China’s Sputnik Moment?
How Washington Boosted Beijing’s Quest for Tech Dominance
Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2014, I lamented the political decay that had taken root in the United States, where governing institutions had become increasingly dysfunctional. “A combination of intellectual rigidity and the power of entrenched political actors is preventing those institutions from being reformed,” I wrote. “And there is no guarantee that the situation will change much without a major shock to the political order.”
In the years that immediately followed, it seemed possible that the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might present a shock of that sort. Revisiting the question of political decay in these pages during the presidential campaign of 2016, I was encouraged to see that “voters on both sides of the spectrum have risen up against what they see as a corrupt, self-dealing Establishment, turning to radical outsiders in the hopes of a purifying cleanse.” I also warned, however, that “the nostrums being hawked by the populist crusaders are nearly entirely unhelpful, and if embraced, they would stifle growth, exacerbate malaise, and make the situation worse rather than better.”
Those nostrums were, in fact, embraced by Americans—or at least by enough of them to send Trump to the White House. And the situation has indeed gotten worse. The process of deterioration has continued at a startling pace and on a scale that was hard to anticipate back then, culminating in developments such as the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol—an act of insurrection encouraged by the president of the United States.
Meanwhile, the underlying conditions that brought on this crisis remain unchanged. The U.S. government is still captured by powerful elite groups that distort policy to their own benefit and undermine the legitimacy of the regime as a whole. And the system is still too rigid to reform itself. These conditions, however, have morphed in unexpected ways. Two emerging phenomena have worsened the situation enormously: new communications technologies have contributed to the disappearance of a common factual basis for democratic deliberation, and what were once policy differences between “blue” and “red” factions have hardened into divisions over cultural identity.
In theory, the capture of the U.S. government by elites could be a source of unity, since it angers both sides of the political divide. Unfortunately, the targets of this animus are different in each case. For people on the left, the elites in question are corporations and capitalist interest groups—fossil fuel companies, Wall Street banks, hedge fund billionaires, and Republican mega-donors—whose lobbyists and money have worked to protect their interests against any sort of democratic reckoning. For those on the right, the malignant elites are the cultural power brokers in Hollywood, the mainstream media, universities, and major corporations that espouse a “woke” secular ideology at odds with what conservative Americans regard as traditional or Christian values. Even in areas where one might think these two views would overlap, such as growing worries over the power of giant technology companies, the concerns of the two sides are incompatible. Blue America charges Twitter and Facebook with promoting conspiracy theories and Trumpist propaganda, whereas red America sees these same companies as hopelessly biased against conservatives.
The rigidity of the U.S. system of government has become more and more obvious and problematic, but it also has its virtues. Overall, constitutional checks and balances have worked: despite Trump’s relentless efforts to weaken the country’s institutional foundations, he was prevented from doing his worst by courts, bureaucracies, and local-level officials. The clearest case of this was Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The judicial system—often in the form of Trump-appointed judges—refused to condone the dozens of nonsense lawsuits the Trump side brought before courts. And Republican officials such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and others overseeing elections in Georgia stood up heroically against the president, who pressured them to illegally reverse his historic loss of the state.
But the same checks that constrained Trump will also limit any future effort to reform the system’s fundamental dysfunctions. One of the most important institutional defects is the crucial advantage held by Republicans due to the Electoral College and the makeup of the Senate, which allows them to hold power despite winning fewer popular votes at both national and state levels. Changes to the U.S. Constitution, such as elimination of the Electoral College, are simply off the table, given the incredibly high bar set for passing and ratifying amendments. The Democrats’ bare majority in the Senate takes away the Republican veto over mundane issues such as cabinet appointments, but bigger reforms—such as statehood for the District of Columbia or a new Voting Rights Act to counter Republican efforts at disenfranchisement—will run up against Republican filibusters. President-elect Joe Biden will need luck and skill to push through even relatively unambitious legislation, such as a new stimulus package and infrastructure spending. The transformational structural changes envisioned in the reform package that Democrats in the House of Representatives recently proposed will remain for the most part out of reach.
As I noted in my 2016 article, the fundamental dysfunction in U.S. politics is the way that the nation’s checks-and-balances institutions have interacted with political polarization to produce stasis and perpetual partisan combat. This polarization has grown much deeper and more dangerous since then. One driver has been technology, which has undercut the ability of established institutions such as the mainstream media or the government itself to shape what the public believes. Today, 77 percent of Republicans believe that there was major fraud in the 2020 election, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. There has been talk of growing authoritarian tendencies on the right, which is certainly true of Trump and many of his enablers. But there are tens of millions of people who voted for him and continue to support him not because they dislike the idea of democracy but because, in their minds, they are defending democracy against a Democratic Party that stole a presidential election.
