The story thus far at The Permanent Problem: Capitalism in the 21st century has triumphed globally and there are no viable alternatives in sight, but its powers as an engine of social progress have been faltering. We have achieved material plenty in the rich democracies, but translating that into widespread flourishing thus far eludes us. Technological progress and economic growth are sputtering; society is riven by a new class divide along educational lines, with the elite thriving on one side while a contagion of social disintegration spreads on the other.
I’ve spent the last three essays looking at whether it’s possible to get capitalism back on track: back to something like the dynamism of the 20th century, back to something like the economic inclusiveness of the North Atlantic in the postwar decades. As I see it, that’s a tall order: there are powerful forces pushing us in the direction of stagnation and division. Resisting them with any success will depend upon some combination of technological breakthroughs, cultural shifts, and major changes in governance.
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The last of these three — the need for thoroughgoing reform of capitalism’s rules of the game — brings us to the third element of capitalism’s triple crisis of the 21st century: the crisis of democratic politics. Revitalizing capitalism is a task for politics, but the fundamental problem is that politics is not external to the system. The same forces unleashed by mass affluence that have triggered worsening economic and social dysfunction have produced worsening political dysfunction as well.
A great deal has already been said and written about the current democratic recession, the rise of authoritarian populism, and the uncertain future of government constrained both by popular vote and the rule of law. My focus here, though, is not on liberal democracy’s growing vulnerability to erosion and collapse, but rather on its declining capacity to deliver appropriate governance for the capitalist system. We may muddle through with the basic institutional forms of democracy intact — I certainly hope so! — but that alone is insufficient to meet the challenges of the permanent problem.
I’ve already written about how the evolution of democracy under mass affluence has greatly complicated the task of ensuring broad-based economic inclusion. The economic leverage and latent political power of ordinary people have fallen sharply due to the declining dependence of industrial might and technological progress on the contributions of ordinary workers. Likewise, the professionalization of politics has greatly reduced the direct participation of ordinary people as well as their representation by leaders from their own ranks. Meanwhile, the shift of the primary axis of political conflict from economic to cultural questions has served to make the demographic cleavages that divide ordinary people more salient than the economic interests that unite them. As a result, opponents of egalitarian economic reform are well placed to defend their privileges through a strategy of divide and conquer.
I’ve also written about how cultural shifts triggered by mass affluence have produced widespread public attitudes that are hostile to continuing economic and technological dynamism. Loss aversion and other similar, related tendencies induce a sclerotic conservatism; the anti-Promethean backlash against large-scale disruption of the physical world has blocked some of the most promising avenues for technological advance; our increasing insulation from the hard edges of physical reality inclines us to deprioritize the continued pursuit of mastery over nature and instead devote our primary attention to the insides of our skulls.
All of these things combine to make the political terrain highly unfavorable for needed reforms. Optimizing public policy for dynamism and inclusiveness is an enormous undertaking that will require a whole herd of powerful oxen to be gored. To accomplish what needs doing will mean overcoming tenacious resistance from the current beneficiaries of the status quo — the rich and well-off, all the insider interests that have captured one piece or another of the policymaking machinery, government bureaucracies trapped in the amber of standard operating procedure, and all the far-flung members of the “vetocracy” who are empowered under current law to throw sand in the gears of any changes they consider threatening. All of which will require the gathering and mobilization of massive countervailing power — but where will it come from? Given contemporary conditions and their heavy tilt toward economic exclusion and stagnation, what are the constituencies for capitalism’s revitalization and how will they come together to force change?
Beyond the dwindling political resources for reform lies an even more fundamental difficulty. Reforming capitalism to rise to the challenge of the permanent problem would require a massive project of concerted problem-solving, but changing laws to solve real-world problems is no longer the primary focus of politics in the rich democracies. Politics today has elevated the performative over the practical: eschewing the “slow boring of hard boards” as too slow, boring, and hard, it embraces spectacle and self-expression as ends in themselves.
The shift to “identity politics,” in the full sense of that term, thus goes beyond a reorientation of political divisions from economic to demographic cleavages. As the larger culture has shifted from materialism, or the quest for tangible gains in the real world, to self-expression, political conflict likewise has moved away from a focus on the tangible actions taken by government and instead concentrates more on disputes over the relative status of clashing political identities. The demographic groupings arrayed on the left and right all have legitimate grievances with how government currently operates, and there are policy changes that could address those grievances and deliver concrete benefits. But seeking substantive redress is not where the real action in politics is these days. Rather, what truly motivates and energizes are symbolic clashes that raise the status of one’s own chosen political identity — and, more importantly, lower the status of one’s opponents.
