Bleak days. The border, murder rates, inflation, Afghanistan, the pandemic—things are not going well. The president’s job approval rating continues its slide. Congress squabbles over government funding, debt ceilings, and budget reconciliation, while pundits argue over whether, in the words of one prominent historian, “The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into red and blue enclaves.”
These words horrify. Are they accurate? The degradation of public morality, evident in scenes of fanatics chasing U.S. senators into restrooms and chanting obscenities at a presidential motorcade, suggests they might be. The empirical data do too. The University of Virginia Center for Politics and Project Home Fire’s recent surveys of Joe Biden voters and Donald Trump voters revealed a profound distrust between the two camps. The pollsters went looking for common ground, only to find it in the 41 percent of Biden voters and 51 percent of Trump voters favoring some form of secession and disunion. The idea of a “national divorce” has traveled from the fever swamps to the social network (the distance is short).
The question of how to avoid coruscating polarization and political violence ought to be at the center of public debate—especially after the events at the Capitol on January 6, and especially for individuals who profess support for law and order, individual liberty, and America’s constitutional structure. The trouble is that most discussions of keeping America from coming apart are themselves built around totalizing and apocalyptic presuppositions.
The alternatives on offer: Either the election reforms favored by Democrats become law or authoritarian rule will descend on America; either the $4.5 trillion Build Back Better Agenda becomes law or Trump will turn this country into Hungary; either Republicans win in 2022 and 2024 or some combination of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Dr. Anthony Fauci will impose Marxist rule. Not only are these choices hyperbolic and false. They amplify the very antagonisms they seek to reduce by suggesting that the only way out of our dilemma is for one side to enjoy complete victory.
Just when politics is most in need of a cooling-off period, interested parties have upped the stakes of politics to national, civilizational, and, for some, global survival. And when survival is your primary end, you are tempted to use any means to achieve it. Even extrajudicial ones. The task of the moment is to persuade Americans that the set of rules and guidelines set forth in the Constitution allows them to deal with America’s problems. “Structural” change, from either the left or the right, is unnecessary.
The “fight” must be redirected toward the everyday challenges of American citizens, not the symbolic battles that play out each night on cable news. The agents of change must be real people, building and participating in real institutions, concerned with the real wellsprings of human flourishing, such as family, community, and faith. Trolls and bots engaging in virtual flame wars and inciting social media mobs do not improve the situation. They ruin it.
We have spent so many years analyzing what brought America to this impasse that we have forgotten to think seriously—that is, to consider programs of action that might not confirm our biases—about how to get out of it. We have forgotten the importance of human agency, of leadership. Leaders motivate the public, define options, set the agenda, and model standards of behavior. They are meant to inspire confidence. Our leaders are no help.
We are caught in a leadership deficit doom loop. Our elected officials cater to the most agitated and unruly members of their coalition. They limit their imaginations. They frame their agendas around the mistaken assumption that electoral victories are ideological mandates. They are not role models. Nor do they earn our confidence—unless we are the marks in a confidence game.
Our political leaders are stale. They are calcified. It cannot be a coincidence that since 2017 the presidents of “Late Soviet America” have been septuagenarians, the country’s oldest two chief executives, respectively. It cannot be an accident that as writers for the New York Times assert that America has entered “terminal decline” the speaker of the House of Representatives is 81 years old, her deputy is 82 (!), and the party whip is 81. The majority leader of the Senate, sprightly by comparison, is 70 years old. The culture war is at least 53 years old. Critical Race Theory traces its roots to the 1970s. The hysteria and conspiracies that accompany disease are as old as pandemics themselves. We are in a race between incompetent or irrational leadership and social peace. The inept and crazed are winning.
It needn’t be so. The public responds to cues. The people rally behind common-sense measures confidently stated. They’ve done so before. They will do so again. To break the leadership deficit doom loop, American leaders must self-confidently make the case for union, for moderation, for manners, for peace. And they ought to do it with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Because right now we all could use a laugh—not at someone else’s expense, but our own.