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Is there a case for political optimism?

Decision makers. Ish. Shutterstock

Lee Drutman (senior fellow), Hollie Russon Gilman (Political Reform and Open Tech Institute fellow), Christian Hosam (millennial public policy fellow), Heather Hurlburt (New Models of Policy Change director), Chayenne Polimedio (deputy director), Mark Schmitt (director), and Elena Souris (research and program assistant) of New America’s Political Reform program sat down to discuss whether there is a case for political optimism in the current moment. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Starting off with a temperature check: how optimistic are you on a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 is midnight on the Titanic and 10 is Pollyanna?

Heather: 4, so either you can see the iceberg or you’ve just hit the iceberg.

Lee: Then I’ll be at 3, but we’ll see why I’m wrong.

Hollie: I’ll be a 6 or a 7.

Chayenne: I’m probably with Heather at a 4.

Christian: I’ll be 5.5.

Elena: I’m a 5.

Mark: I’ll be a 6, so I’ll just nudge the average up a bit.

Chayenne: Wait, so it’s the world against Holly here.

Biggest concerns

Lee: I’m worried about a legitimacy crisis in our national political institutions.

Heather: I’m worried about the continued weakening of our institutions and norms.

Chayenne: I’m worried about the global pattern what both Lee and Heather are talking about — seeing that not just in the US but across the world.

Christian: I’m worried about what Jeff Sessions is doing right now with immigration courts, kind of clearing the dockets and putting together some draconian measures, like employment reviews of immigration judges, because they actually fall under the executive branch versus the traditional branch.

Mark: I think I’m worried about something similar — a hundred different things like that that aren’t quite making the headlines, and particularly at a point when whatever the ordinary constraints were on Donald Trump are just gone. I think it’s a worry about things that will happen in the short term that will take a very long time to undo.

Hollie: I’d say I’m worried about all those things and I’m worried that citizens in turn will become so disaffected that they stay home and they don’t engage in their civic lives. I’m worried that when you combine that with rising inequality and the self-sorting that you’re seeing, it’s creating very dangerous bubbles of people. Then I’m worried that those bubbles are magnified online with filter bubbles and with the impact of technology on our attention spans, our empathy, and our humanity.

Most promising developments

Hollie: I think we do have a crisis of legitimacy in our institutions, but I think sometimes we take the agency away from individual people, and American ingenuity and the ability of people every day in communities to figure out how to solve their problems and to come together with limited resources. I feel optimistic when I think about how you tap into that energy and create better institutional structures, though it’s very challenging.

Chayenne: Being from Brazil, I’m used to the idea of American exceptionalism. I think the surprise of the 2016 election has forced Americans to look more deeply and to really think about how Trump’s election was a result of some of the structural issues of American democracy and its institutions.

Mark: Well, you played a useful role right after the election and for months after, basically telling us, “Get over your American exceptionalism.”

Chayenne: This is just a Wednesday in Brazil.

Mark: One thing that struck me is that sometimes the people who are the most naturally optimistic about American democracy — which is often a lot of political scientists and journalists who feel like it’s a self-regulating structure — have been the most thrown for a loop.

Lee: The case for optimism is that American democracy has always been in crisis, and somehow we’ve muddled through despite that. What’s uniquely different about this moment? One, American politics has never been quite so nationalized as it is now. Really, until recently, our political parties were basically confederation to local and state parties and the stakes of national politics never felt quite as high.

We’ve also never really had a true two-party system with two very distinct parties representing two very distinct, non-overlapping coalitions. Our political institutions were not set up to have two non-overlapping parties. They were set up first, fundamentally, to frustrate party majorities from happening and then to require a considerable amount of compromise. The problem is we have two-party majoritarian politics without institutions to handle that, and that’s, to me, the frightening thing about institutions in this particular moment. That’s why I’m pessimistic.

Roles and expectations of government

Christian: There are ways in which African Americans particularly think of the government not necessarily in a positive way, but are always appealing to it as a guarantor in the rights that are supposed to be assured. There’s always, in many ways, a democratic crisis in terms of if the government is living up to some standards that it says it will.

Chayenne: To that point, we wouldn’t want people to only look up to the government in moments of crisis. You don’t want people to only appreciate the role of government when things aren’t working as they should be. It’s easy to appreciate your parents once you move out. So how do you build a sustainable, ongoing level of trust not only from people who are always being screwed over but from the people who actually have power to change the status quo?

Lee: Well, there is an argument that something that’s happening particularly among the younger generation is a lot of things that we took for granted about our democratic process, to say, “Oh, these are not things that we should take for granted. These are values that we actually hold dear, and we’re going to work toward that.” In essence, the Trump election is a tremendous wake-up call.

Diversity as a factor in optimism

Heather: One of the sources for both my optimism and my pessimism is that the adjustment that has to happen to our polity this time is so great. We don’t have really a theory of democracy that includes quite as diverse a set of actors with diverse interests as exists right now — many more than, say, Samuel Huntington conceptualized. And some actors don’t perceive it being possible for everybody’s interests to be satisfied.

Lee: That’s Huntington’s last book, Who Are We? in which he says, “Oh, now that we’ve become a more diverse nation and we no longer have a shared creed, things are going to fall apart and it’s going to be ugly.”

Hollie: You’re looking at this period in history where civic engagement and democracy were supposedly at their height in America. But the reality is immigration was restricted, and we had a society segregated by race and gender.

Lee: It’s basically the argument that you could only build those supported social structures with exclusion. And we basically had an agreement that this is who we are and these people are not who we are.