In “The Retreat from Reality,” I discussed the rise of the new cognitive style associated with the turn toward the performative: what Yale law professor Dan Kahan calls “expressive rationality.” The performative political style, with its unshakeable confirmation bias and heightened susceptibility to conspiracy theories and other mass delusions, is often depicted as a triumph of unreason. But Kahan argues convincingly that what’s really going on is a shift from one kind of rationality to another — from “instrumental rationality,” focused on matching means to ends for practical action in the real world, to “expressive rationality,” focused on constructing and maintaining rationalizations that confirm the righteousness and superiority of one’s chosen identity. In other words, a shift from doing good in the real world to feeling good about yourself.
I wrote an essay a couple of years ago that described this phenomenon in some detail, so I’ll quote myself here at length:
We’ve just seen this dynamic play out with Trump supporters to disastrous effect. Despite seeing conspiracy theories about election fraud shot down repeatedly by Republican state election officials and Republican-appointed judges, the vast majority of Republican voters chose to believe a president who had previously charged Ted Cruz with stealing the Iowa caucuses and his dad with a role in JFK’s assassination. Some even believed him to the point that they were willing to kill and die to storm Congress and stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. All the rest, though, were merely spectators — and consequently, the deck was stacked as to where their rooting interests would lie. Since their beliefs one way or the other would have no influence over who got inaugurated on January 20, while refusing to side with Trump would alienate them from family and friends and open up uncomfortable questions about all the other lies they had readily swallowed over the past four years, Republican voters’ credulity may be shocking and depressing — but it’s no mystery.
Of course motivated reasoning is not restricted to the right. More than half of Democrats polled in 2006 said they believed George W. Bush was either involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or knew about them in advance and did nothing to stop them. And 66 percent of Democrats told pollsters in 2017 that Russia changed actual vote tallies in the 2016 election to swing the contest to Trump. Meanwhile, bending reality to fit your political priors isn’t something you only see among less informed, rank-and-file voters. Recall the spectacle last year of public health experts who condemned right-wing anti-lockdown rallies for helping to spread COVID-19 while giving a pass to Black Lives Matter protests.
Given its potency in distorting our thinking, it shouldn’t be surprising that expressive rationality is also highly effective in steering our actions down blind alleys. While ordinary instrumental rationality in politics focuses on achieving outcomes — influencing government action in this or that direction — expressive rationality focuses on taking stands. So long as you subscribe to the appropriate views and defend them with sufficient vigor, you can rest safe as a member in good standing of your chosen political tribe. Assuming any responsibility for actually moving public policy into closer accord with those appropriate views isn’t necessary; on the contrary, doing so can actually be hazardous to the effective maintenance of your tribal identity. After all, effecting real policy change requires sustained, constructive encounters with people who disagree with you — searching for common ground and building consensus around it, understanding and relating to where the other side is coming from and then making judicious compromises in pursuit of half a loaf. Do any of that long enough and you can be sure that true believers on your side will start calling you out as a turncoat….
On the right, the triumph of the performative over the practical has been almost total. During the Trump years, Republicans forsook one long-held substantive commitment after another: the importance of character in leaders, the rule of law, American leadership of international alliances, strength in the face of autocratic adversaries, openness to trade, fiscal responsibility, and on and on. Besides cutting taxes for the rich, it would seem that conservatism at present stands for little more than “owning the libs” and reflexively opposing anything that Democrats favor. In 2020, the Republican Party couldn’t even be bothered to issue a party platform for the election.
The Democratic Party remains much more closely tethered to reality because of the strong interest of important constituencies in concrete government actions to uphold rights and deliver vital services. But extremism on one side of the political spectrum almost invariably encourages extremism on the other, and the contemporary United States is no exception. In recent years, ideological zeal on the left has been surging in energy, visibility, and influence — and dangerously fraying the Democrats’ tether in the process.
We saw during the 2020 Democratic primary how pressure from progressive activists led many candidates to associate themselves with a host of fashionable-on-Twitter-but-massively-unpopular left-wing causes: Medicare for All, reparations for slavery, decriminalization of undocumented immigration, health care coverage for undocumented immigrants, expansion of the Supreme Court, voting rights for prison inmates, and so on. Although it was a close-run affair, to the country’s great good fortune the nomination went to Joe Biden, a candidate singularly uninterested in courting the loud but tiny constituency in the woke lane. But then over the summer, after the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests generated enormous energy for taking on the serious problems of police violence, activists addicted to taking stands over making progress succeeded in diverting considerable amounts of that energy into pointless and alienating distractions — namely, “defund the police” and defending rioting and looting as valid forms of protest.
Although Biden won the popular vote handily, his margin of victory in the states decisive for the Electoral College was razor-thin — even smaller than Trump’s in 2016. Had Trump won, American constitutional democracy — and with it any hopes for an America more in line with progressive values and aspirations — may well have perished. Yet even faced with this existential imperative for an unrelenting instrumental focus on retaking the White House, significant elements of the Democratic Party found irresistible temptation in putting ideological purity tests over electoral considerations.
