed out? How do you see it?
Margaret Hoover: It’s funny you mentioned the marriage element. I come from a tradition of what my father said at my wedding was “Western conservatives.” There was actually a bit of what you described as the polarization at my wedding over who I was marrying. I wasn’t marrying a MAGA hat wearer, I was marrying a centrist. If you come from a long line of Republicans — and Herbert Hoover was one of them — Republicans don’t marry Democrats, but they especially don’t marry mushy moderates. [laughter] In some ways, that was even worse! I think my people would have known what to do in the other circumstance, where to draw our lines.
Margaret Hoover: But I think rather than walking you through how we got to here… I mean, my experience in politics and my experience in this realm is as someone of the center-right, somebody who identified with the ideas of the modern American conservative movement (most of them) as espoused by Bill Buckley and as led by Buckley. It’s very humbling to have Sam Tanenhaus in the front row here, but he was right when he wrote in 2009 that conservatism was dead. It took the conservative movement until maybe 2016 to truly recognize the consequences of the death of Buckley and, frankly, the death of leadership on the right.
Margaret Hoover: What we had in those intervening years after that book The Death of Conservatismwas published… You had the significant failures of conservatism in the Bush administration, and the failures at the end of the Bush administration particularly. The president had claimed to be conservative but had quite confused some of the principles of conservatism, specifically on fiscal conservatism and the war in Iraq. And some of his governing failures, I think, led to a point where… Of course, there was an overwhelming tide of support for the historic presidency of Obama. But there was also a realization by operatives on the center-right that the coalition that had been assembled and had been successful, and that had really codified the ideas of Buckley under Reagan, no longer had enough of a political constituency to get elected. Not in 2008, not in 2012… And in the primaries of 2016 it just became eminently apparent. I see Avik Roy in the front row nodding. He was a really seminal thought leader and part of Rick Perry’s campaign, who wrote one of the best speeches about how the Republican Party might bind together in a way that would attract a diverse, rising generation of Americans to a set of center-right ideas. But Rick Perry couldn’t get anywhere.
Margaret Hoover: What we recognized was that the ideas that we thought would be most attractive from the center-right felt cannibalized in 2016. The expression of the failure of conservatism became most apparent in 2016 during those primaries. But it wasn’t that Donald Trump took over the conservative movement. The conservative movement had already burned itself to the ground, and Trump walked in the front door. That is my view.
Margaret Hoover: What has happened since then is that Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party — its apparatus, its structures. There’s an increasing set of us here, as David articulated at the beginning, who have no home on the right. And we certainly aren’t going to find the answers to those questions, and the vehicle for the right ideas for the future of the country, on the left either. We had talked about how the conversation leading into 2016 was about asymmetrical polarization, and how we were more polarized on the right than on the left. Maybe we just had a head start! [laughter] I think that has become clear as we look at the Democratic Party having exactly the inverse experience the Republican Party had in its 2016 primary process. There are many factors that have led to this polarization over time.
Brink Lindsey: Let’s walk through in detail where you’ve focused on in the last decade. The way I see it, governing conservatism discredited itself during the George W. Bush years with a lot of big failures: Iraq, Katrina, the financial crisis. They paid a price. They got thumped in ‘06, and they got thumped in ’08. I was happy that happened. I thought, “Okay, I saw this kind of thing happen to Democrats in the ‘80s, and now repeated electoral losses will force the GOP back to the center.” I thought that the growing populist vibe of the Republican Party which had come to dominate concerns about policy — maybe this loss would shove that back in the box. But instead it just got worse. Then after 2012, there was the whole “autopsy report”: “Hey, we’ve got to reach out to the rest of America, not just white guys!” But on both of these occasions, getting humbled by Democrats did not occasion anything other than a kind of a doubling-down ethos. How did that happen? Was there a failure of the good guys to make a more persuasive case? Why was the populists’ momentum so irresistible?
