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How to Get Off the Nauseating Thrill Ride of U.S. Politics

We’re stuck on a political Gravitron. Doubling down on local politics might be our only way to get unstuck.

Jon Ward
Jon Ward
Dec 3, 2018 · 11 min read
Photo: Prayitno via Flickr

If ever you’ve walked through a county fair, you’ve probably seen it: a hulking alien spaceship covered in blinking lights. It spins in a circle, pinning riders to its walls with centrifugal force.

It is the Gravitron, also known as the Starship.

We often refer to American politics as a circus. Showtime has an entire documentary-style political show by that name. It’s an apt description.

But the Gravitron ride is the best way to understand the gravitational forces that created this carnival. Everything today is centrifugal—pushing us away from one another and away from the center—with almost zero countervailing force.

In broad strokes, two things have turned American politics into a Gravitron ride: First, our imaginations have become untethered from group action. We understand influence only through the lens of building our individual brands. Everyone wants followers, and the way to get them is to constantly be performing, rather than collaborating with others. That’s the force that pushes us away from one another and from the center. Second, the force that used to bring people together — organizing them, cohering them, and constraining them — has died. Political parties—once the hub that made collective action possible, both within the party and in cooperation with other parties—have been cut down to near-incapacity and grow weaker by the day.

Money now flows rampant through politics, without order or accountability. Primary elections have been so “democratized” that, counterintuitively, they are less democratic.

The death of parties has put the majority of Americans—who simply want politicians to solve problems and government to work—at the mercy of those on the right and left who see politics as war and demand nothing less than total victory. Our current government shutdown has no end in sight because neither side has a political incentive to back down, leaving those impacted at the mercy of a small group of partisans.

This, of course, leads to stagnation in government and creates fertile ground for demagogues who promise to cut through the dysfunction and solve the problems by themselves. President Trump rose to power on such promises. “I alone can fix it,” he told Republicans.

People often lament partisanship or incivility. But those things have always been part of politics.

Recently, celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti gained a following for a short while by playing Trump’s game. He kept people’s attention by whatever means necessary. Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York is a power broker in the House in part because she has more Twitter followers than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

We have trouble conceiving of a different reality because we’re all playing the same game, to one degree or another. In our daily lives, we imitate these figures on social media. We project our image out into the world, scheming and posturing and exploiting our own privacy to maximize likes and followers. For some, the rewards are financial. For others, they’re simply ego-enlarging. But the end result is that we’re all stuck to the wall of the Gravitron.

It’s an adrenaline rush. But frozen in place, we’re unable to move toward one another as we spin in an endless circle. And we’re starting to feel a little ill from it all.

There was no golden age of American politics. Things are better now in many ways than they were 50 years ago, especially for minorities. But not everything is better. People often lament partisanship or incivility. But those things have always been part of politics.

Many point to polarization, gerrymandered congressional districts, and self-sorting into areas where everyone thinks the same as everyone else. But this diagnosis misses something.

The problem is not always that modern politicians are too ideological or too extreme. Even the most ideological politician can choose to be a constructive force who works toward a compromise with someone in an opposing party. The real problem is that politicians who look for common ground are singled out for punishment and defeat, rather than rewarded with reelection and accolades. Politicians can’t solve problems because they seem more interested in fighting the other side than in finding solutions.

Politics are less productive than ever before, but the past can potentially offer some clues for the way forward.

Political parties in the U.S. were crushed by twin hammer blows.

First, they lost control of the primary system. In 1968, anti-war protests during the Democratic convention in Chicago turned violent when police responded with brutality. The anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, had won the most votes in the primary. But Democrats inside the convention hall nominated then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey because he was favored by party leaders.

“The primaries didn’t mean anything. What mattered was delegates, and who the delegates were for,” said Elaine Kamarck, a historian of the primary process at The Brookings Institution.

But after ’68, the Democrats adopted recommendations from the McGovern-Fraser Commission and changed their system to transfer power from party bosses and delegates to whoever shows up in primary elections. It was intended to democratize the system, but it’s ultimately had the opposite effect.

