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Charting the Wellsprings of a Democratic Crisis



Authors as Published

I am ever interested in the question of how cultural and economic trends may be shaping the character of our democratic politics. In consequence, I found it noteworthy that the New York Times published columns by Frank Bruni[1] and Ross Douthat[2] on the same day recently highlighting important questions with implications for our population’s capacity to govern itself. Politically, Douthat is a well-known conservative voice, while Bruni leans in a more progressive direction. Their two arguments merit consideration.

Douthat took up the question of race following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, when a grand jury chose in recent days not to indict a white policeman for shooting and killing an unarmed African-American teenager last August. Whatever one makes of the facts of the specific situation and its treatment as a matter of law, it is clear the nation was quite divided over this decision, as, indeed, it has been in other similar high-profile cases in recent years. Douthat had been optimistic about the nation’s capacity to move beyond its past history of racial polarization, but the Ferguson scenario and the protests following its resolution led him to wonder in his column whether such can occur any time soon. The question, as he framed it, was whether the nation’s political parties could meaningfully claim to Americans that proposed policy changes would not prove to be zero-sum in character:

This lesson isn’t exactly new; indeed, it’s been offered by both parties throughout this presidency. Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.

In the Obama era, though, neither coalition has done a very good job selling such a vision, because neither knows how to deliver on it. (The left doesn’t know how to get wages rising again; the right doesn’t know how to shore up the two-parent family, etc.) Which has left both parties increasingly dependent on identity-politics appeals, with the left mobilizing along lines of race, ethnicity and gender and the right mobilizing around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties.[3]

Douthat argued on the basis of this analysis that this situation leaves our politics divided by identity and that this is likely to prove much more poisonous than one that could reasonably claim otherwise. His contention neatly suggests that each party relies differently on cultural and economic arguments, and each increasingly has few cards other than to play to the differences in their respective bases and thereby, advertently or not, exacerbate the nation’s polarization by identity. It is clear that the benefits to which Douthat pointed are economic, and he clearly assumes that politics should serve the market and not vice versa.

Bruni, meanwhile, used his column to make sense of his experiences during trips by air in the past year:

Courtesy is dead. The plane is its graveyard. There’s a scrum at the gate and then another scrum in the aisle that defy any of the airline’s attempts at an orderly boarding process. There’s no restraint in the person who keeps smacking the back of your chair; no apology from the parent whose child keeps kicking it; no awareness that certain foods, unwrapped in a tight space, turn one traveler’s lunch into every traveler’s olfactory reality.

And nobody really communicates. Conversation between strangers becomes rarer as gadgets get better, enabling everyone to hunker down with his or her own music and own movies and own video games, to shrink the world to the dimensions of a smartphone’s or tablet’s screen, to disappear into a personalized bubble of ceaseless entertainment and scant enlightenment.

On the plane, as in the economy, most people are feeling squeezed. Financially, every flight is a death by a dozen cuts. There’s the baggage fee, the meal fee, the wireless fee. All the base price gets you is a perch that’s tighter than ever and getting tighter still. In The Daily Beast two days before Thanksgiving, Clive Irving described airlines’ sophisticated, inch-by-inch stratagems to “engineer you out of room,” and they sounded like experiments in orthopedic torture. What the rack was to medieval times, Seat 39B is to modern ones.[4]

Bruni went on to note the vast difference and social inequality symbolized by the experiences of those seated in the airline Economy cabin and those enjoying the comforts of Business and First Class seats. He also rightly observed that just getting to airports across much of the nation provides a lens into the country’s continuing infrastructure crisis. He concluded that American travelers are now treating each other in ways that eerily mirror the ways the airlines regard them. That is, the manner with which airlines now treat their “average” customers is matched by the behavior of those people to one another. Bruni perceptively concluded that any individual, let alone collective, capacity for empathy is rapidly being lost in this morass.

Bruni used his airline experience to point up the continuing failure of our politics to do other than apparently impose costs on the majority of Americans in the name of ensuring the market an unfettered capacity to work its supposed magic. The result of that stance, in the case of the airlines, has been a massive ongoing consolidation of the industry, continuing poor service and increasing inequalities in available features. The consequence of that orientation more broadly has been stagnant wages for all but the most educated, increasing income and social inequality and the massive recession of 2007-2009. Americans have responded to this ongoing trend not by challenging it, according to Bruni, but instead by fearing it and behaving toward one another as its agents are treating them.

Douthat highlighted the same phenomenon by arguing that the Democratic Party has been unable in recent years to discern how to raise Americans’ wages without challenging the dominant neo-liberal imaginary and this, its leaders have been unwilling or unable to do. More deeply, as Douthat observed, these realities have led to a politics that encourages the parties to work, often quite cynically, to turn Americans against one another while vying to gain political power. As they do, each pledges allegiance to an economic system that has long been lionized as capable of providing governance, but that for all of its canonization, cannot and will never do so.

Put differently, Douthat’s and Bruni’s columns reveal that an ideology that enshrines the market as panacea, and individualism as an absolute claim in democratic terms, has left Americans reeling and alone in the face of the forces of capitalism and globalization. In reaction, and with their political parties leading the way, they are now willing to blame one another (and many, their government) for the challenges they confront while allowing the only vehicle available to them that could set matters right, their collective power as citizens to demand a different course, to fall into disuse and worse. Likewise, they have increasingly allowed to atrophy the empathy that could serve as motivation and engine for a path that aimed to achieve a common good. The result is a politics of fearfulness and fear mongering, in which the basic ties that unite citizens in a common responsibility to govern themselves continue to fray.


[1] Bruni, Frank, 2014. “Just Plane Ugly,” New York Times, Nov. 29. Available at:

[2] Douthat, Ross, 2014. “The Retreat to Identity,” New York Times, Nov. 29. Available at:®ion=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&pgtype=article

[3] Douthat, 2014, “The Retreat to Identity.”

[4] Bruni, 2014, “Just Plane Ugly.”

Publication Date

December 6, 2014