Margaret Hoover: I think the party apparatus and structures actually aren’t about ideas anymore, they’re about retaining power. They simply, unfortunately, made a calculation… There’s really a staph infection, I think, on the Republican side and in the Republican apparatus. They weren’t actually about ideas. I don’t think that the autopsy report, having spoken to Ari Fleischer about it when he was putting it together… I think actually that was a political tool to give Reince Priebus cover. Because remember, when you’re not in charge of the presidency, you don’t select the party leader; it is the party. So really it’s the most extreme members of the Republican Party apparatus who then elect the Republican Party leader. I think Reince Priebus, who is a very practical and pragmatic person in many ways, needed some kind of a fig leaf to go to his party members to say, “We need to modernize.” That gave him an excuse to support some of the blue-state Republicans, the more moderate Republicans, who didn’t fit a hard-right litmus test in some of the primaries. Frankly, that autopsy report was not this sort of high-minded, “How do we win back America?” It was really a device within the party structure to try to help win some seats that otherwise the party ideologues would not have permitted Republicans to compete in because they wouldn’t adhere to a strict party ideology.
Brink Lindsey: We’ll wheel back to Frances and probe a little bit more on your narrative. Is this a peculiarly American-specific state of affairs? Surely other countries have competitive politics. Do they go crazy, too?
Frances Lee: Well, I haven’t done international comparisons. I think our institutions rely so heavily on successful cooperation between the parties that it’s a system with checks and balances, separation of powers, and many veto points. It’s just about impossible to do anything on the strength of only one party, so we need bipartisanship to function. And not all systems require that. So the way competition disincentivizes bipartisanship wouldn’t matter the same way in a system that doesn’t basically require it to function.
Frances Lee: I can say, though, that I’ve taken a look at the fifty states, and in states that are more two-party competitive, you see more party polarization in the state legislatures, in both the upper and the lower chambers. That’s a nice and consistent pattern. There are some states that are off the regression line, but in general that pattern holds. There’s a logic there that transcends just the national context. But what makes it problematic is that we have a system that requires bipartisanship to function.
Brink Lindsey: But it feels weird that a huge problem is being caused by politics operating as you think it ought to, right? You ought to have two competitive parties. And when we moved to being this 50/50 nation, it seemed to me that, “Okay, political markets are getting more efficient. In the past, we had these long periods of Republican dominance and then Democratic dominance. But perhaps now, in our age of polling and better information access, parties are able to tailor their message faster to chase the median voter, or at least to chase 51 percent.” You could picture that it would be naturally the course of things that a more efficient politics would be a more competitive politics, because somebody would have to be doing something wrong to stay out of power for decades. But does that mean we can’t do competitive and coherent politics at the same time?
Frances Lee: Well, my argument does sort of run contrary to the conventional wisdom that competition is always good for democracy. Put it this way, maybe it’s not the case that the more competition, the better. Maybe our system worked better during periods when you had a party that really commanded the trust of most Americans, so that that party could govern and then induce cooperation from the opposing party because the opposing party was not constantly preoccupied with retaking majority control. Of course, in a democracy you have to have an ability to criticize those in power, and you have to have an ability to hold them accountable. But this knife’s-edge politics may not be the most functional form that competition can take.
Brink Lindsey: Alas, when you look at the circumstances that led one party to be overwhelmingly trusted as the governing party… In the one case, it was that the other party fomented treason and a civil war and lost, so that discredited them pretty badly. Then in the other case, you had one party leading the country into the worst economic downturn ever, and the other party pulling us gradually out of that and then defeating the world’s most evil tyranny in the greatest armed conflict of all time. So those are unusual events on which to base this kind of consensus strength of one party. That suggests, then, that we have to wait for some kind of crazy lightning strike to get back into that kind of situation.
Frances Lee: I do think it’s the case that the previous periods of long one-party dominance stemmed from the discrediting of the opposition more than a public endorsement or support of the agenda of the party in power. So it was not a mandate to do X or Y; instead, it was, “Well, we can’t really trust the other side, for various discrediting reasons.” So it’s not the happiest story there either. Another thing that you normally see is that a party with a secure majority tends to factionalize and fragment. There’s a lot more infighting in a dominant party. That’s also what you see in the states where you’ve got a single party that has been in power for a really long period of time — a lot of infighting. But it’s a more pluralistic politics. There’s more in play. A coalition can win on one issue and then a different coalition wins on another. In a system like the U.S., given the multiple centers of power, it may work better to have a loose, large majority party coalition in power, which can be criticized and can be thrown out, but maybe not thrown out every two years.
