A few weeks ago, I attended a dinner here in Washington with a group of political scientists from the West Coast. One of the professors, sitting across from me, asked me about my politics. “I consider myself a centrist,” I told her.
“Ah,” she said. “That means you’re a conservative.” She turned away and started speaking with someone else. Conversation over.
I wasn’t offended. But I was struck by her unwillingness to explore my actual political views. Our exchange — if you can call it that — struck me as symptomatic of the fundamental problems facing American democracy.
We are right to be worried about President Donald Trump. His contempt for long-established norms of political behavior and the unwillingness of his own party to constrain him pose a serious challenge to our system. Yet we shouldn’t forget that Trump is also a symptom of a much deeper malaise affecting American democracy. As experts have been pointing out, a variety of political and social forces have, over the past three decades, converged to devastating effect. The list is long: the rise of tribalism and deepening political polarization; congressional deadlock and the decay of legislative civility; echo chambers created by social media, talk radio and cable TV; the capture of the political system by moneyed interests; voter suppression.
So we should welcome this week’s news from North Carolina, where a panel of three federal judges has just overturned a gerrymandering law installed by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. For years, North Carolina has been a showcase for a remarkable power grab by Republicans; their redrawing of districts to favor themselves is just one in a long series of similarly dubious maneuvers. Though the state’s electorate is divided relatively equally between both major parties, Republican politicians have blatantly skewed the rules to keep themselves in power. One recent international study concluded that North Carolina can no longer be considered a democracy. (Critics have attacked the study for putting the state in the same company as Cuba and Sierra Leone. But it’s hard to dispute that the state’s recent record has been dismal.)
Yet Republicans aren’t the only ones guilty of this sort of maneuvering. If the U.S. Supreme Court decides, as some experts expect, that it will hear several current gerrymandering cases as a group, Republican-controlled North Carolina and Wisconsin will probably be joined by Democrat-dominated Maryland, which boasts some of the most bizarrely drawn electoral districts in the country.
Happily, there are solutions for gerrymandering. But other problems, which reflect deep social transformations, are far more daunting. How, for example, do we counter the problem of self-sorting? The mobility of modern American society means that citizens are increasingly choosing where they want to live and work according to the proximity of people with similar backgrounds and political views. When that trend is compounded by the selective consumption of media that reinforce our existing beliefs, you have a perfect recipe for polarization.
Our political parties, which once functioned as “big tents,” have reflected this by becoming more and more homogeneous. Not that long ago the Democratic Party still contained a sizable chunk of conservatives, and a certain number of moderate liberals counted themselves as Republicans. This helped both sides find common ground. But as the parties have become more ideologically focused, the room for compromise has shrunk — with the side effect that a growing number of Americans feel excluded from the system. (It’s odd how often discussions of the problems facing American democracy gloss over the issue of rampant voter apathy.)
And what about the immense political power of companies such as Facebook and Google, which control much of the information their customers consume, yet have almost no political accountability to anyone other than their own shareholders? We’re only just beginning to talk about that one.
So even as we worry about the damage done by the president, we shouldn’t forget that there are longer-term issues that also need our attention. Efforts to help Americans find a way back to shared values and political compromise may be a part of that. Reforming electoral systems and looking for ways to reduce the deep rifts in our culture would also help. But it’s not going to be easy. And it’s a struggle that will continue long after Trump has left office.