The United States is the location for a huge experiment about the failure of political systems.

There’s nothing to add on the US healthcare bill from this side of the Atlantic, except for the bemusement that proposals which would be regarded as mild  by any Christian Democratic (right of centre) government should provoke such a grim catfight. But from a futures perspective the US offers an interesting living laboratory experiment, of what happens when politics breaks down. It’s difficult to tell whether what we’re seeing is just one of those 50-year realignments you see in electoral democracies, or whether it’s the end of the road for the whole idea of the separation of powers. But it could be that serious.

Just a quick reminder, first, that politics is a form of public discourse which allows societies to settle their differences over social values and public outcomes. (And apologies to any reader for whom this is a statement of the obvious). Democracies do it by competition to be the ruling party, or in the ruling coalition; single party states do it within the party structures (still a form of competition). Although it has become a dirty word in the past twenty years, it is an essential process in any society which is too large to allow the direct involvement of all its members in decision-making.

‘Obama is the ‘anti-Christ’

It involves conflict, but it is, essentially, a form of long-term social negotiation. And this is the clue that something has gone fundamentally wrong with American politics. The party structures – whose differences were often blurred, historically, at least to European eyes – are now underpinned by belief systems which are no longer opposed, but completely alien to each other. The basis of public discourse has broken down. I was struck by an American colleague telling me that people who were her friends at university, barely a decade ago, were leaving messages on Facebook that she found incomprehensible. In the United States commentators have made much of the racist abuse directed at Congressman John Lewis, a leading civil rights activist, apparently so vile that it could not be reprinted in the New York Times. I was struck by an opinion poll reported in the blog the Daily Beast which found that 24% of Republicans think Obama was the anti-Christ. (67% think he is a socialist and 57% believe that he is a Muslim). I thought at first that it might have come from the Daily Onion, but in fact it was conducted by Harris. Truly, satire is dead.

The thought that we might be watching one of those 50-year realignments came from reading (the Republican) David Frum’s article Waterloo, clearly so controversial that comments had been suspended when I visited. His view was that the Republicans had made a strategic political error in deciding to go to war with the Democrats over the health care bill, rather than engaging. They misread the levels of Obama’s support, and maybe chose to misrepresent the bill itself, instead replaying Clinton’s healthcare failure of 15 years ago and drawing the wrong conclusions:

Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

Following the radical voices

In other words, they had played the bill as a zero-sum game (we win, they lose), rather than a ‘positive sum game’ (we can both get part of what we want). That’s politics, sometimes, but if you play zero sum games for high stakes you need to make sure you win. Frum’s piece was called ‘Waterloo’ because Republican leaders had decided that the bill would be ‘Obama’s Waterloo’. But the line that made me wonder if we were watching a long-term realignment was this:

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

For British readers of a certain age it’s hard to read that line and not to think of the Labour Party in 1980-1983, when the party split, with a large centrist group, the Social Democratic Party, breaking away, and then plunged to deep defeat in the 1983 election after writing an election manifesto that is remembered as “the longest suicide note in history” – a quip from a senior politician who’d stayed in the Labour party.

And it’s worth taking a step back here, to the structure of long-term generational change. I like the ‘Fourth Turning‘ model (with some caveats, which I’ll come back to, and without getting into the complexities). Generational change is one of the important sources of long-term social change, and of changes in values. (See James Dator’s article on this, opens in pdf). The Fourth Turning suggests that over 80-100 years it goes through a cycle, as follows:

  • Crisis
  • High (in which new institutions are built)
  • Awakening (in which society is energised by the institutions)
  • Unravelling (in which the conflicts and contradictions become apparent)
  • And back to Crisis again.

Every country has slightly different dates for the turnings between the different parts of the cycle, but the pattern is the same. I’m skipping over the quite complex generational analysis which sits behind the argument, and also glossing over my caveat about the work, which is that the dates that Strauss and Howe have established for the US turnings are simply too precise, with the benefit of post hoc analysis.

But I trust the pattern, because it’s a familiar one in large-scale systems change; the Panarchy model, based on research into change in eco-systems, has a very similar pattern.

From  Unravelling to Crisis

On my reading, we have been living through a long period of Unravelling, which in the UK has probably started since the economic crisis in the mid-70s, and has now hit the Crisis. The US unravelling probably begins at around the same time, with the election of Ronald Reagan. (There’s a good piece by Godfrey Hodgson in Open Democracy which puts the current American political wars into a fifty year context). In the UK, the Unravelling did for the post-war Labour party, which was a creature of the post-war settlement and the institutions it created. Arguably it did much the same for the Democrats, with an additional layer of racial politics adding complexity.

So one reading of the current collapse of the American political system is that the Republicans are not suited for Crisis, or for the institutional rebuilding that follows. (Their failure to respond to respond meaningfully to the banking and financial crisis also suggests as much). Like the British Labour Party in the 80s, they could be ready to split. The rise of the Tea Party movement, inchoate though it is, suggests considerable fissile potential. So does the news that David Frum has left his fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute within a week of writing his ‘Waterloo’ article, after being summoned to lunch with the President of the AEI. Political splits are high risk, even in countries such as the United States with relatively low levels of party centralisation; they damage the party that splits for a couple of decades, but the breakaways rarely succeed in creating a new long-term political force.

The end of whole political philosophy?

But there may be a deeper story here. It is possible that the whole model of the separation of powers, a product of the Enlightenment, is now in long-term decline. M.H. Hansen has argued recently that in the modern world it creates leaders who have similar powers to the absolute monarchs of the 17th century it was designed to replace. The decline in party memberships, almost everywhere, points in the same direction. I’ve not got time to tell this story today – I’m working on another post on the future of politics – but it is worth observing that political forms do seem to have a shelf-life of around 300-400 years, which may mean the structures of representative democracy shaped by the French and American revolutionaries are coming to the the end of their useful life.  The American experiment may be telling us more than we think.