Margaret Hoover: To the point of “Where is the center holding?” or “Why isn’t the center holding?”… We understand that it’s polarization, we understand that there are plenty of examples both in Washington and the states where it’s not holding. But the places where it is holding are in the states. You mentioned Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. In the places where the center is holding, you do have these unconventional coalitions and leadership doing unconventional things. Larry Hogan is this extraordinary example, when you think about it. As a Republican being reelected in Maryland, he won 30 percent of the African-American vote…
Brink Lindsey: Running against an African-American candidate.
Margaret Hoover: Running against the former president of NAACP, right? So the center is holding in some places.
Brink Lindsey: But in both states, you have a dominant party. Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan are of a type. When you have a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic, every once in a while the voters want a Republican to come in and clean up house. That’s a particular model, but it affirms the point that you can get more coherent governance if you’ve got a sun party and a moon party.
Brink Lindsey: Martin, you’ve identified something new under the sun: information abundance. And you saw as the millennium switched, just from your perch at the CIA, how things changed dramatically. Just to push a bit, this isn’t the first time there have been crises of authority. Back in the ‘60s, people wore buttons saying, “Question Authority.” Robert Nisbet wrote a book in 1975, The Twilight of Authority. Certainly throughout the whole “long ‘60s,” people thought that we were undergoing a crisis of authority, that old verities were going by the boards. There was this youth convulsion, and everything that had been sacred was being questioned. Then you could go further back and look at another period where a breakthrough in information technology led to social upheaval: the printing press gives us the Reformation and a century-plus of unparalleled slaughter. So it’s something new under the sun in a way, but…
Martin Gurri: I don’t think there’s anything new under the sun in human affairs. I think there are these periods… I’ve gotten this question a lot. As a student of history, I think it would be fascinating for somebody smarter than me to research these pivotal moments where old structures just seem to break down with tremendous rapidity: 1848, for example, and the French Revolution before that. Each one is determined by the conditions under which they take place. I lived through the ‘60s, too, and believe it or not I was one of those hippies that was out there demonstrating against the war and so forth. That was under a certain set of assumptions and understandings of what being a radical was, all right. Essentially, if you pushed it hard enough, it meant you wanted to take over the government, so that the government would do the radical things you wanted done. That is not the way things are right now. It’s a strangeness about the radical movements of the last fifteen, twenty years that they are very anti-government and very anti-some figure that runs the government. But in the end, they stand back and say, “Now you fix it.” So they go to the very source that they are rebelling against and say, “It is up to you now to make this right.”
Brink Lindsey: It seems to me that there are real common elements between the sort of ‘60s New Left and these activated publics that you chronicle in Arab countries, in Greece, Israel, Spain… The sort of amorphousness, the allergy to anything that looked like hierarchy was very much a New Left thing. The fact that they weren’t up against the wall in any kind of privation. The Port Huron Statement of 1962 starts out saying that “We were raised in at least modest comfort,” or something like that. These were people who had done pretty well by the system, but nonetheless had come to think that the system was irredeemably rotten. What is different though, is that they then wanted to trash the system and run things themselves, whereas it feels like these new activated public movements just want to negate, blow the horns until the walls fall down, and then just go home and let somebody else build again.
Martin Gurri: My favorite line from the Port Huron Statement is “Every man an artist!” I honestly don’t know how representative the Port Huron people were. I honestly don’t know how representative even those of us who demonstrated in the streets were. The polls show practically to the end of the Vietnam War that a majority of American youth supported the war. I think on the other hand, when you flip to the present, this is I guess… Let me back off. Maybe there is a case to be made that a lot of the anger that we perceive today is rhetorical anger. You cannot succeed in this information environment without making a very loud, angry noise and hopefully finding somebody on the opposite side you proclaim to hate who’s going to then heave it back at you. You engage, and then you become a hero to your side, he becomes a hero to his side. How much of that anger is real? That’s a really good question. So there may be a silent, moderate mass out there that basically cannot express itself because if you do not engage in that very angry negation towards the other side, you will not be heard. You simply will not be heard.
