The conventional party platforms no longer address or even comprehend the most pressing challenges facing American institutions. Economic mobility is down and inequality is up, while growth, productivity, and wages are nearly stagnant. Trust in government is at historic lows. Crime and drug abuse are increasing, while families and communities are disintegrating. Social discord, frequently inflamed by proliferating versions of identity politics, is becoming more prevalent. The foreign policies of the last two decades have resulted, too often, in failure and strategic incoherence.
Yet many of our so-called elites ignore these problems. Instead, they bemoan the rise of a populism—from both the Right and the Left—that is said to endanger the very foundations of our political system, of our national mores, and even of democracy itself. This conventional narrative is as false as it is self-serving, revealing only the insularity of our politicians and the status anxieties of our intellectuals.
On the contrary, what if public discontent is a reasonable response to a misguided and complacent elite consensus? What if the people are not too populist, but rather our elite is not truly elite? What if “the real problem with our republic,” as Walter Russell Mead put it, “is that what should be our leadership elite is soul-sick: vain, restless, easily miffed, intellectually confused, jealous”?
This intellectual confusion is most apparent in our reliance on decades-old ideological categories. The leadership of both political parties has tried and failed to fit burgeoning popular discontent into the old definitions of conservatism and progressivism. Far from clarifying the most critical issues, however, these categories only obscure them.
The distance between constituency and ideology has grown on both sides, feeding an ideological polarization out of step with the interests of voters. American political theatre stages ever shriller battles over increasingly trivial matters. Yet the circus atmosphere only distracts attention from the paucity of substantive debate on essential questions. Beneath Washington’s hollow sloganeering, both parties have subscribed to the same woefully inadequate policy consensus on major issues of foreign and domestic policy.
At home, we have heard endless calls for new New Deals and another Reagan Revolution. Yet, today, Americans spend more on education, and our students perform worse. We spend more on health care and receive less. We spend more per unit of infrastructure and build less. We spend more on defense and get the F-35 debacle. We have lower taxes but slower economic growth. We have more finance but less investment.
Concerning foreign affairs, speeches about our obligations to “promote democracy” and our “responsibility to protect” trade places with predictable regularity. Yet what have we accomplished except the promotion of chaos and the irresponsible squandering of hard-won strategic advantages?
Among the commentators tasked with appraising our situation, it has become fashionable to criticize the “nostalgia” of voters seeking better government and better livelihoods. These desires, we are told, are nothing but impossible and counterproductive illusions. Like all clichés, this one contains some truth. But our intellectuals as well as our politicians are subservient to an even more debilitating nostalgia, which views the ideologies of the last few decades as the only alternatives and their policies as the only solutions. They are nostalgic for a present they think they inhabit, but which has already slipped away.
These ossified intellectual orthodoxies have rewarded partisan loyalty over genuine insight. The resulting political culture has promoted a peculiar hybrid of extremism and careerism at the expense of good governance.
American Affairs rejects this degradation of our political discourse. We seek to provide a forum for the discussion of new policies that are outside of the conventional dogmas, and a platform for new voices distinguished by originality, experience, and achievement rather than the compromised credentials of careerist institutions. We believe that recognizing failures and encouraging new ideas are not betrayals of American “optimism” but are instead healthier expressions of it.
Yet this is far from some bland appeal to nonpartisan expertise or bipartisan collaboration. We are in desperate need of more rigorous policy analysis, but that alone will not be enough if it does not go beyond the self-satisfaction of present intellectual conventions. For this project to be successful, we must also inquire more boldly and at the same time more carefully into foundational principles. We must ask precisely those questions which the prevailing ideological tendencies obscure.
Conventional wisdom increasingly seems to assume that our economy has stagnated—that all economies have stagnated. But the proffered explanations are unsatisfying and the solutions on offer are unlikely to succeed. More fundamental analysis is required: Why does economic theory seem increasingly detached from present reality and unable to comprehend it? What is the nature and role of markets in today’s economy? What does “free enterprise” mean when the division between the state and the private sector becomes increasingly blurred?
Today, the celebration of “disruptive” technological innovation is virtually unanimous. Why then is corporate and government investment in basic research in decline? Why is productivity stagnating?
At the same time, we are told that more and more jobs will be lost to automation, and that the “new economy” will be a highly bifurcated service economy. But if “average” is truly over, what does that mean for an American republic predicated on a strong and independent middle class, and what are the appropriate policy responses?
We are said to live in a “globalized” world. Yet the most conspicuous global phenomenon of the present time would appear to be the resurgence of nationalism, in the United States as well as in Europe and Asia. What is the future of nations and nationalism, and what are the consequences of further separating political sovereignty from the existing political community of the nation-state? Is further “globalization” both inevitable and desirable? Can nationalism be leavened by justice—or even be essential to it—rather than being abandoned to its worst expressions?
Meritocracy is perhaps the most sacrosanct principle in contemporary American life. It is a soothing lullaby that we sing to ourselves to avoid responsibility for the ever more rigid socioeconomic stratification of our society. Was meritocracy fated to produce social stratification? Or are we privileging certain forms of merit while excluding others?
Recitations of American ideals are increasingly disconnected from their philosophic underpinnings as well as lived experience, yet popular affection for them remains. Have the permanent campaigns of identity politics on the left and the “culture wars” on the right concealed the true content of our common citizenship?
These are just some of the many questions we intend to explore in these pages. There are many debates that need to happen if the United States is to revive its economy, society, and government, and chart a new course in foreign affairs. We face significant challenges, and the solutions will require fundamental changes in both public policy and intellectual outlook.
The promise of America is no longer being realized as it once was. Revival and realignment are critically needed. With the hope of contributing to that effort, we bring you American Affairs.