Democratic Dysfunction May Get in the Way of Everything

Trump's election has been gravely concerning to me for a while now, and as a Bay Area resident the repeated clashes between antifas on the one hand and Milo and friends on the other hand are an additional alarm. As a believer in Enlightenment values who, perhaps conveniently, thinks that widespread belief in and consensus around those values leads to good things (such as economic prosperity and peace), I'm disturbed by what seems like an assault on reason from all sides. On the right, there's the rise of nativism, and on the left, there's an identity-politics reaction that risks enabling the right.12

This has me starting to worry that maybe democratic dysfunction could be an issue above all issues. This piece got me thinking recently, and this blog helped me sort through my thoughts. I tend to think of the most pressing issues in the world as those directly affecting various generally ignored or in some cases inherently disenfranchised groups, including nonhuman animals, beings who will be alive in the future, and humans marginalized by virtue of their nationality, criminal record (and tacitly, race), or place of residence. Redress on any of these issues, though, demands a functional and inclusive system of governance. Democracy seems to yield ever broader moral circles, and without democracy, that effect may shrink.

I'm mostly concerned about this in the U.S., which has outsized power and where institutions appear to be strong but weakening. In Europe, there appears to be less to worry about institutionally, but a lot to worry about in the rise of a similar sort of rightwing movement. (Macron, who talks like a modern day Frederick the Great minus the war, does give me hope. I hope his approval ratings rebound.)

What to do about all this? I'm not sure. Looking for answers is probably the first place.

Maybe one solution is for us to start talking about market-friendly approaches to addressing inequality?  I did not quite understand the severity of male unemployment over the past several decades. Earnings figures give some sense of this issue, but the economic declines are greatest among those who were already the worst off.

Large numbers of unemployed young men is a recipe for conflict and more tribalistic tendencies. That may explain a lot about national politics. Then again, this may be a vicious cycle, as politicians appear to use the disenfranchisement and polarization of the public to further erode the institutions that might be able to stem the tide.

In the U.S., there's generally a choice between redistribution done in a complex, bureaucratic way or no redistribution at all (or policies that are outright regressive). If there were the option of ample (far greater than today) equalizing policy that was done in the least distortionary way possible, maybe there could be some progress made that could trickle up to democracy writ broadly.

1. I mostly sympathize with the left on the basic issues here, but I think the contemporary left makes two main mistakes: (a) The left often frames issues in a way that enables mistaken views. White/male/straight people should make a special effort to listen to others' voices, but wrong for white/male/straight people not to be allowed to speak. (b) The left ignores the impact of its rhetoric on people who disagree. Activists on the left will often justify violence by appeals to how wronged the perpetrators of violence feel, while giving second fiddle to the empirical literature showing that violence is bad for a cause.

2. I would REALLY love some empirical evidence on whether the identity politics on either side drive the reaction on the other side. I've seen a number of pieces of evidence persuading me that Trump's election had a lot to do with racism. Polls find stronger correlations there than on economic issues, and initial negative reactions to immigration seem to drive far-right parties. I read that percentage increases in immigration also seem to drive votes for Trump. It seems pretty common sense that the sorts of politics on the left have a lot to do with histories of oppression there. What I'm curious about is whether the politics on the left drove the racism on the right and vice versa.


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