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.”