Brink Lindsey: Margaret, you talked about the Republicans and conservatives who weren’t able to learn the lessons of electoral losses in ’06, ‘08, or 2012 because they had just run out of ideas. They had lost the capacity to form new ideas. It seems to me part of that is because their old ideas worked, until those issues went away. So they had a big idea to win the Cold War — and they won the Cold War, so that idea went away. They had a big idea that we need to be tough on crime — and then in the mid-‘90s, for reasons we still are trying to sort out, the crime wave which had been one of the big sociological facts of the second half of the twentieth century just went into reverse. A lot of the big ideas that had been foundational for conservatism during the Buckley years disappeared, and it seems like the failure was then to come up with a new act.
Margaret Hoover: I think that’s basically right. I think the unifying principle — not the unifying principle, but the existential threat of the Cold War created a codifying and a cohesive sort of glue. One of the historians of the modern American conservative movement, George Nash, said that conservatism is not univocal; it is a wide river with many tributaries. The multiple factions — from economic libertarians to social conservatives to the evangelical Protestants in the South to the neoconservatives — all the different factions were really unified by the existential threat of the Cold War. And I don’t think that anything has ever replaced that. [The end of the Cold War] really began the unraveling of the modern American conservative movement that was put together by Buckley and his peers.
Margaret Hoover: I think there isn’t an organizing principle on the right. Many have thought that maybe, in the wake of 9/11, the existential threat of radical Islamism might provide that same cohesiveness, and that hasn’t borne out. But we’re at a time, certainly on the right and the center-right, where many thought too that maybe principles of fiscal responsibility and intergenerational responsibility, vis-a-vis Paul Ryan and his peers, might offer this transcendent sort of codifying idea or theme that could be passed on. Not only has that not borne out, that has also left Washington entirely. Now you have a president who, when he ran through the primaries, agreed that he wouldn’t even touch any of the entitlement programs that will have to be saved for new generations in order to continue this “opportunity society with a safety net,” as the right likes to say. So there is no organizing principle on the right or on the center-right — or on the center-left. But it’s true that there are enough ideas that we agree on, and there is a moderate mass, there is a moderate majority of Americans that do have more in common on the center-right and the center-left than they do with the extremes of their own side.
Brink Lindsey: It seems to me that the Cold War, as you pointed out, provided coherence for the right. But it also imposed constraints on left/right, Republican/Democratic competition. That idea that politics stops at the water’s edge has more oomph to it when over on the other side of the water there’s some guy with 10,000 nukes aimed at you. And it seems to me no big coincidence that the last president elected who was, however grudgingly, nonetheless obviously thought to be the legitimate president by the other side was George H. W. Bush, in the last Cold War election. Subsequent to that, Clinton had scandal and Republicans never thought he belonged in office and were always looking to oust him. George W. Bush came in with the Florida hanging chads and was thought immediately to not really have won the election. Obama won handily but still the birtherism controversy, that hairball got coughed up to challenge his legitimacy. Then, of course, Trump launched a Resistance in opposition to him. So the really grim implication is that good things like competitive politics, or the end of an existential threat, can produce terrible political results; that our relatively happy, more coherent politics was a feature of terrible things like the discrediting failures of political parties in the past or of enormous looming threats. It feels like we need something really bad to make us act responsibly.
Frances Lee: 1988 was our last landslide presidential election. All of them have been much closer since then, and the red-blue map has become how we talk about our politics. So it’s very challenging for a president to have that commanding legitimacy when he’s only elected by about slightly more than half the country, or even in some cases slightly less than half the country.
