As human beings, it can be tremendously difficult to zoom out from the daily misfortunes and short-winded elations of our lives to examine the larger narrative that is being written. We are so unsuited for this everyday perspective-taking that the most popular question when examining almost any major historical event is “how did they not see this coming?” And that is the real question that we should be asking of ourselves.
As Americans at this point in history, there are about a million and a half potential catastrophes that could lead to our posterity asking this question, but most are a result of three factors: political polarization, broken courts and corporate greed. So, without further ado, I want to use this column to ask one simple question: What don’t we see coming?
Now, this article is not about why we’re polarized. If you want to know that, read Ezra Klein’s fantastic book on the subject. This is about how our polarization has fundamentally toxified our politics and handicapped our institutions. Essentially, since 1995, Congress has been politically polarized because of the partisan divide, but spirited disagreement did not lead to true gridlock until 2011 — or 2009, depending on who you ask. In that year, the Tea Party, an ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party, won 63 seats in the House of Representatives, which propelled the Republicans to a majority.
This trend is reflected in the data: in the 113th Congress, the Democratic Senate and the Republican House only passed 296 laws. Compared to the 110th Congress, when 460 laws were passed, this is a precipitous decrease, which was driven by petulant partisan gamesmanship and ineffective hostage-taking. However, in the 2012 elections, voters rewarded the Republicans by re-electing them to the House majority. Therefore, the hard partisan tactics only continued, culminating in the 2013 government shutdown, the 2015 retirement of Speaker John Boehner and — most high profile of all — the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
Trump’s election accelerated polarization, entrenching Americans into their partisan corners. That trend, in turn, allowed for the normalization of radical political strategies and the increase of disinformation, which were both perpetuated by a broken and siloed media ecosystem. Downstream, these forces have resulted in a consolidation of power within party bases, which have radicalized the few policies that do pass Congress.
Few laws exemplify this radicalization better than the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The 2017 bill ambitiously reformed the tax code, but I want to highlight two specific provisions. The first lowered the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% in perpetuity, the biggest corporate tax cut in American history. The second gave several middle- and lower-class individuals time-capped tax breaks, which means that many of them expire at the end of the decade. But why? Well, even though the bill is projected to grow the deficit by over a trillion dollars over the next decade, former Speaker Paul Ryan still had to appease his right flank, the Freedom Caucus — an outgrowth of the Tea Party.
The bill passed in 2017 as the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s domestic policy, and then it was rarely talked about on the campaign trail. Instead, in the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans campaigned on culture war issues like immigration — which congressional Republicans had not altered substantively in over a decade — and the Supreme Court, while Democrats campaigned mainly on health care.
Both of these were largely plays to motivate the base, but neither mentioned the radical tax bill, which is quite telling about how little substantive policy affects our politics. See, the fact that Republicans could better mobilize voters by playing up our racial, ethnic, cultural and geographic divides should be troubling to us all. However, these divides would not be nearly as prevalent without our broken court system.
Over at least the last two decades, the Supreme Court has been the most effective and systematically destructive branch of government. In nearly every aspect of American life — from religion to civil rights to health care to the police state to even child slavery — the Supreme Court has dragged the country toward the right. Now, while conservative policy is not inherently bad for our country, policymaking through the courts is antithetical to the founders’ vision for the judiciary, which is supposed to be an impartial arbiter of disputes and a source of justice for all Americans.
Now, I would love to rant about bad Supreme Court opinions, but there’s a much larger point at stake, and one opinion above all others exemplifies the issue with the modern courts: Rucho v. Common Cause (2018). Basically, in Rucho, Chief Justice John Roberts reversed about 80 years of jurisprudence and said that partisan gerrymandering was beyond the scope of the federal judiciary. To clarify, this means that, instead of engaging with the facts of the case, five unelected judges unilaterally removed all legal recourse for partisan gerrymandering, which, in effect, legalized the practice and effectively suppressed the votes of millions of Americans.
The Supreme Court has replicated this strategy, overriding lower courts in order to substantially reduce legal recourse for many other injustices like police violence, workplace discrimination, racial inequality, voting inequity, political corruption and more. This is ostensibly intended to empower Congress and, therefore, voters by shifting responsibility for alleviating injustices to the legislative branch.
In practice, due to congressional gridlock and the limited scope of our state legislatures, power increasingly lies with vast multinational corporations.
These companies, however, were not made to be pseudo-governmental social justice organizations. Instead, they were created to provide products and services in exchange for creating shareholder wealth through profits, but that is not to say that corporations don’t have accountability to the people they serve.
Now, the theory of corporate social responsibility is more complex than the following, but, basically, it states that businesses should be providing some direct benefit to the world in which they operate. This principle is the underlying basis for ideas like ethical sourcing, cutting emissions, increasing diversity and other prosocial projects that are adopted by many companies without governmental regulation.
While I agree that it’s good that companies like BP are investing in clean energy, it obviously has not always been this way for very long. In fact, for a long time — especially prior to 2010 — American corporations deeply neglected their social responsibility, and much of that is due to mass deregulation in the 1980s. Specifically, one rule fundamentally altered the corporate incentive structure, and that is the legalization of stock buybacks.
See, before the deregulation period, the practice was illegal, which is a driving factor in why companies used to distribute periodical profits to their shareholders in the form of dividends. However, now, companies tend to withhold profit-sharing and use their profits to repurchase their own stock, thereby artificially inflating their own stock price. The practice is currently widespread, and it has helped to concentrate immense power within the financial markets and diminished the previous long-term relationships of average stockholders with companies.
This, then, shifted much of the internal focus of companies from maintaining loyalty to driving sky-high profits to please bankers and hedge fund managers. In the wake of these ever-increasing profits were worker exploitation, job outsourcing and natural resource plundering. Many of these same corporate decisions opened the door for politicians to demonize immigrants and minorities while continuing to deregulate the economy and perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
So, where does that leave us? Well, we are amid a global warming-fueled climate catastrophe. We are stuck with pervasive institutional racism. We have millions of angry unemployed factory workers in the heartland who would rather demonize fellow Americans than blame their former employers or the politicians that they have bought. All of this has led to a country whose self-aggrandizement is only matched by its self-hate. Worst of all, we have been led to believe that this is an equilibrium, but it is critical to remember that it isn’t.
What do we not see coming?
Maybe a civil war. Maybe World War III. Maybe a new constitutional convention. If you believe in QAnon, maybe a singular world government that eats babies and hates cows. Who knows?
All I know is that, no matter what comes next, there will likely be dark days ahead. If we don’t repair the foundations of American society, the house will come crumbling down and our bodies will be found in the wreckage.
I don’t know about you, but, in the future, I would like my progeny to ask “how did they fix this mess before they hit the breaking point” instead of asking “why did they go over the edge?”
Don’t let us go over the edge.
Keith Johnstone is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.