Mark: At a certain point, and I’m not somebody who talks about, “Oh, once we become a majority-minority country, everything changes.” I think that’s very oversimplified, particularly because it treats Latino political development as sort of identical to African-American development, which it almost certainly isn’t. At a certain point, as you see in a younger generation in a place like California, you have to figure out how to build a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious democracy. It’s not like the period of the ’70s, ’80s where you have poor white America and then you have these other claimants.

Hollie: I agree with Mark. There are people in a lot of these conversations who like to be polemical and say, “The U.S. is only a democracy for 20, 30 years.” While its a fun thing people to like to say; I don’t want to get into that particular debate but I think one of the challenges is that when you talk about the hay-day of voluntary membership associations, they were segregated by race and gender, not by class. That’s one of these pivotal dimensions.

Long-term forecast for engagement post-Trump

Lee: Well, the question is are we going to have these continual cycles of excitement and disappointment. You have all this energy that will go into getting Democrats elected to Congress in 2018 and then 2020, and then perhaps Democrats will have a narrow majority in 2021. Now there’s all this energy built up around single-payer health care and some other overwhelming promises and then no delivery and backlash.

The problem is American political institutions are not set up for narrow majorities. They only work when you have bipartisan compromise and supermajorities. When you have narrow majorities, you don’t have bipartisan compromise, and we’re nowhere near getting supermajorities. We’re just going to have this continual cycle of engagement in response to losses and then disappointment within power.

Chayenne: To a certain extent, that’s okay. I think that realistically, it would be impossible for people to be fired up 24/7. I’m already tired from being fired up for a year and a half. It’s okay that people go away once things fall back to the sort of normal pattern — where things are still not working the way you want them to work, but the world is not on fire. Then again, once you have a crisis, people get fired up again. I think it’s unrealistic to think: “How do we keep this going forever?” There’s a reason we have elected representatives.

Mark: Well, the normal pattern would have to mean getting back to having a Republican Party that’s willing to just engage in ordinary governance. It’s weird, it’s unsustainable for a party to not do that, but if they can lock in their gains and if their attitude is, “Well, these other people are not going to vote for me anyway,” that’s not going to matter. If the alternative is you actually just need a plain old progressive power, my new mantra is that you have to think about a kind of politics that is majoritarian and mobilizing and sustainable. Those are three things that are really hard to put together at the same time. Obama was majoritarian and it certainly mobilized people, but then the mobilization fell away very quickly.

Heather: I want us not to fall into the trap of thinking that the mobilization that we’re seeing now begins with the Women’s March. There are several movements that say how they think about organizing in a digital era is absolutely drawn from failures and successes back as far as Occupy. Again, just as Trump doesn’t sort of emerge from Zeus’s brain.

Chayenne: Recently, I’ve been looking at faith-based organizing, particularly in DC, and that’s the narrative. Someone who organizes for affordable housing in DC told me, “People were homeless before Trump. People are still homeless, and they’re going to continue to be homeless after Trump.” So, sure, advocates should be taking advantage of this moment in terms of recruiting people and hopefully keeping them for the long haul. But at the grassroots level, people have been doing the hard work for a very long time, and they’re not going away.

Lee: In some ways, the danger of getting people more engaged is that we’re at this moment in which everybody is so fired up and divided that just by ... the way that people get engaged is because they’re fired up and they’re angry, and that anger leads to a lot of motivated reasoning, which leads to partisanship, which fuels anger, and you get into this cycle.

In some ways, the cynic in me says, “Actually, we want people less engaged.” Because the problem is that too many people are engaged in politics and they have these extreme views. If people care less about politics, you just have normal interest group bargaining.

Keeping perspective

Lee: It seems like there is the old Marxist idea about things have to get worse before they get better.

Heather: I was actually going to say a variance on the same thing. Many societies go through extreme polarization and division and come out better, but what they have to go through to get there is —

Chayenne: Ugly.

Heather: Yeah. I’m not good at balancing. That’s not one of my skill sets, but to the extent I think about it, it’s like, what are we building now that is going to sustain and/or survive pressures if things do get worse before they get better?

Lee: One thing is we have a pretty good economy now. It’s unequal, but it’s growing. We’ve had nine years of steady economic growth and that’s a long time. What happens when we have another recession or —

Christian: Or a terrorist attack.

Mark: Lots of bad things have not happened. We have not had the level of international intervention that we had in the George W. Bush era. The tax cuts are bad, but the tax cuts can be reversed, and we may have crossed a line where all those bad things are going to happen. Some of them, there’s like ... It’s kind of fascinating to see ... Yes, of course [Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott] Pruitt wants to get rid of all the auto emission standards, but then the auto dealers are dealing with global standards, so they don’t actually want that. A lot of these things are locked in in a way that they are not going to be reversed quite so quickly.

Hollie: It’s very complex because we don’t really want corporations in charge of governance, and yet you’re seeing what is the day when progressives are applauding corporations for taking a values stand. That’s a complicated day, but that’s a day that’s happening.

For the future

Lee: I think that in terms of looking ahead and knowledge on site, I think preparing for the next Trump would be the best thing. ...

Elena: Maybe he was allowed to take advantage of a situation here, but he’s not the only person who can see that. Someone else will too.

Lee: No, absolutely not. I think the mistake will be in thinking once Trump leaves —

Heather: Right, like, “That was the one time.”

Lee: Which was the same mistake that we made with Obama: “Oh, we got it. We’re fine. Everything is cool.”