Brink Lindsey: The political polarization’s roots are in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party. Southerners had been held in the Democratic Party because of their focus on maintaining segregation, and Northern Democrats’ acquiescence in that held that coalition together. When it finally ruptured and the Civil Rights Act was passed, then you had this bunch of Southerners who were suspicious of government and a lot of government spending, didn’t like high taxes, didn’t like unions, were very hawkish… They had a lot of Republican characteristics otherwise, but they had been held in the Democratic column by race. Now with that excuse gone, there is an argument that they just naturally then gravitated into the Republican Party
Brink Lindsey:That argument makes sense as far as it goes. What doesn’t seem inevitable to me was that since Southerners had all these other things that pulled them towards the Republican Party, why did the Southern strategy have to dog-whistle so much? Why did they have to specifically “southernify” the Republican Party through this kind of culture war and coded or not-so-coded appeals to cultural conservatism in the South? That wasn’t necessarily the path they had to take to take advantage of this new opportunity, but that’s the path they took.
Margaret Hoover: I identify and relate far more with the Western conservative themes, and also sort of with the Rockefeller Republican themes. So, not having the personal understanding, but knowing a bit about the history of the South… This was the paradigm of the South: race and segregation. I mean, it’s like if you go to Puerto Rico… they don’t think about anything other than statehood. Statehood is the predominant political issue in Puerto Rico. In the South, segregation and integration, and the Civil Rights Act and race — that was the defining theme. I think those other issues you mentioned were secondary, tertiary. But the number one issue was one, two, and three.
Brink Lindsey: Frances, tell me your take on that. Was it unavoidable that this would happen — this ideological sorting, even though we had never had ideological sorting of our parties before?
Frances Lee: There was a lot of speculation for many years that that would be how the parties would sort out. The visionaries started talking about that in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, saying that this should happen. They thought it would happen. It took much longer than they expected. I think rather than asking the question of how it happened, I think it’s also important just to pay attention to the fact. What does it mean that we now have a party system organized in this way? That, you know, we have a party system where the racial divide is much deeper between the parties than it used to be. In 1950, the country was 90 percent white. The country now is about 61 percent white. The Republican Party has not gotten more diverse since 1990, as a percentage of people who identify with the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is more diverse than the country as a whole. So that racial divide between the parties is much deeper. That’s going to fuel further antagonism as a social dimension to our polarization. So if you are now the leader of a party that’s organized in a way that represents social cleavage that’s grounded heavily in race, then that escalates those issues. I think in some ways it’s not surprising that a more truculent populism grounded in racial resentment has come to the fore post-2016. I think that that was building for a long time — decades of where the parties were sorting out not just geographically, but also sorting out along racial lines.
Brink Lindsey: So it’s not just that the parties have split into a left party and a right party, but that the axis of left-right conflict these days is much more about culture than it is about economics. That seems to me to be a contributing factor to the nastiness of our politics. Of course, you can have class war politics that’s violent and uproarious, but there is a potential to compromise on dollars-and-cents issues that’s lacking in conflicts over religion, over race, where there’s nothing to compromise over.
Brink Lindsey: Why did we switch from an economics-based political competition to a culture-based competition? There’s a lot of reasons. One, it seems to me, is that a group of media entrepreneurs came to be in this more open information environment and saw a huge market opportunity in conservative media and basically in pandering to the resentments of an audience who felt that their views and their cultural sensibility weren’t being reflected in the national, Eastern, liberal, elite media. So, first in talk radio, then Fox News, and then on the Internet and through social media, there was a bunch of people who saw that “We can make a lot of money getting people mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore, and riling them up on cultural lines.” Do you think that they were just riding a wave and catering to what the audience wanted, or is there agency on the part of these media entrepreneurs — that they have led us towards this more culture war kind of politics?
Frances Lee: Well, it’s not unprecedented in U.S. history. I wouldn’t suggest that something about the media environment today is different than the past. Post-Civil War, the decades of the late nineteenth century, the party divide was very much on the basis of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” —that gaffe which sort of summed up what the parties were really fighting about. They didn’t disagree on economic issues. They didn’t have big programmatic differences during that period before 1896. That’s a period of lots of identity politics. Now we have it again. It wasn’t impossible for that to arise at a time when communications were much slower and the country was much less knit together, and yet we still had politics very much grounded in social identity.
