American politics today are marked by dysfunction, discontent, and ideological churn on both sides of the aisle. Since the distraction and paralysis of the world’s hegemon has such obvious global significance, we decided to turn our focus inward, exploring the sources and contours of the American malaise.
Francis Fukuyama kicks off our special package with a magisterial analysis of U.S. political decay, showing how today’s problems stem from the basic design of the country’s political institutions and have been exacerbated by increasingly hostile polarization. His conclusion is depressing: absent some sort of major external shock, the decay is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Yascha Mounk looks at the rise of populism in the United States and Europe. Far from being the product of a temporary economic crisis, he finds, the Tea Party and its European cousins have emerged from the enduring inability of democratic governments to satisfy their citizens’ needs. Leaders must learn to co-opt and channel popular passions, addressing political outsiders’ legitimate grievances while bypassing their simplistic solutions.
The American right is in particular turmoil, as it tries to reverse a national losing streak while also accommodating the ideological demands of an increasingly angry and extreme base. David Frum argues that the Republican Party’s central problem is its increasing dependence on the old and the rich and that a revival of its fortunes will have to wait for the emergence of a truly multiethnic, socially tolerant conservatism. And Byron York assesses the work of the party’s would-be reformers and stresses the importance of appealing to the middle class.
As for the left, while its divisions may look less dramatic, differences lurk there as well. Michael Kazin juxtaposes the left’s string of victories in the cultural sphere, where progressives have expanded individual rights for society’s oppressed, with its equally notable string of defeats on the economic front, as the left has tried to create a more egalitarian society motivated by a spirit of solidarity. And Michael Tomasky assesses the potential for a revolt against the centrist views of Democratic elites by the party’s progressive masses, led by a champion such as Senator Elizabeth Warren.
For such a strong, rich, free, and favorably situated country, the United States is remarkably testy and out of sorts these days — and falling far short of its enormous potential. Finding a way to deal with its internal challenges may be the most important national interest of all.