Solving this technology-induced problem will be one of the great challenges of the coming period. Twitter and Facebook did the right thing by de-platforming Trump in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol; that decision was defensible as a short-term response to a national emergency. Inciting violence is different from exercising protected free speech rights. But in the long run, it is not legitimate for privately owned companies to make such publicly consequential decisions on their own. Indeed, it was a huge mistake for the country to have allowed these platforms to grow so powerful in the first place. A solution that two co-authors and I proposed recently in Foreign Affairs is to promote a competitive layer of “middleware” companies to which the platforms would outsource the task of content moderation, thereby reducing the platforms’ power and allowing users much greater control over the information they encounter. This will not eliminate conspiracy theories, but it will reduce the platforms’ power to amplify fringe voices and silence others that fall into disfavor.
The same checks that constrained Trump will also limit any future effort to reform the system.
The second development that has immeasurably deepened the country’s polarization is the shift from arguments over policy issues into fights over identity. In the 1990s, when polarization was just getting off the ground, the two Americas disagreed on matters such as tax rates, health insurance, abortion, guns, and the use of military force overseas. These issues have not gone away but have been supplanted by questions of identity and membership in fixed groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender, and other broad social markers. Political parties have been overtaken by political tribes.
The rise of tribalism has been most pronounced in the GOP. Trump easily managed to get the party and its voters to abandon core principles such as a belief in free trade, support for global democracy, and hostility to dictatorships. As Trump’s own neuroses and self-absorption deepened, the party became increasingly personalistic. Over the course of the Trump presidency, what made you a Republican was your degree of loyalty to him: if you deviated in the slightest by criticizing anything he said or did, you were cast out. This culminated in the party refusing to present a platform at the 2020 Republican national convention, choosing instead to simply affirm that it would support whatever Trump wanted. That is how mask wearing and the simple act of taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously became bitterly partisan issues.
All of this built on a starkly geographic and demographic social divide that emerged after 2016. As the political scientist Jonathan Rodden has shown, the single biggest correlate of pro- and anti-Trump sentiment is population density. The country is divided into blue cities and suburbs and red exurbs and rural areas, reflecting a huge cultural split over values—a split that is replicated in many countries other than the United States.
Political parties have been overtaken by political tribes.
But what is happening now cannot be fully explained by structural factors. An NPR/Ipsos poll conducted last fall found that nearly a quarter of Republicans believed the outlandish core claim of the QAnon conspiracy theory—namely, as the pollsters put it, that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.” The GOP is no longer a party based on ideas or policies but something more akin to a cult.
Tribalism is also present on the left, but in a somewhat less pronounced form. Identity politics was born on the left in the wake of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Identity-based mobilizations against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, or gender orientation have evolved for some on the left into demands for group recognition and positive affirmation of a group’s differentness. But on the whole, blue America is much more diverse than its red counterpart. The Biden presidency will see a major divide over these issues emerge between factions within the Democratic Party, something that never happened to the Republicans under Trump.
Where the country goes after Biden’s inauguration is anyone’s guess. The major uncertainty is what will happen within the Republican Party. Trump and his followers seriously overreached with the violent storming of the Capitol, and a number of Republicans have finally broken publicly with him. Politically, Trump’s presidency has not put the GOP in a strong position: the party went from holding the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2017 to holding none of those institutions today. But the Trump cult of personality has come to dominate the party to such an extent that even this turn to violence may not put people off. It is possible to imagine a slow but steady recapture of authority by former mainstream Republicans as they adjust to the reality of being out of power and the need to expand the party’s coalition so as to win future elections. Alternatively, Trump could retain his hold on the party by portraying himself as a martyr who sacrificed everything for his country. At one extreme, one could imagine Trump and his hardcore supporters morphing into a terrorist underground, using violence to strike back at what they regard as an illegitimate Biden administration.
How this ultimately plays out will have significant consequences for global democracy in the coming years. Trump has handed authoritarians such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping a huge gift: a United States divided, internally preoccupied, and contradicting its own democratic ideals. Biden winning the White House with a bare Democratic majority in Congress won’t be enough for the United States to recover its international standing: Trumpism must be repudiated and delegitimized root and branch, much as McCarthyism was in the 1950s. The elites who establish normative guardrails around national institutions must regain their nerve and reestablish their moral authority. Whether they rise to the challenge will determine the fate of U.S. institutions—and, more important, the American people.
Ending Big Tech’s Information Monopoly