Brink Lindsey: Let’s try to be hopeful. Are there any indicators or any potentialities for things to get better? Martin, you seem to be shaking your head. [laughter] How does Humpty Dumpty put himself back together again?
Martin Gurri: You know, I constantly get called a techno-pessimist and a dark prophet. I really am not. I really am not. I look at what’s happening now and it could be… It’s so complex. I mean, I think the characteristics are clear, and the outlines you can sort of devise and divine. But it may well be that what we’re experiencing today is not some tremendous, permanent imploding of democracy, for example, or our political institutions. We just may be going through a tremendous transition moment. That transition includes the media, big-time; information, big-time; inclusive fact that the public is empowered, big–time.
Martin Gurri: There’s an idea that anything the public follows that they don’t like, there must be some elite that’s manipulating them. I do not believe that, necessarily. But there’s also the fact that the Baby Boomers — us, me — we’re not that young anymore. We’re yielding to a new generation that was born and bred very differently than ours, in a different world than ours. I think what we need to do is manage this in a way that all the essential goods of American society, of which there are so many, are protected. Hopefully, when the kids take over, they will have as good a life as ours. I am not a pessimist.
Frances Lee: I’ll weigh in with one institution that I think has not been undercut. The constitutional system still has rock-solid legitimacy to the public, and that’s a wonderful asset that we have.
Martin Gurri: A good one.
Frances Lee: And so the continued support for this system… And it’s a compromise-inducing political system; it’s just about impossible to do anything simply on the strength of one party. So that’s something. We’re trying to end on a happy note…
Brink Lindsey: We have this politics now where contestation is mostly about cultural differences, and our dividing lines, our political fissures, are along racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious lines. That seems to be a much more combustible kind of politics than one that’s arguing about dollars and cents. Could the fact that the Democrats now are much more ambitious on their left side than they have been in quite some time, and are pushing for and thinking about major new initiatives to expand the role of government in this way or that way — could that then summon into being a more substantive center-right opposition? We finally have some big-stakes economic stuff to argue about again. Could that then divert us away from arguing about who’s a real American and who isn’t?
Margaret Hoover: One would hope. Often my experience on the right is that the right spends its time articulating and fighting what it doesn’t like on the left rather than coming up with constructive solutions to counter that. But we can always hope! I do think though, to this larger point about whether there is a moment for centrism to really adhere and hold political gravitas in the middle… Obviously we’re not there now. Obviously this is not exactly that moment. But this is the time to begin building that moment. Because the right, and the center-right, and what is left of the ideas of the modern American conservative movement still have merit, and have no home politically. And while they may not have their home politically on the right, because of what I think we are about to endure in terms of the Democratic primary and the emergence of the far left, there is going to be, in the nearer future than there has been ever before, a moment and an opportunity for the center-right and the center-left to begin to build a new national narrative that is one of unity and cohesion, and which is an antidote to the moment of polarization in politics. Because it is true that the millennials are far more pragmatic and interested in problem-solving than they are in labels. It is also true that the generation behind them seems to have those characteristics even more so.
Margaret Hoover: I don’t want to say blithely, “Oh, the kids are going to get it better than us.” But I do think that the moment is nearer than it has ever been. And that is why it is so important that these conversations begin now — that we begin to build this architecture now, this language now, so that there is an opportunity for leadership then to step into its place. That is how we have successful political movements in this country. That was, the work, frankly, that Buckley did in the early ‘50s and the ‘60s to build what became an architecture for the conservative movement. That has to happen again, but in the center or the center-right. And that’s the good work that you’re doing here today.
Brink Lindsey: From your lips to God’s ears! [laughter] We have time for a couple of questions. Wait for a microphone.
Arnold Kling: It seems to me there are forces of social division that are much stronger than they ever were. At General Motors, whatever the class differences, they were all in it together. Blue-collar workers and white-collar workers depended on each other, and they knew that. Google doesn’t face that. Facebook doesn’t face that. We know that the distribution of income is changing. We know that colleges and the rest of the country are in different places. We know that college-educated women and non-college-educated men now form, in some sense, the base of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, and they’re very far apart. Given that, is a politics of love even possible? Is there any way we can put that Humpty Dumpty back together?