Why such a sharp turn from instrumental to expressive rationality in politics? Several factors have been in play. When political divisions are based on personal characteristics rather than beliefs about how the world works and what government should do, it is only natural to conflate political preferences and personal identity. The decline of organized religion, meanwhile, has sent people scrambling for community and meaning; today’s politics offers a degraded simulacrum of faith. And as indiscriminate suspicion of authority erodes trust in public officials, large sections of the electorate have basically given up on government’s capacity to help them. The value of politics to this cynical audience is reduced to theater and the vicarious thrills of cheering and jeering.
Commercial mass media, now under intense competitive pressure to do whatever it takes to win ratings, clicks, and eyeballs, reinforce these dynamics. Nothing commands attention more reliably than white-hot conflict and mutual demonization, with a side of ongoing commentary about who’s up and who’s down. Identity politics is good for revenues, and news organizations serve it up with as much sensationalism and as little attention to actual policy as possible. Their defense, which is true enough but hardly exculpatory, is that they are just giving the people what they want. Given the importance of contemporary mass media’s contribution to our current “post-truth” moment, I’ll home in on the role of media in my next essay.
Of course, not everyone has succumbed to expressive rationality and the politics of spectacle. There remain plenty of sincerely public-spirited people in elected office and throughout government who work diligently to solve collective problems and provide quality services. Even in the face of highly challenging circumstances, the Biden administration, with the help of the “secret Congress,” has compiled a rather impressive record of policy accomplishments.
Nevertheless, there is no escaping the conclusion that our collective capacity to define and solve problems through government is being seriously degraded by the inanity of contemporary political discourse and practice. There has always been a gap, found in all systems of government, between what it takes to gain and hold power and what it takes to govern effectively. But in the United States and many other beleaguered democracies, that gap now looks more like a complete disconnect. Political competition in general and electoral campaigns in particular ought to serve some constructive role in defining major issues and developing working majorities to address them. But at present they are almost complete distractions from the vital project of public will formation regarding the tasks of government.
The more closely you follow the news these days, the more you pay attention to what politicians say, the more you learn about the most hotly debated controversies of the moment, the less well you understand the major challenges facing society and government and the most plausible alternatives for responding to them. For my part, both in the more conventional policy wonkery I do for the Niskanen Center and the more big-picture and speculative writing I offer on this blog, I try to pay as little attention to politics as possible. It’s a time-suck that leaves me rattled and frustrated.
The longer this toxic, brain-dead political environment persists, the likelier it is that the quality of political leadership will suffer, and suffer badly, as a result. The most admirable politicians hold their noses and descend into the muck when they have to; more cynical leaders don’t hesitate to wallow but do so as a means to the end of governing. But the leaders best adapted to operate in the current environment are those for whom the muck is all they know. And as more and more elected leaders are pure creatures of performative politics, with no knowledge of or interest in policy, the more likely it is that politics becomes the means through which we make things worse instead of better.
The current state of democratic politics, then, makes it difficult to picture how the bold and energetic reforms needed to revive the capitalist system could ever get off the ground. We are left with the hope that democracies, as Churchill once said of the Americans, will eventually do the right thing once they’ve exhausted all the alternatives. But for now, it’s hard to bolster that hope with sound reasons for optimism.
It is at least possible that autocracy could succeed where democracy fails. The hypothetical enlightened despot need not be bothered by all the constraints that public opinion and political and civic freedoms place on democratic politicians. But the odds that such a despot would come along are much longer than those that democracy will eventually get its act together. Democratic government still maintains real if inconsistent pressure to take the interests of the broad public into account; excusing political power from electoral accountability to the public will in the vast run of cases remove that pressure almost completely. Where we saw effective autocracy that promoted capitalist development in the 20th century — Korea, Taiwan, Chile — rulers faced the threat of communist revolution in the name of the common people; this threat substituted for elections in guiding autocrats toward more inclusive policies. What would push a 21st century autocracy in the right direction? If democracy does end up crumbling in the most advanced countries, I see no reason to expect anything other than worse corruption, more flagrant and extractive opportunity-hoarding, and deepening social malaise.
So make no mistake, the struggle to preserve the institutions and norms of liberal democracy is of vital importance. But it is taking place at a double remove from the main action covered on this blog. Keeping popular government alive gives us the chance to rescue democracy from its current state of performative decadence, while redeeming democracy gives us our best chance to defuse capitalism’s crises of dynamism and inclusion. We defend democracy today not to realize our hopes, but to keep them alive.
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This is the conversation America needs to hear. Much has been written about "performative politics" and celebrity in America, but no one seems to understand the culture it has created. Thanks for the effort.
Lots of good points. But "expressive rationality" sounds pretty much like "creation science".
And casting "Medicare for all" as some kind of crazy radicalism is problematic, to put it mildly.