When Things don’t Add Up
In James Morone’s ‘The Democratic Wish’, he outlines a cycle for change occurring in American democracy. The cycle starts at a liberal political stalemate, moves to a popular response demanding action, creates new political institutions to address these concerns, and the system returns to a liberalist stalemate. In essence, this is how American democracy has achieved progress and change over its life. While at a broad scale this cycle can be used to view the government and changes to it as a whole, it can also be taken to an individual policy level and applied similarly. Assuming that the cycle is successful one would expect that as trends show people becoming less satisfied with government, the government would respond by creating new institutions as laid out in the cycle. However, something seems to be preventing this action. Since Morone published ‘The Democratic Wish’ in 1990, the number of laws passed annually by congress has decreased by over 50%. Such a decrease in legal action would imply that we as a society are somewhere between the fourth and first stages of this cycle; more stagnation that will eventually be shifted due to public outcry.
At the same time, American citizens have become increasingly discontented with the current system. According to Gallup, the percentage of people that feel dissatisfied with the current political system has increased from 30% in the early 2000s to nearly 70% in the past year; Foreign Policy shows that the number of protests occurring in America has skyrocketed since 2006; and Pew published a study showing that 60% of Americans have said that the government needs major reform, a number that has increased over the past few years. It has been roughly a decade since this discontent really began in earnest, and not only has there been a failure to address it, but also the unrest has only increased during this time. The political cycle Morone proposes would dictate that this discontent would lead to change, but rather than change occurring, we’ve seen political stagnation grow stronger. Thus, based on the public outcry, we should be in the second stage moving into the third stage of the cycle. Thus, the disconnect: Policy suggests we’re in the first stage, while the political climate suggests we should be entering the third stage. Many like to argue that the reason is increased political apathy leading to a lack of real change, but the percentage of voters has remained fairly constant over the past several decades. What then, is causing this disconnect?
What Went Wrong?
The reason likely lies in a more fundamental breakdown in the way American democracy is meant to function. Morone explains that this Democratic cycle can 0nly function under a certain set of assumptions, but recent trends have shifted those assumptions. The main assumption that has been changed is that American community has been fragmented like never before. Thanks to the rise of instant communication, it has become possible for a person to create the impression of a community through alternative means, and these communities wind up much more homogeneous than the typical American community. When one can go online and surround oneself with people who all think the exact same things that they do, they create a new sense of community based around these ideals This community is not an accurate depiction of the world, but rather a distorted picture matching what people want to see. Such a scenario is a breeding ground for radicalization, and it is exactly what happened to American democracy. The numbers are there – as time has gone on, the major parties have shifted away from the center; congress has become increasingly polarized as it has stagnated. As a result of this, we have fragmented ourselves to the point that we can’t even agree on what facts are and are not, and as a result we fail to achieve change. It doesn’t matter how hard people try to make a difference in society if there’s no consensus on what change needs to happen. We, through our willingness to immerse ourselves in groups of like minded individuals and not hear external opinions, have broken one of the pillars needed for our democracy to function by destroying the necessary American community, instead replacing it with smaller, artificial communities prone to extremes. People want things to be different, but we’re past the point of being able to agree on how, and as such we may never truly see a progression to actual change occurring again. There are 300 million voices crying out for a change, all drowning each other out.