It’s safe to say that by the end of today, a large chunk of Americans will be bitterly disappointed. If Republicans win big, Democrats will hang their heads and cuss the Koch brothers. If the GOP fails to snag the Senate and a fistful of statehouses, its partisans will mope around and blame Ebola-infected illegal immigrants for the loss.
But whichever side emerges victorious, both Republicans and Democrats should face up to a much bigger truth: Neither party as currently constituted has a real future. Fewer and fewer Americans identify as either Republican or Democratic according to Gallup, and both parties are at recent or all-time lows when it comes to approval ratings. Just 39 percent give Democrats a favorable rating and just 33 percent do the same for Republicans. Not coincidentally, each party has also recently had a clear shot at implementing its vision of the good society. If you want to drive down your adversary’s approval rating, just give him the reins of power for a few years.
What’s going on? The short version is that political, cultural, and even economic power has been decentralizing and unraveling for a long time. Whether you like it or not, The Libertarian Moment is here, a technologically driven individualization of experience and a breakdown of the large institutions—governments, corporations, churches, you name it—that used to govern and structure our lives. The result is that top-down systems, whether public or private, right wing or left wing, have less and less ability to organize our lives. That’s true whether you’re talking about the workplace, the bedroom, or the bar down the street (that may now be serving legal pot). This is mostly good, though it’s also profoundly disruptive too.
Given the penchant for the good old days when men were men and women were in the kitchen, you wouldn’t expect conservatives to grok any of this. But Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and a former George W. Bush adviser who has been anointed an “intellectual prodigy” by The New York Times, does. Writing in the theocon journal First Things, he notes, “Younger Americans are growing up amid a profusion of options in every realm of life, with far more choice but far less predictability and security. Dynamism is increasingly driven not by economies of scale but by competitively driven marginal improvements. Our culture is becoming a sea of subcultures. Sources of information, entertainment, and education are proliferating.”
Indeed, the signal characteristic of the past several decades of American life has been the ways in which all sorts of decision-making has been pushed outwards to individuals or end-users in whatever system you want to gin up. In virtually any commercial transaction, for instance, even budget buyers have far more information and leverage than they did 30 years ago (think of the immense difference in the experience of purchasing a car before and after Edmunds.com came online).
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