Too much democracy is a sort of sad thing. — Ann Richards
People love to argue politics. Lately, though, even the most disputatious among us bemoan “polarization”. Apparently the American political system has broken down in some manner.
For many, polarization means “gridlock”, where the operations of government grind to a standstill as warring parties jam the gears. In fact, this type of obstacle was built into the system by the Framers, so that an uncertain America would be unable to take strong action one way or another until a strong consensus was built.
(For those of you who hate it when “nothing gets done,” how would you like it if the enemy party controlled Congress and the White House and the Supreme Court? We’d sure get a lot done. No gridlock at all!)
But the other kind of polarization has a simple cause: centralization. As more and more of our decisions are made in Washington, our highly diverse nation finds itself battling for control over the entire culture. Before hyper-centralization, most decisions were made locally; today, every faction crowds into D.C., trying to get its hands on the levers of power so that its way of life becomes the law of the land.
How did our politics get so centralized? It started during the Civil War, when federal power grew enormously. Then activists began to notice all that authority in one place and soon dreamed of appropriating this power to serve their agendas. They preached that the meaning of the American Experiment was, not liberty, but democracy. In this way, they could enlist huge armies of voters to their causes. By the mid-twentieth century, the federal government had morphed from a protector of freedom to a manager of society.
Meanwhile, the original freedom from government busybodies had proven so successful that waves of immigrants from all over the world poured into the U.S. to partake of it. Then the Progressive movement repurposed governance from guardian of liberty to guarantor of fairness, which requires a lot of regulation. But this regimentation flies in the face of the various cultures practiced by all those immigrants and their descendants.
The Framers wisely sandboxed religion, explicitly forbidding government from interfering in spiritual affairs. But more mundane affairs were left largely to fend for themselves. Today, America’s various sub-cultures all suffer from the effects of too many rules set forth by politicians and their battalions of voters.
You’d think that everyone would have a stake in fixing this problem. But the problem is tangled up with elections, and Americans are nowadays positively worshipful about democracy. Nearly all of us believe democracy is the source of American greatness. The Framers, however, installed democratic procedures, not as the foundation of governance, but as a pushback against tyranny. Leaders, they reasoned, would think twice about arbitrary rule lest they be thrown out of office at the next election. Then the voters became enamored of their own voices, to the point where today every conflict invites a push for yet another new law or, when possible, a one-size-fits-all general election. We’re tyrannizing ourselves with our own ballot boxes.
More than that, democracy contains a basic contradiction. The reasoning goes like this:
(1) All citizens are mature enough to cast votes.
(2) All voters on the losing side must obey the laws and officials elected by the winning majority, or be punished.
(3) Therefore all losing voters are not mature enough to conduct their own affairs and will be forced to behave as necessary.
This is a logic loop; it’s inherently unworkable, not to mention insulting to the losers. And every one of us is on the losing side half the time. So the less of it, the better. Except we worship democracy: “If a little bit is good, more must be better, eh?” Pretty soon everyone feels thoroughly harassed by the political process yet more than ever dedicated to it.
It’s a vicious circle: the more democracy we get, the more polarized we become, and the more we feel we must do something. So we get out the vote. Yet the more we participate, the worse we feel.
Does this remind you of anything? Yes: it’s an addiction. In every addiction, a bit too much of the drug gets us into trouble, so we take a little more to make the pain go away, and this gets us into more trouble, and so on. Soon our lives are consumed by the addiction. Let’s vote about everything!! Someone comes along and suggests we’re overdoing it and gets shouted down. The addicts are protecting their stash. Today, federal and state and local governments together consume over forty percent of the American economy. If that’s not an addiction, nothing is.
Feeling polarized, then, is like coming down after a high. We love to vote but we hate the result, and we come to loathe those fellow citizens who voted against us. This can’t be good for civic harmony. Still, we vote again, craving a fix. It’s endless. So, yeah, we get polarized.
“This is your brain on ballots. Any questions?!?”