Governments of various kinds and levels are the way people organize and define themselves, and their operating systems are politics. Connections have always been at the heart of politics for obvious reasons. In our modern democracies, journalists have tried valiantly to define elections based on issues and ideas, but it never works – the connections of politics are tribal and personal. People rarely change their affiliations because they’d lose the connections that define them in part, too. Issues come and go, but connections remain. That doesn’t mean that connections in politics never change, but change stalls until the tribes and their purported issues lose all connection with relevance.
Such a time might be now.
Change in American politics is often generational because of the great importance of connections, but it does happen. We have always used a one-dimensional shorthand to describe where people stand on various issues because it is easy, but the issues at either end change. Politicians’ stands on the Bank of The United States versus loose credit defined the first strong political parties, which gave way to Slave versus Free. Once that problem was violently solved, Isolationism versus Expansionism defined a few generations.
The way we define politics these days dates roughly to the New Deal. It is basically an argument about which kinds of institutions should be favored – government, unions, and activism on the Left and churches and corporations on the Right. The argument came from the creation of an activist government that stepped in during the previous Depression and met resistance. The battle lines were set, and we’ve been at it ever since.
The funny thing about this argument is that it was solved a long time ago. Unlike previous ways of dividing the parties, this time neither side won. We all generally accept that all of these institutions are useful in their own ways, even as all of them have had their veneer of permanence battered off of them. The last real influx of new thinking came during the Reagan era, some 30 years ago. An entire new generation has come into the electorate since.
A study in 2006 found that those born after 1980 tend to have a loose political affiliation. As they reach voting age the number of citizens identifying themselves as “Independent” has hit a new high, 31% of the population (versus 26% for Republicans and 36% Democrats). The new generation clearly finds old labels and their related institutions increasingly irrelevant.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t institutions of a kind all through politics. On any given issue, a “group” is often identified by the press, operating in the guise of an institution. The standard spiel is something like, “The march was organized by Citizens Against Reality & Progress, or CARP. They tell us that they’re full of CARP and they want us to know it. Now, back to you.”
These “institutions” that push and pull the politics of our time are rarely anything more than a loose affiliation of connections that came together for some reason. Some are highly professionalized, recruited from a small band of people that are “into it”. They are the proud members of the dwindling tribes. A lot of what interests them are zingers with little relevance to the operation of government.
What is relevance? In a Depression, the answer is action – It’s still the economy, stupid. The split about how to move forward is the real debate, even within the current definitions of Left and Right. There are some people who find a lot of value in the existing institutions and their identities, and a lot of other people who are more interested in doing whatever makes sense.
Consider for a moment how some people on the Left make a fundamentally conservative argument in favor of preserving existing institutions such as government agencies to advance their agenda, or how so many on the Right talk openly about revolution. You would think for all of these words to have meaning, Progressives would always be for progress and Conservatives would back the way things are. But it doesn’t happen that way very often.
A new politics based on how people view connections themselves is forming. One side is eager to see connections as a strong part of their identity and want to define institutions on a permanent basis to keep the connections they enshrine strong. The other side is more dynamic and sees connections to the process as a fluid proposal, spontaneously organizing around specific things that need to be done. The difference is highly generational, but not exclusively so.
Each side has drawbacks, of course. Flexibility may be more personal, but it’s easier to have disempowered people slide through the cracks. Institutions may be great at taking care of day-to-day tasks, but at the cost of systemic exclusion. The trade-off is when and where institutions are critical, not which ones are the most important.
Our system of politics and the connections that make it work are undergoing a very fundamental shift that is redefining the institutions of government. But it’s really nothing more than an application of the lessons learned in other aspects of life, places where making ideas into reality is a matter of life and death – or wealth and poverty. The role of connections may be more obvious in politics than any other aspect of our lives, but it’s far from the only place.
What matters most, however, are connections between all of these ways that ideas meet reality in a changing world – that is, ideas about connections and connections to ideas. Tying this all together is next.