For the 58th time in our history, the American people are about to elect a president, and the political lines, as usual, are clear. Many voters are passionate supporters of President Trump. With equal passion, others support former Vice President Biden. A large slice of the public, I suspect, is ferociously anti-Trump or anti-Biden and will vote that way.
I have no quarrel with these good people—in fact, I envy them. For years, on various election days, I have trekked down to the elementary school where votes are cast in my district and partaken of an almost religious ritual. During presidential years, I have often been guided by the “lesser evil” principle. Come November 3, I’ll be there again, but this time there’s no candidate for president on the ballot I can endorse, on any principle.
What is the great question facing the United States today? I believe it’s the breakdown of our democratic institutions, caused, as I have argued, by the lack of adaptation of these 20th-century structures to the digital information tsunami that roared in with the new millennium. Evidence is all around—from the buffalo stampede that is our presidential candidate selection system to the inability of government officials to prevent disorder in the streets. American democracy is stuck in the past while the future is battering away at it. This is a potentially fatal condition, but it’s not incurable. Still, we are running out of time. Healing democracy should be what these elections are about.
What, then, does the country need from its political grandees? We need a candidate who can clearly perceive the landscape he or she is standing on and articulate our current predicament to the public. Policy differences matter but are at the moment of secondary importance. Whether you advocate more or less immigration means something, but by focusing on this issue, you are treating a symptom, not the cause, of the structural crisis. Even the quest for moral purity in politics by discovering and protesting “systemic racism” everywhere is a distraction from the great question confronting us.
For the past two decades, every branch of government has been hemorrhaging trust. That lack of trust, tipping over into hostility and repudiation, is today the normal assessment by the typical citizen of every government action. Whatever policies elected officials implement, whatever moral ideals they embrace, these will be received as hypocrisy or corruption by a surly public and serve as incentive to bash away in opposition. Barack Obama’s legislative program created the Tea Party that ended the Democratic ruling coalition in 2010. Donald Trump’s favorite policy issues in the 2016 election ignited a resistance that has hampered him since the first day of his presidency.
The cure must treat the root cause of the condition. We need structural reform. Above all, we need a candidate with the courage and imagination to say, “We must reconfigure the federal government and use the new technologies to bring it closer to the public. Until trust is restored, every other political dispute is distraction and empty noise.” We ourselves—I mean our selves, our lives, the very the shape of our humanity—have been reconfigured by the digital storm. Democratic government must match that somehow. I don’t think this will entail a new Secretary of Trust or a massive Agency of Digital Coolness, but something very different.
We need the will to experiment and the honesty to evaluate the results. We have done this before. In the first three decades of the last century, we transformed a republic meant for 18th-century gentlemen into a democracy for the masses. Others are attempting this now. Boris Johnson’s government in Britain is populism with a positive program: it aims to reform the bureaucracy around the concept of “cognitive diversity” and to relocate chunks of it permanently out of London to the hinterlands.
Is this the right approach? I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. We need dozens such experiments running in different states and nations, out of which the reforms that are best adapted to the new landscape will emerge. For that to happen, I believe we will need a new class of democratic politicians. The current crowd, represented by the two leading candidates, is simply not up to the job.
Donald Trump stands for disruption. Alicia Juarrero, a scholar of the life cycle of complex systems, has observed that two branching futures are possible when a system undergoes “phase change” and falls apart: it can reorganize on new principles or it can remain in a permanent state of disorganization. Trump embodies the disorganized future of democracy tormenting the chaotic present—or, if you will, the Dark Ages calling out to grasp and bind our Times of Trouble. He is the curse and punishment inflicted on a callow elite class whose failures, smugness and cowardice have brought us to this moment of confusion. That this class fully deserves the world-historical troll they are enduring is not nearly enough reason, by my lights, to vote for Trump.
Joe Biden is the candidate of reaction. He represents the dead hand of the past reaching out to strangle the breath of life out of the present. His promise is to make the world safe for elites again by the extirpation of Trump and the resurrection of the 20th century—an old man’s hallucination in which Facebook is compelled to emulate the New York Times circa 1989 and the revolt of the public, with a little squinting, can be made to look like the youthful excitement of 1968.
But in politics and social life, the dead never walk again. The destruction of every possible future on behalf of mummified memories will only stoke the frenzy of negation and nihilism among the public. Because of his age and condition, Biden is an inert substance, whose only virtue is a negative: he is not Trump. That is hardly enough, by my lights, to deserve the presidency.
I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that one of these two men, as our next president, will make his followers proud, break through the many barriers and start the process toward reform. But as an analyst, I’m obligated to honesty: and the honest truth is, I don’t believe this will happen. Trump and Biden are known quantities, of an age not given to sudden conversions. Raised to power, they will be who they are. The missing candidate of reform will have to wait until at least 2024.
Given the bedlam of the present hour and the bleak prospects for the immediate future, are we justified in surrendering to despair? For obvious reasons, I get asked this question a lot. The answer, in part, depends on temperament. From an analytical perspective, however, despair must be diagnosed as a symptom of the very structural sickness that afflicts us, the flip side of the rage and the rant, while the call to surrender is an invitation to abandon all hope for a cure.
The public has placed an unbearable weight of expectation on politics. The information environment, parched for attention, deals habitually in screamed absolutes that are seldom heard and never satisfied. Robbed of its existential dreams, the public swarms into the streets to bring down the temple of authority without any thought as to what comes next. This has happened again and again and will continue to happen until society is reduced to the level of Dante’s fifth circle of hell—a place oppressed by eternal anger.
Despair is the outcome of the revolt of the public—and it’s a luxury we can’t afford. We are suffering through a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. If leading virologists and epidemiologists were to shrug their shoulders and say, “What can we do? It’s much too complicated,” they would be fired and replaced by others who worked overtime to find a cure.
I believe there is a will to health in politics as in organic life. The mayhem of the moment will be a spur to innovation and experimentation, not morbid depression—a call to build and build smart, rather than destroy. The seeds of change, I noted, are already beginning to sprout—in Estonia with regard to digital citizenship, in Taiwan with regard to regaining trust, in Britain with regard to structural reform. Other places and other experiments will follow. Eventually, we will get a presidential candidate who understands the lay of the land.
To my neighbors who avidly embrace Trump or Biden this time around, I offer my respect and my goodwill. I will stand next to you at the polls, peacefully as always and proud that we are free citizens in a great democratic nation. But I can’t in good conscience follow your lead. Instead, I will look on the ballot and find a blank space, make an act of faith in a system that is battered but not yet broken, and hope for better next time.