Primary elections are supposed to allow political parties to debate—among themselves—who should represent their ideals and values in a general election. Over time, primaries have become tribal councils of war. Opposing factions gather in respective corners and choose nominees based on one criterion: Which combatant is most likely to bludgeon the other side into submission?

About two-thirds of the country is an “exhausted majority.”

Today’s average voter doesn’t understand the role parties play in organizing people to push for achievable change rather than fantasizing about perfect solutions. About two-thirds of the country is what a recent study called an “exhausted majority.” These voters “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation” and have “a willingness to be flexible with their political viewpoints.” But primaries produce candidates who are not from that group. Nominees — not just in presidential races but in campaigns for Congress as well — end up representing the minority of extreme voices on both sides.

The second shoe to drop was campaign finance reform. Most critics of the current system point to the Supreme Court’s 2015 Citizens United decision, which ruled that the government could not impose limitations on corporate political donations.

But this decision merely poured gasoline on a fire that started in 2002, when Congress passed the McCain-Feingold Act. This was supposed to reduce the role of money in politics by imposing limits on how much money political parties could receive. The practical effect, however, is that money now flows directly from people to politicians, rather than to parties. And, with that, parties lost even more power to keep politicians from coloring too far outside the lines.

This is a large part of why Trump was able to win in 2016. Of the 17 Republicans who ran for president, at least five of them—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Scott Walker—would have won the nomination if they had been the only establishment candidate in the race.

But GOP leaders had no way to force all but one to drop out and support the consensus pick. In the past, the parties’ control of the money was a primary way to do that. Now, any candidate can find all the money they need from just one or two wealthy donors. So, these five candidates canceled each other out, giving Donald Trump an opening to win the primary with only a third of the vote.

It was all centrifugal force with no centripetal force. The party wasn’t able to force these candidates to act in a way that put the party and country first, so ambition had the run of the place.

There is no passion for unifying Americans, for overcoming divisions, for making a brighter future by reconciling the citizenry.

As we look ahead to 2020, Avenatti’s flirtation with the Democratic primary has offered our clearest glimpse so far into how Democrats could fall prey to a Trump-like candidate. Avenatti has already flamed out after a raft of stories about his compromised personal life, but he was able—without any real qualifications—to gain remarkable traction by taking positions that signaled he would be a take-no-prisoners fighter for the left, such as increasing the size of the Supreme Court and appointing reliable left-leaning judges to those positions.

Avenatti was all about enforcing purity in the party. His main qualification was that he could effectively battle with Trump in the modern media circus. Avenatti’s mindset is responsive to the way modern politics works, but it will do little or nothing for the good of the country. There is no passion for unifying Americans, for overcoming divisions, for making a brighter future by reconciling the citizenry. There is no memory here of President Lincoln, who said to his fellow Americans: “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

If the Democratic field is crowded—as looks likely—candidates who want to differentiate themselves will look for novel ways to do so. This leaves the door open for unscrupulous candidates and demagogues, who are willing to tell voters what they want to hear regardless of whether those things are based in reality.

Primary voting is dominated by the most partisan, hard-line voters. When party leaders cannot step in to keep demagogues from whipping up the passions of primary voters, more responsible candidates have no choice but to follow the demagogue. This happened time and time again in the 2016 Republican primary, and we’ve already seen small signs of it in early 2020 jockeying among Democrats.

Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District by running on a promise to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s an easily understandable hard-line position that would do little to solve any problems, be they family separation or border security. But prominent Democrats who will likely run for president in 2020—such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—quickly sought to capitalize on Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity by adopting the position.

The #abolishICE crowd is a mirror image of the hard-line Republicans who followed Sen. Ted Cruz during his 2013 crusade to defund Obamacare. Cruz also made a promise based more in partisan fantasy than in reality. President Obama was never going to sign a bill defunding his signature accomplishment. Cruz argued Republicans could do it if they just fought harder. Cruz took voters who were already suspicious of the government along with him for a ride. After failing to deliver, they were even more frustrated. But Cruz was well-positioned to run for president.

This is how to run for president now: Take simple, easy to understand positions that stoke the passions of the most energized and often extreme voters, left or right. These simplistic, bumper sticker positions help get attention and build an email list. The email list helps raise money from these same voters who give online in small dollar amounts—and voila, you’re off to the races.

