As a political writer and opinion columnist, I swim in an ocean of criticism.
The outrage culture we’ve built over the last 20 years — for which Sean Hannity and Trevor Noah bear equal blame — has degenerated healthy debate into insults, shouts, jeers, slurs, and just so, so much anger.
It’s not that we argue too much — I actually wish Americans argued more—and better — but we do sometimes fall into a rut of criticism that we’re unwilling to climb out of.
See, argument is a structured discussion used to discern the truth of a proposition, and if we had more arguments we would have less outrage, shouting, and street fights. The lack of actual argument has left us unable to discern and defend truth, which is why we spend so much time screaming our baseless opinions at others, and getting offended when others scream theirs at us.
It’s an untenable situation, and one that will likely resolve itself as soon as people start caring more about what’s true than what’s polite.
Like argument, there’s an appropriate place for criticism and even condemnation. Law enforcement officers who abuse their power should be criticized. Alt-right “race realists” intent on rekindling 1930s ethnofascism should be condemned, along with their violent, pro-censorship Antifa counterparts on the Left.
Criticism is meant to pressure, to challenge, to motivate toward something higher. Condemnation is meant to isolate something harmful, letting others know to stay away for their own good and the good of society.
But the problem we face is that both of these important tools are habitually abused.
Criticism isn’t meted out reasonably in hopes of modifying behavior, it is piled on everyone as a way to elevate the one offering the critique. Condemnation isn’t reserved for the truly heinous among us, it is slopped on indiscriminately like mayo on a McChicken.
Convinced of the impossibility of maintaining standards, we hitch our wagons to the slogan “nobody’s perfect” and seek equality around the lowest common denominator, by hanging every mistake around the neck of those who aspire to something higher.
And so doing, our entire generation is missing the opportunities laid right in front of us:
Build something. Create something. Improve something.
Before I get too close to sounding like an inspirational poster, I need to narrow the scope of what I’m talking about. Let’s strip away the layers of presuppositions that have built up over the years, and address the things we all care about — most of which have nothing to do with the issues that fill the headlines any given day.
One of the more insidious side-effects of the two-party system is that it has turned everything in the world into zeroes and ones. We know how we’re supposed to think about different things, based on who we identify with.
Republicans in New Hampshire are supposed to obsess over illegal immigration — even though they’re 2000 miles from the southern border — because, well, they’re Republicans.
California Democrats feel compelled to take a position against North Carolina’s bathroom segregation, despite the fact that it has no impact whatsoever on their state.
We square off against each other on social media, fishing for clues to confirm what column the other person belongs in, rather than judging whether their arguments are valid.
Less than halfway through this column, odds are you’ve already scoped out my profile, followed a couple links, and browsed the comments or my prior articles to decide whether you should share this or mock it.
We all do. It’s the norm now. And it’s cynical and destructive.
Partisanship and identity politics are tearing the nation apart, and the only people who benefit from it are those who receive the blind loyalty it creates.
But many articles have been written on the problem — it’s time to address solutions — and that’s where things get sticky.
On one hand there’s no silver bullet solution to “making America great again”, and anybody pitching one is usually out to make a buck. Red and blue America learned to resent each other decades ago; it’s not going to be undone overnight.
On the other hand, it’s lazy and intellectually irresponsible to suggest that we continue doing what we’re doing, and just accept the fact that left and right will always hate each other, battle in the street, and post gory imagesof severed heads in place of civil dialogue.
Given current trends, we can’t continue, even if we wanted to. Normal, reasonable Americans are abandoning both major parties at either an alarming or encouraging rate, depending on your perspective. “Independent” continues to rule the national party affiliation race by a wide margin, and third party presidential voting rose 300% from 2008 to 2012, and 800% from 2008 to 2016, despite some of the worst third party candidates in recent memory.
So the question we face isn’t whether the political landscape in the US will change, but rather what it will change to: a perpetual battlefield between increasingly partisan extremes, or an open marketplace of political ideals offered representation within competing jurisdictions — an appified version of government that fits with where culture and technology have already been for years.
The answer was baked into the country by the radical progressives (of their day) who founded it — Federalism.
Federalism has a way of relieving all kinds of tension and returning relationships to normal by developing and maintaining separate spheres of influence. This works with government just as it does for business or even family — who doesn’t have a better relationship with their parents after moving out?
Obviously there are a few things that the whole country needs to agree on in order to maintain a united identity and share the same space, but we shouldn’t have to agree on everything. For a culture that emphasizes diversity, we seem incredibly hostile to the idea that people in different regions should be allowed to have different lifestyles and priorities.
The trend in American politics over the last few decades has been to nationalize every single dispute, either through Congress, executive order, or — most often — the Supreme Court. Every special interest group seeks to wield the Federal government like a cudgel against their political opposition, and so doing, establishes the precedent for the other side to beat them with it given the first electoral opportunity.
Aside from being incredibly uncharitable and narrow-minded, this form of governance is backward, inefficient, and, well, stupid.
It creates redundancies at every level of government, as federal departments conflict with state departments, which in turn conflict with city and county policies established in the interests of folks in those locales. It fails to balance the different views of people in different places with different jobs, lifestyles, and priorities.
Many have written on what I believe to be the most important divide in America today — the rural/urban divide — but few have put forward any ideas to deal with the divergent subcultures.
It’s a real problem, and one extremely evident in my home state of Iowa. Our century-old farm culture is often at odds with the growing segment of the population living in the cities and taking service jobs. The Republican-controlled state legislature has declared war on blue-leaning city governments around the state, using preemption laws to block those cities from instituting policies that conflict with their own.
Over the last eight years, red America encountered a similar problem, and states fought tooth and nail to nullify President Obama’s far-reaching executive initiatives on immigration, health care, housing, climate change, and more.
This “standardize everything” mentality causes gears to grind between each level of the government machine, and ultimately you end up with multi-tiered bureaucracy that is bulky, unresponsive, and useless to most people who are more interested in building a new deck and taking a second job as an Uber driver than arguing the merits of traditional marriage or the war on terror.
What’s really interesting about this stubborn trend in American government is that it stands in stark opposition to pretty much every other cultural trend. Millennials have embraced small businesses over global corporations, customization over comprehensiveness, and individuality over uniformity.
We reshape the world with technology, defying convention and challenging time-honored societal institutions with innovative new concepts. We seek the compartmental, the object-oriented, the personalized, the individual, in everything we do.
When it comes to the political system, most Americans — millennials included — are still content to let partisanship guide the system, and pretend to enjoy the biannual knock-down-drag-out that leaves the same two groups of people in charge of our everyday lives.
We have a million different options on our cell phones covering everything from food and fitness to business and entertainment, but when it comes to government, we have only two options — and pretty much every data set you’ll find suggests that few people are excited about either of them.
What if we applied the lessons we’ve learned in every other area of society to government for a change?
What if we increased choice by allowing more parties to develop and challenge the big two?
What if we modernized our electoral system to eliminate gerrymandering, and increase access and transparency for average people looking to make an impact on their government without having to take up activism as a full-time job?
What if you could invest in what you care about through an app in your pocket, rather than by standing in the freezing cold collecting petition signatures?
What if we created an object-oriented system of government that allowed your city or state to reflect the things that are important to you, without asking permission from Washington first?
What if the appetite for Federalism both on the Left and the Right brought us back to a place where we could agree to disagree again?
What if we actually believed in ourselves, and in our ability to break out of the two party shell and build something together?