Politics is often defined in America by an intense partisan struggle. The language used is one of division: red states versus blue, Fox versus NPR. Not only is most of this nonsense, it is actually dangerous.
The current political spectrum we know of “Left” or “Liberal” on one side and “Right” or “Conservative” on the other dates to between 1900 to 1930, forming gradually over the period of a generation. In this era, the rise of large industrial corporations like Carnegie Steel, IBM, NCR, AT&T, and GM created a new kind of private institution. Never before had our economy and our society relied so heavily on such large institutions, and there were numerous problems with them.
For example, their size swamped the individual rights of workers to decent pay and their neighbors’ right to clean air and water. To counterbalance these enormous institutions, a series of populist risings created new institutions like “Unions” and “Government” in ways that had never been seen before. Our political spectrum, as we know it, is based on whether you are favoring one of these sides (left = union or government) or the other (right = big industry or church).
It should be pointed out that both “Liberal” and “Conservative” are much older words that had different meanings before this period; they were simply usurped. This was also not the first populist rising that changed the political axis in America. Once a generation or so, a similar process has occurred along the lines of hard currency versus soft currency or slave versus free or federal versus distributed. This injection of people, changing the nature of the current debate, is a fundamental part of American history.
Usually, one side or the other prevailed on the issues and the new axis that came after was one of flavors and shades of the winning side. What is most interesting about the current axis is that it has remained in place for two whole generations, surviving the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the fall of Communism. The durability of the current debate, which really boils down to which of two institutions you believe in, is unparalleled.
But a lot has changed. The economies of scale that created large industrial institutions have, in many industries, been replaced by dis-economies of scale like bureaucracy and inflated pay for managers. There have been many attempts to reform government. Percentage union membership is slipping to a century-long low.
In fact, I will go as far as to say that in this world today, there is not a single institution, be it a company or a political party or government or religion or civic organization that is not undergoing a fundamental re-examination of what it is and what it does.
The vast majority of voters don’t seem to favor either the left institutions, like unions or government, or the right institutions like large companies. People generally see a need for both, and distrust both equally when things are taken to an extreme. When a debate rages among elected representatives about how to solve a problem, the rhetoric of, “we need this government agency” versus “we need the free market” causes nearly everyone’s eyes to glaze over. Isn’t it a balance of both? Aren’t you forcing an extreme to the point of paralysis? Isn’t it pretty obvious that a lot of things are being done these days by public-private partnerships?
My thesis is this: the old political axis is simply no longer useful for describing the trade-offs and alternatives of how real problems are solved for real people in the real world. The “Real” axis that describes what happens in people’s everyday lives is fundamentally skewed from the stagnant “Political” axis. What people are concerned about is not which institution has dominance over society, but how people relate to these institutions, to society as a whole, to each other individually, and ultimately how they see themselves. In this skewed axis, the projection of real alternatives onto the political axis shows that in our political world accomplishing anything meaningful can only happen in a narrow band in the middle. This seems to have had the sad affect of isolating the extremes and polarizing the public debate.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that I am smart enough to know exactly what this “real” axis comprises in terms of trade-offs and alternatives. It has something to do with personal identity and how people relate to society; it is about how we solve real problems as a nation. Worse than not knowing this axis is that we don’t even have the language to begin to describe it right now.
This whole idea of a political “spectrum” which is one-dimensional is really a shorthand for compressing complicated ideas into a manageable debate. It relies heavily on highly-charged words like “liberal” and “conservative” that have a very rich meaning. The “Real” axis has no such words, and therefore cannot be described easily. We can only start talking about it with very long screeds like this one that not everyone is going to bother to read. The process of popularizing this new debate will be very drawn out, and will likely take a full generation just like the last significant shift.
How do we get there? We need to throw out the old ideologies and see what is needed to solve things like school shootings, breakdown of families and communities, etc. By taking a problem-solving approach, the real trade-offs and alternatives will become more obvious as we go, and the new axis will be allowed to form. Changing a debate like this not only takes a generation in time, it takes the energy of an entire generation and we cannot deliberately exclude anyone.
It is time to shift our political axis to reflect the changing nature of the real trade-offs and alternatives that are part of solving real problems for real people. The old “left” and “right” are increasingly useless and diversionary, and they must be overcome.
This change is not so much a “Third Wave” once-in-history kind of shift, but is a part of the ongoing saga of American history that is simply overdue by now. Populism, and the interjection of a stiff dose of real people’s lives into politics, is what has made our system so dynamic and useful. It is time for just such a thing, once again. Together, we have found our way out of the woods before and we can do it again.