Social media—a world where we’re all participants, not just observers—has amplified this dynamic. I interviewed Keegan Goudiss, who ran Bernie Sanders’ digital advertising for his 2016 presidential campaign. Goudiss told me that “social media works for people who are more willing to talk about ideological extremes.”

Social media encourages aggression and sharp elbows in a way that has traditionally been considered improper when speaking face to face, he said. “There’s a difference in how you communicate online and how aggressive you’re willing to be.”

But this aggression is what we recognize now. We are conditioned to expect this kind of behavior by our own immersion in a performative life ethic. In politics, business, and entertainment, gaining influence means emphasizing individuality. All the incentives point to self-promotion. Build a brand. Grow your followers. Increase the size of your platform. That’s what gets rewarded.

Change, progress, overcoming challenges — all these things require people to work together, over time, in a sustained way.

But we get less and less done when all we do is stay on this ride. It may be fun, but it degrades our ability to meet challenges, solve problems, and find meaning. We are forgetting how to find meaning through self-sacrifice, through working with others and not caring who gets credit, and through using our talents and our time to serve a cause greater than ourselves.

Change, progress, overcoming challenges — all these things require people to work together, over time, in a sustained way. When disagreements arise, as they always do, people need a forum and a process to work it out. These things can’t happen in a purely centrifugal world.

We need more more centripetal forces: ways of rewarding self-sacrifice, long-term thinking, and collaboration. The drive toward individuality and empowerment is positive, but it needs to be counterbalanced by a complementary pressure toward service, cooperation, and team-building.

One of the key centripetal forces that would push us toward others and constrain our ability to act anti-socially—in the political realm—is the resurgence of the political party. Parties bring people together under a banner of general principles and enable collective action while setting up structures and processes to mediate and hash out disputes and disagreements.

There is a link between local politics, political parties, and national politics that ties all this together. Political parties start at the local level. Local activists build the party from the ground up and keep it going. They hold county meetings. They join central committees. They connect members of Congress with members of their community. All of this can be a training ground for future politicians.

The Gravitron pushes us away from what is physically closest to us. We are too focused on national politics and not enough on our state, county, city, and neighborhood.

One of the biggest rewards for loyal party members used to be helping to choose candidates in a primary. In presidential elections, this meant going to a national convention as a delegate. But conventions don’t mean anything anymore because delegates have almost no meaningful role. There is less incentive than ever before for someone to put in the work of year-round party-building at the local level.

We can change this by giving delegates and party leaders more of a say over who the party nominates for political office. This might create far stronger parties in each state, empowering people to really put in the work, year in and year out, for their local party.

We could pair this with a push to tear down barriers to voter registration, which have been erected with increasing regularity in states with Republican legislatures. Too often, these barriers appear to be aimed at suppressing the vote of racial minorities. This increases democratization and enhances the ability of parties to produce quality candidates for voters to choose from in the general election.

At the local level, social media can also be a positive force. Rather than a means of chasing celebrity and opining on national politics, social media can connect rather than divide if it’s part of a process that includes face-to-face interaction. Social media can align people in the community who previously would have never met, activate them around an issue, inform them, and mobilize them to meaningful action — political, civic, philanthropic, educational, or otherwise.

It’s hard for politics to go anywhere positive when the only momentum is around and around. We have to choose to get off the ride.

Jeff Flake got off the ride. He chose to retire. And then he bucked his own party and demanded a delay in the Senate’s vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Flake angered many in his party by doing something he thought was important for the entire country, not just Republicans. But he said, quite bluntly, that the pressures of modern politics make this kind of action on behalf of the general welfare nearly impossible.

“Could you have done this if you were running for re-election?” CBS News’ Scott Pelley asked Flake on 60 Minutes.

“Not a chance,” Flake responded. “There’s no value to reaching across the aisle. There’s no currency for that anymore. There’s no incentive.”

Not only is there no reward for bipartisan compromise, there’s a surplus of punishment. Until that changes, American politics will continue to spin around in the dark.

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Jon Ward

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