President Donald Trump and his political allies have assaulted countless constitutional and structural norms in American politics, and the country is more divided than it has been in decades. But the endgame, wrote political scientist Lee Drutman for The New York Times on Monday, could in fact be a popular movement for progressive reform.
"Eras of reform follow a general pattern," wrote Drutman. "First, a mood of impending crisis prevails. Unfairness and inequality feel overwhelming, and national politics feels stuck and unresponsive to growing demands. But beneath the shattered yet still stubborn national stasis, new social movements organize. Politics becomes exciting and full of moral energy. New writers, empowered by new forms of media, invent new narratives. And future-oriented politicians emerge to channel that energy and challenge the old establishment."
"Of the reform periods, the Progressive Era holds the clearest parallels to ours," argued Drutman. "In the 1890s, inequality, partisanship and discontent were all sky-high. The depression of 1893-97 shattered faith that a growing industrial economy would lift all boats. New leviathan railroad and public-utility corporations seemed imposingly powerful, and partisan politics seemed thoroughly corrupted by them. Mass immigration was changing the face of the nation."
"As public dissatisfaction built, and pressure grew from multiple directions, the political system eventually responded, led by a new generation of reform-oriented activists and politicians. New forms of participatory democracy — the primary, direct elections for the Senate, the initiative and the referendum — reshaped a political system that seemed to privilege the few over the many," continued Drutman. "Women achieved the right to vote, first in cities and states, then finally nationwide in 1920. New regulatory agencies wrestled with the size and scope of giant corporate enterprises, cutting some down to size, putting stricter boundaries on others. But even as late as 1902, it was far from obvious that the years ahead would bring so much change."
All of this happened, Drutman wrote, in spite of the fact that there was no clear leadership and organization to the reform, and despite the fact that not all of the reformers agreed on what to do.
"When future historians look back on the 2010s, they will observe three larger trends that paved the way for a new era of reform by clearing away the old consensus: a loss of faith in 'neoliberal' economics, the breakdown of white male-dominated social and cultural hierarchies, and the collapse of the 'normal' political process," wrote Drutman, noting that the financial crisis, the monolithic power of big tech companies, and the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements have all pushed the political system to breaking point. "These cultural changes have provoked a backlash that contributed to Donald Trump’s rise and the associated growth of alt-right movements. Fights over identity now define national partisan competition because they echo and reinforce fundamental divides in the ethnic and geographical coalitions of the two major parties and amplify the zero-sum stakes of two-party electoral conflict. The unceasing culture war is a battle over two very different and diverging visions."
Drutman envisions that the endgame is a series of reforms that break the two-party system itself. "In 2018, Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting for federal elections (after Mainers approved it in two statewide referendums). This month, New York City voters adopted it. Also in 2020, expect voters in Alaska and Massachusetts to decide whether they want in on ranked-choice voting," he wrote. "By removing the spoiler effect of third parties, ranked-choice voting can break the us-versus-them force driving our partisan warfare, and create space for a political realignment that creates new coalitions to shape economic reforms and negotiate social change."
"As with each era of reform, we’ll get some things right and some things wrong. We’ll overcorrect for some past mistakes, and make some new ones," concluded Drutman. "But democracy isn’t something to perfect or solve. It’s a continuing, improbable experiment in self-governance, of devilish scale and complexity. We’re still learning."
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