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The Great American Disconnect

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A disconnect ensues: Even as the American public has indeed polarized, our elected representatives have fled to the extremes to an even greater degree.”

If we had to pick one word to describe why American politics has been both so dysfunctional and so divisive in the post-9/11 era, “disconnect” might work.

First, there is the disconnect between politicians and the people writ large generated by the distorting effects of party primaries. Especially as Americans geographically sort into partisan enclaves, House districts have grown safer. Thus, the principal electoral threat that elected officials face is their primary, not the general election, and the greatest danger in a primary is being outflanked on one’s left if one is a Democrat or outflanked on one’s right if one is a Republican. Thus, members of Congress play to the most fringe sector of their district in order to win. A disconnect ensues: Even as the American public has indeed polarized, our elected representatives have fled to the extremes to an even greater degree. There is a disconnect between the representatives and the represented, leaving an “exhausted majority”—spanning the centers of both parties—increasingly unrepresented in Congress.

Second, there are the curious disconnects within the parties. Both are worrisome, but for different reasons. 

On the Republican side, there is a disconnect between the popular base and the leaders (in office and in the media), which is primarily the result of lies. The base is now riddled with true believers in the election fraud conspiracies. It has been radicalized to a considerable degree. Those who are part of this base have bought into narratives peddled by folks like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who know the narratives to be false. The elites have unleashed something to which they are now being held hostage. 

On the Democratic side, the reverse dynamic is at work: The base does not hold the party captive; rather, its operatives do. In the 2020 primaries, Democratic voters spoke clearly: They did not want cultural (or socialist) revolution; they wanted a placeholder president, a uniter, a moderate. They wanted Joe Biden. But now in office, President Biden does not seem to be running the show. He is pushing for a transformative presidency veering fairly severely to the left—on both the economic and culture war fronts—and he is coming up short at every turn. Media figures and the particularly vocal portions of the more progressive fringe of the party lay blame for President Biden’s failures at the feet of Senators Manchin and Sinema, but, in reality, their focus on consensus and compromise is more in line with the message of Democratic primary voters than the mandate for a transformational presidency that the staffers of the Biden White House have dreamed up. 

Third, there is a growing disconnect between our political selves and our real selves. Because so much of political import now occurs at the national level—and not even in our most representative branch of government (Congress) but, rather, in the courts and executive branch agencies—we are left thinking that our own political behavior does not matter very much. That is, the stakes of how we intake political information, reflect on it, and then talk about it are low. Thus, while on the whole American society is filled with functioning adults, when we enter the political realm many of us become the worst versions of ourselves. We no longer directly feel the consequences of our political behavior, so then we act as if there are no consequences. What ensues is coarse, inane, and silly politics. 

Finally, there is a disconnect between the quality of American elites and the quality of American political elites. Unless human nature suddenly changes (it will not), every society—including democratic societies—will necessarily have some version of an elite class. The markers of that class will include some combination of money, status, prestige, influence, distinction, education, honor, military recognition, and political power. 

Today, the United States is blessed with an abundance of extraordinary elites in the fields of science and business, for example. Think of the leaders behind the development of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines or the innovators that have brought us smartphones. Also, think of the brilliant Nobel Prize-winning researchers stationed at our leading universities.

Then, think of the United States Congress. The contrast is striking. While American science and business give us life-saving medicines and ground-breaking technologies, our leading political institution is so beset by internal division and so devoid of leadership that after a separate branch of government effectively unleashed a mob on it, it could not even muster the common sense or courage to defend itself by immediately impeaching the leader of that other branch. 

Americans who are in the driver’s seat in business, science, and medicine are not perfect, but they are on the whole innovative, responsible, and competent. The same is not true for our politics. It once was true—think of the Founding generation, the leadership of Lincoln and his “team of rivals,” the Great Depression-era leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the monumental mix of activism and politics by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson that brought an end to de jure white supremacy in this country. We have had extraordinary political leaders before. On the whole, we lack such leaders today.

In response to all these disconnects, we have to take a second and think: What can we do? How do we bridge these gaps?

I do not have a comprehensive game plan to share in this column, but I will close by noting that our best bet is to think more critically about two I’s: Incentives and Institutions. The incentives are so out of whack that they lead to such disconnects; institutional reform can help straighten out the incentives. 

On the disconnect between the ideological fervor of the American people and their elected representatives, re-structuring the institutions of party primaries in a manner that shifts incentives back towards placating the “exhausted majority” would help tone down the divisiveness. Think ranked choice voting and multimember districts.

On the disconnect between our everyday selves and our real selves, think of institutional reforms that would help concretize politics, bringing politics closer to home in the hopes of activating our more responsible everyday selves in the political realm—like by localizing more decision-making power, especially over the fraught issues of the culture wars.

These are just a few, surface-level ideas to help get the ball rolling. What is crucial is that we focus more on this concept of disconnect. Yes, American society “on the ground” is beset with problems, as are we as individuals, so our politics will never be perfectly productive and harmonious. But it is important to keep in mind that even if our politics will never be as functional as we may like, disconnects and distortions still may abound and artificially worsen them. 

Reducing the disconnects highlighted here will not usher in a perfect politics, but for those of us dissatisfied with America’s present and worried about its future, it is a good place to start.

Thomas Koenig is a student at Harvard Law School and the author of the free “Tom’s Takes” newsletter on Substack. He can be found on Twitter @thomaskoenig98

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