As a presidential election year dawns, we cannot help but be alarmed by the multifaceted dysfunction of our governing institutions and political culture. The problem can seem vastly overdetermined, and therefore impossible to alleviate. Partisan polarization, cultural fragmentation, widespread mistrust, aging and exhausted leaders and agendas in both parties, a president unhinged by his own narcissism while his opponents are deranged by their loathing of him—it’s all a recipe for nervous breakdown.
But at the juncture of politics and policy, these problems often take one particular form that might both help us understand the challenge we face and suggest a modest way forward. If it’s not the source of our broader political and policy breakdown, it is one facet of it that might be amenable to some improvement. Simply put, we have become unable to rouse ourselves to take public problems seriously unless we can persuade ourselves that they present immediate and utterly apocalyptic dangers. As a result, we can’t focus on the routine demands of self-government, or on the longer-term preconditions for a thriving society. This perverse and frenzied myopia—call it hellscape short-termism—stands in the way of a functional American politics.
When our politicians take up policy questions, they tend to approach them as mortal threats. “The climate crisis is the existential crisis for our world,” Elizabeth Warren said in one recent Democratic presidential debate. “It puts every living thing on this planet at risk.” Not to be outdone, Pete Buttigieg put a deadline on the prophecy: “Science tells us we have 12 years before we reach the horizon of catastrophe when it comes to our climate.”
Andrew Yang thinks inequality is such a threat, too. “To me, without dramatic change, the best-case scenario is a hyper-stratified society like something out of The Hunger Games or Guatemala with the occasional mass shooting,” he wrote in his 2019 book The War on Normal People. “The worst case is widespread despair, violence and the utter collapse of our society.”
There are echoes in this language of how some Republicans talked about our government’s fiscal problems in the Obama years, with predictions of an impending Greek-style debt crisis crushing America’s prospects and time quickly running out. And the response that such talk drew from the left, which largely amounted to denial of the problem altogether, also mirrored the right’s response to the left’s climate catastrophism. The right itself has decided to stop worrying about deficits altogether now that President Trump would rather not talk about them. End-of-the-world rhetoric makes it hard to argue about practical solutions and incremental improvements. There is no middle ground between the catastrophic and the lackadaisical.
But most of the time, this rhetoric of cataclysm isn’t even deployed in the service of particular policy priorities. It’s simply a way of talking about the danger posed by the other party. Some Republicans worked themselves up into voting for Donald Trump by insisting that the alternative was nothing short of the end of the American experiment. “America lives or dies in 39 days,” Sean Hannity announced on his radio show in September 2016.
Christian conservative leader Gary Bauer told an interviewer that same month: “I can make a case that this may be the last election chance we have to actually win with somebody that is relatively close to our views on a variety of issues.” In a post-election poll conducted by PRRI and The Atlantic, 53 percent of evangelical voters said they believed the 2016 election was “the last chance to stop America’s decline.”
This was the view encapsulated in the infamous “Flight 93” argument for Trump’s election: “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.”
And of course, since that election, the same kind of rhetoric has radiated from the left. A steady stream of books and essays has declared that Donald Trump’s presidency has brought our democracy to mere inches from the precipice. “We are at an inflection point in the history of our world,” California senator Kamala Harris said when kicking off her (now defunct) presidential campaign in January. “We are here because the American dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before.” When launching the House impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the stakes could not be higher: “Our democracy is what is at stake.”
The parallels to Flight 93 rhetoric are obvious, and occasionally are even made explicit. Last year, in a piece laying out his sense of the implications of re-electing President Trump, Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore described the Flight 93 argument from 2016 as “a faintly ridiculous reflection of the lurid and distorted idea conservatives nourished about the evil secular-socialist and authoritarian plans a centrist Democrat like [Hillary Clinton] represented.” But he then continued, without a hint of irony, to say that “This same attitude, however, is entirely realistic when it comes to Democratic perspectives on the 2020 elections.”
This rush to apocalyptic rhetoric is both a cause and an effect of the paralyzing polarization of our politics. It is a way to sustain the partisan intensity and justify the outrageous levels of mutual animosity required to keep all arguments at a fever pitch on cable news, on social media, and on the campaign trail. Almost all of us fall into it sometimes (I’m certain I myself have done so over the years).
And because our polarization often is not substantive but affective now, not about policy but about tribe, it requires the conviction that rule by the other party would guarantee utter ruin, and so requires us to raise the stakes of every political decision point beyond all bounds.
Such logic also serves as an argument for suspending the usual rules and norms. If the fate of everything we care about hinges on winning this round, then no holds can be barred, and surely this is no time for bargaining, compromise, or incrementalism. And if it’s always such an emergency, then the rules cease to exist at all.
This leaves us much too grim about the state of the country, and yet at the same time incapable of addressing our problems. If the only way we can prompt ourselves to actpolitically is by talking ourselves into panic and despair, then we can never see problems as they are, we can never stop looking ridiculous and menacing to people who don’t share our political premises, and we can never build the coalitions required to make modest improvements. A politics of panic is devoid of prudence and proportion, which ultimately means it is devoid of statesmanship and of responsibility.
The decay of our core political institutions, and especially of Congress and of the political parties, contributes mightily to this condition. It leaves us with no established paths and processes for driving durable accommodation, and no incentives to broaden coalitions rather than narrowing and sharpening factions.
But it is not just politicians who need to do better on this front. We all should, and can, take on this tendency to catastrophize by trying to think about our political challenges in properly political terms. Some rare debates really are about the most fundamental things, so that no prudential compromise is possible. But most debates are not, and a failure to tell the difference is a failure of civic prudence.
This argues for some adjustment in our disposition and our expectations. Rather than think about elections and political debates primarily as ways of averting catastrophe we should strive to think of them as ways of pursuing modest improvements. Rather than looking at our political choices as matters of life and death, we should try to see them as matters of better and worse. When we’re tempted to think of a political dispute as all-or-nothing, we should force ourselves to wonder what a partial victory might look like.
This would involve lowering the stakes and the temperature of our politics a little, and coming to appreciate the resources, strengths, and wellsprings of resilience our society has as well as the challenges it faces. Such a change of attitude wouldn’t mean not worrying about our problems. On the contrary, it would mean learning how to worry properly—without panicking, and in a way that actually enables us to act to improve things over time.
And if in the process we come to think that politics may not be the be all and end all of life in a free society, that would be all the better.
Yuval Levin is director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs. His latest book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, will be published this month.
Photograph of anti-Trump protesters at a 2018 rally in Tennessee by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.