Brink Lindsey: Time will tell, but it’s a sobering question. You talk a lot about the contrast between the industrial age and these mass movements, and now we have de-massified. We had mass production industries with huge workforces that tied them to capital because there were all these huge enterprises, and they had a kind of coincidence of interest. You had a kind of top-down politics where the masses received instruction from the leaders, and occasionally would have a spasm but really couldn’t coordinate to do anything like they can do these days. We have definitely disintegrated, and that has bred dis-integration.
Brink Lindsey: I wrote a book, TheAge of Abundance, about the culture wars of the ‘60s and ‘70s and all of these things that were tearing us apart at that time — and then suddenly, in the ‘90s, it seemed that a lot of those old culture-war conflicts were healing. So could we just be in a messy transition now, and that we will find kind of a new equilibrium — maybe a more local equilibrium — than the big mass-level coherence that we had before? I think, Martin, that you’re sniffing for some kind of lower level of authority that’s closer to people and that is therefore less vulnerable to…
Martin Gurri: Obviously. I agree 100 percent what David said about decentralization. The old industrial mindset was “one size fits all.” You cannot do policies like that anymore, because you’re going to alienate 70 percent of the public and you’re going to probably spark a revolt somewhere. We seem to be politically divided along geographic lines. So the more you push down to the localities and to the states, I think the less that’s going to happen. Also, one last thing I would say is that we are moving at Internet speed. Political landscapes change with amazing, amazing speed. So all these dark things that we see right now could swirl around tomorrow. I keep using France as my example because it’s like an archetype. I mean, Macron came from nowhere. He completely blitzed through a political system that was completely fossilized and totally unwelcoming of newcomers. His party was set up a year before he won his election. There he was, the hero Macron, the new man. Within a year, this Yellow Vest revolt came in and down goes Macron. Neither of those events would have been predictable. They happened with the speed of light — which is the speed of the Internet, of course.
Frances Lee: Just one thought here, too… We don’t want to mistake a polarizing discourse for genuine polarization on issues. The loud voices are not necessarily representative. That’s true of social media, and it’s also true in Congress. And if you’re looking at the new Congress, the 116th Congress, we hear the new voices of the emergent far left in the Democratic Party, but they’re way out of proportion to their numbers in the new House of Representatives. The Democrats have their majority now because they won lots of suburban seats that are in New Jersey, and Houston, and Southern California. These members are not out there, you know, being really active in social media trumpeting an alternative narrative. But they’re there, and they have a vote on issues. So the center can hold on issues — in Congress, and in politics, and in the country as a whole — even when our discourse is very antagonistic.
Mike Nelson: I’m Mike Nelson. I used to be a professor of Internet studies at Georgetown, and I am a cyber–optimist still. I’m also struck by the point you just made, which is that things are moving incredibly fast, and we are developing new tools and new ways that we can counter disinformation. We might even get algorithms that push us towards consensus instead of away from consensus. I’d be interested… If any of you were the chief engineer of the Internet, or of Facebook, how would you redesign the Internet so it might be a force for centrism instead of polarization?
Martin Gurri: Wouldn’t touch that one. [laughter] I am by temperament a let-it-fly man, so I would not redesign anything. But I would take down as many barriers to speech as possible.
Brink Lindsey: That sounds like your job to figure it out for us, Mike. [laughter]
Martin Gurri: Drop me a line when you do.
Brink Lindsey: Righthere for our final question.
Deborah Devedjian: I’m Deborah Devedjian and I run the TheChisel.com. We have a bipartisan civic engagement platform in which we do exactly that. All the proposals that are posted on TheChisel.com are jointly created by the American Enterprise Institute and the Urban Institute, or the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, and a whole host of other bipartisan and multi-stakeholder groups at the community, state, and federal levels. So go to the site. It’s free. You can post your proposals.
Brink Lindsey: Thank you very much. That’s a helpful, constructive note on which to end. We have hit the end of our time. I want to thank the panelists very much for your interesting thoughts.