So, You Want to Win Elections?

Things stopped working in this country about 50 years ago. But it wasn’t really noticeable until a few decades later. I like to date the beginning of the decay to the summer of 1969, though it’s impossible to put a precise date on it. Still, the summer of 1969 was an inflection point much more important than 1967’s “Summer of Love.”

Consider: On July 20, 1969, Apollo XI landed on the moon and 39 minutes later, on July 21, Neil Armstrong became the first man to stand on its surface. A few weeks later, on the night of August 8, the Manson family broke into Roman Polanski’s Hollywood Hills home and murdered his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, their unborn baby, and three friends who were at the house. The following Friday, August 15, the Woodstock music festival began in upstate New York. A good argument could be made that Woodstock was the culmination of the ’60s, but in reality, the ’60s had ended a week earlier. Woodstock wasn’t the final flowering, it was an aftershock.

This isn’t the time for a full exploration of the summer of ’69 (look out for that in the future), but it’s worth noting that a lot changed after that. Things had already peaked. For example, the two fastest ever commercial aircraft had both flown for the first time earlier in 1969; the 747 in February and the Concorde in March. In fact, the average speed of commercial air travel has been declining ever since. (Though that may be changing for the better.) Then, in the early 1970s, the median real wages of American workers entered a period of extended stagnation characterized by exceptionally low growth which made it impossible for the average person (who, by the way, is not an entrepreneur) to get ahead. It’s still true today, which is why so many families require two incomes if they want to remain in the middle class.

It’s a problem. And it either causes or exacerbates a lot of other problems in our country. People who are in economically precarious circumstances change their behavior: they delay getting married or don’t marry at all, they have fewer children than they would like or none at all, they may become lonely, isolated, and depressed. Radical, performative, and ritualistic politics often sublimate economic precarity and social status anxiety. In all, it’s an accelerant and perhaps a cause of political and social decay.

Which brings me back to the question in the headline: So, you want to win elections?

Of course you do. There’s a lot on the line. Americans (and probably more non-Americans than we’d care to admit) spent $14 billion on the 2020 election. A little less than half of that was spent on the presidential election alone with the balance being divided between all the other elections from dog catcher to senator. Given the stakes—or at least the perceived stakes—that’s actually a lot less than you might expect. After all, if your team . . . er, party wins, you get power. Right? Maybe—although the nature and distribution of political power is a topic for another day. But consider: Americans spend nearly as much ($13 billion) on professional football every year, not every four years.

Still, if you win elections you at least get the opportunity—an opportunity which is rarely taken—to wield some measure of power. You can set policy you like, stop policy you don’t like, or at least delay or mitigate some of the things you find odious or harmful. That’s the idea, anyway. At a minimum you get bragging rights. Maybe that’s all you get, but it’s something.

So how do you do it? Let me suggest something simple: advocate an agenda to remake America so that the average person can get married, buy a house, have a few kids, and send them to school on a single wage. That’s it. If you can do that, you win and your party will govern for a generation—and will deserve to win.

It’s an easy formula to articulate, but for some reason no one does. I have a few theories about why. One is that solutions are harder to articulate than complaints. At a minimum, they require action and not just words. And although in this case the solutions are not unknowable or undoable, they aren’t easy. I’ll return to them in more detail another time. The other reason is a tendency to rely too heavily on ideology in politics. It’s a consistent element of liberalism that it turns politics into a secular religion that offers mortification of sin and absolution from it’s stain through public ritual. Everyone does it.

The Right’s version of this has focused on freedom. For example, the festishization of free trade. “Free trade” with China is great (!) because it’s free! So free! It’s the freest of free. Can’t you just smell, taste, and touch all the freedom. Isn’t it amazing? Stop looking at the empty factories, the boarded up formerly locally owned business, and the pill mills and focus on the sweet, sweet aroma of freedom. Ain’t it swell?

iStock/Getty Images

Liberty or Justice?

The Left-liberal version tends to focus more on justice. Who doesn’t like justice? As Mortimer J. Adler told a mostly Boomer audience in his 1981 book, Six Great Ideas, justice is the one thing you can’t have too much of. I suppose that’s true in a very abstract sense, but perfect justice also requires a perfect judge with perfect knowledge. In other words, God. So, yes, divine justice is, by definition, perfect and complete. But an excessive focus on justice tends to be accompanied, perhaps preceded, by a sense of divine mission that often manifests first in preening, then in hectoring, and eventually in self-righteous cruelty. 

In other words, people who are unusually obsessed with seeing justice done are really obsessed with seeing justice done to or upon others. And they see themselves as judges. The kulaks had to be liquidated because they were a reactionary impediment to the revolutionary forces that were just about to—really, they were right on the cusp of—ushering in an age of true justice for all. Sorry kulaks.

Relocation of kulaks. Universal History Archive via Getty Images

Both the Right-Liberty and the Left-Justice positions obscure something vital: American living standards by many measures have been declining for a long time. The official measures favored by economists are not especially useful. Is a brand new laptop meaningfully better than one you bought 10 years ago? Did your productivity rise by using the 2020 Macbook versus the 2010 Macbook? Are the kids who have no parents at home after school better off or worse off than their counterparts 40 years ago who had their mothers home waiting for them? Do cheaper toasters at Walmart and dopamine rat-mazes on their iPhones compensate for the fact that both of their parents have to do wage work out of the house in order to make ends meet? That wasn’t the case as late as 1985. But it is now. Is it an improvement?

Fixing that would be hard—necessary for a sustainable country, but hard. Talking about liberty and justice is cheap, easy, and feels good. Building a country that values families and improves living standards is a slog and it takes a long time. We had it once. Everyone says they value families, but talk is cheap and the numbers don’t lie. These days, family formation occurs later in life, there’s less of it, women have fewer children than they say they want, the total fertility rate has been declining for decades and is now, at 1.71 children per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

On top of that, Americans are less healthy. Chronic inflammatory disease has been rising for years, adult obesity is at epidemic levels, childhood obesity is off the charts, educational attainment for American students lags peer nations, despite per capita spending that is consistently higher than almost every other developed nation, and so on.

Wouldn’t improving those things be just? Would improving those things provide Americans with more tangible freedom? Of course. But how to do it?

Like I said, that’s hard. Not impossible, but hard.

More people need to focus on the possible and on the tangible. If politics is going to be about anything worthwhile, it must be about things that are concrete, that sustain the people in the polity and the polity itself.

By any objective measure our vital signs are weak. But we’re alive. And that means we can do better. Exploring how we can regain our vitality is essential. Because we can. That’s the mission. If you’re up for it, stick around.

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