As impeachment mania grips Washington, it is easy to descend into an ever-deepening political pessimism. But as odd as it may seem, for the first time in years, I’m optimistic about the future of American democracy. It might be because I’ve been reading more history and less news. And from the long arc of American political history, I see the bright flashing arrows of a new age of reform and renewal ahead.
Eras of reform follow a general pattern. First, a mood of impending crisis prevails. Unfairness and inequality feel overwhelming, and national politics feels stuck and unresponsive to growing demands. But beneath the shattered yet still stubborn national stasis, new social movements organize. Politics becomes exciting and full of moral energy. New writers, empowered by new forms of media, invent new narratives. And future-oriented politicians emerge to channel that energy and challenge the old establishment.
America has gone through periodic eras of political reform, every 60 years or so. The Revolutionary War; the Age of Jackson; the Progressive Era; the civil rights movement. In each era, the old rules of politics changed, the old centers of politics collapsed, and American democracy became a little more participatory and inclusive.
Of the reform periods, the Progressive Era holds the clearest parallels to ours. In the 1890s, inequality, partisanship and discontent were all sky-high. The depression of 1893-97 shattered faith that a growing industrial economy would lift all boats. New leviathan railroad and public-utility corporations seemed imposingly powerful, and partisan politics seemed thoroughly corrupted by them. Mass immigration was changing the face of the nation.
As public dissatisfaction built, and pressure grew from multiple directions, the political system eventually responded, led by a new generation of reform-oriented activists and politicians. New forms of participatory democracy — the primary, direct elections for the Senate, the initiative and the referendum — reshaped a political system that seemed to privilege the few over the many.
Women achieved the right to vote, first in cities and states, then finally nationwide in 1920. New regulatory agencies wrestled with the size and scope of giant corporate enterprises, cutting some down to size, putting stricter boundaries on others. But even as late as 1902, it was far from obvious that the years ahead would bring so much change.
A crucial Progressive Era lesson for today is that reform had no obvious order, and there was no one unified progressive movement — only a long list of social movements that sometimes made common causes and sometimes bitterly disagreed and often worked separately. Populist farmers caught in debt mobilized against the railroads. Liberal professional-class cosmopolitans grew disgusted with urban graft and devoted themselves to good-government municipal reforms. Many efforts suffered repeated setbacks before making progress. For example, women’s suffrage faced many battles before it eventually passed. In short: don’t plan too much, build coalitions opportunistically, and don’t give up.
Nor was there one leader, or even one political party, that drove change. A menagerie of ambitious politicians fused together different platforms and programs, and fought over fundamental issues: How much should rest on direct as opposed to representative democracy? Was it better to break up big companies, or just strengthen the ability of government to regulate them? Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, Woodrow Wilson and the coalitions backing them all had different ideas. Reform was incoherent and chaotic. It is inherently experimental — new problems demand new solutions. In short: Don’t expect one politician or one reform to hold all the answers.
The Progressive Era left a mixed record, largely because progressives were too hostile to political parties as crucial engines of political engagement and overly optimistic about the power of independent, rational judgment. But the era’s reforms solved a particular problem of corrupt, top-down power at a particular moment. Each reformist movement can be expected only to resolve its most pressing problems in a way that keeps democracy going for a future era of reform
When future historians look back on the 2010s, they will observe three larger trends that paved the way for a new era of reform by clearing away the old consensus: a loss of faith in “neoliberal” economics, the breakdown of white male-dominated social and cultural hierarchies, and the collapse of the “normal” political process.
The financial crisis of 2008-09 and the decades-long stagnation of middle-class wages shattered the neoliberal faith that loosely regulated markets naturally bring widespread prosperity. In the last decade, leaders in both parties have turned (rhetorically, at least) against the global trade and financial system, mouthing the frustrations of voters.
The new tech giants now wield a kind of power as the central nodes of commerce and information that we haven’t seen since the railroads of the Gilded Age. For most Americans, the economy feels unfair. Capitalism has lost its luster, particularly for younger Americans. As in the Progressive Era, corporate domination and corruption are widely agreed to be a problem.
On the changing social and cultural order, both Me Too and Black Lives Matter represent profound and emblematic new social movements not just because they spotlighted and remedied longstanding injustices. They are also profound because they show how new technology and new forms of media have upended traditional power relationships by amplifying previously marginalized stories. For instance, the number of women, and particularly women of color, running for (and winning) public office has increased significantly over the last few years.
These cultural changes have provoked a backlash that contributed to Donald Trump’s rise and the associated growth of alt-right movements. Fights over identity now define national partisan competition because they echo and reinforce fundamental divides in the ethnic and geographical coalitions of the two major parties and amplify the zero-sum stakes of two-party electoral conflict. The unceasing culture war is a battle over two very different and diverging visions.
On the political system itself: The conflicts over economics and culture are intimately tied to declining faith in politics as usual and the growing distrust of government. But in a politics oriented around zero-sum questions of national identity, and with razor’s edge control of Congress constantly at stake, compromise equates to surrender.
Close two-party politics is a recipe for nasty two-party politics. Our government is not working under this strain because it was designed to prevent narrow majoritarian politics and instead demand broad compromise. But the good news is that dysfunction is the precursor to reform. The breakdown of norms has an upside — it’s possible to put new, fairer norms in place of old, broken ones. Presidential candidates now talk about structural reform, like the abolishing the Electoral College and adding judges to the Supreme Court and even adding states to change the balance of power in the Senate.
In short, in each area — economic, cultural, political — whatever once passed for an old consensus is gone. The range of the possible has expanded greatly in the past decade, and in many directions.
The history of American democratic reform has been on balance progressive. In each era, reformers achieved at least some of their goals, and new political and economic rules tamed the most striking injustices, at least for a while.
But history never repeats itself perfectly. And we’ve never quite had a president as defiant and hostile as Donald Trump before. The hyperpolarization that powered and sustains Mr. Trump is the first and essential challenge a coming era of reform must solve. Left to escalate further, the current partisan ratchet of constitutional hardball will break our democracy.
But here’s why I’m ultimately optimistic: I see how much the election of Mr. Trump acted as an impetus for people who care about democracy to get involved. The 2018 election registered the highest turnout midterm election in 104 years, and the smartmoney is on a similarly high turnout election in 2020. It may sound strange to say, but Mr. Trump’s election may yet turn out to be the shock and near-death experience that American political system needed to right itself.
I’m also optimistic because the one reform with the most potential to break our zero-sum partisanship, ranked-choice voting, is gaining tremendous momentum at the state and local level. In 2018, Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting for federal elections (after Mainers approved it in two statewide referendums). This month, New York City voters adopted it. Also in 2020, expect voters in Alaska and Massachusetts to decide whether they want in on ranked-choice voting.
By removing the spoiler effect of third parties, ranked-choice voting can break the us-versus-them force driving our partisan warfare, and create space for a political realignment that creates new coalitions to shape economic reforms and negotiate social change.
When political conditions become intolerable, people eventually stop tolerating them. And when old rules and power structures crumble, new ones emerge. Now is the time to participate. Get involved in a cause you believe in, and join a campaign to enact reform in your city or your state (national reform always starts at the state and local level).
As with each era of reform, we’ll get some things right and some things wrong. We’ll overcorrect for some past mistakes, and make some new ones. But democracy isn’t something to perfect or solve. It’s a continuing, improbable experiment in self-governance, of devilish scale and complexity. We’re still learning.
Lee Drutman (@leedrutman) is a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America, a co-host of the Politics in Question podcast and the author of the forthcoming “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”
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