Americans have been driven to extremes in our political discourse. But many of these extreme stances started out with well-intentioned motives.
As a founder of a series of live debates that provide a zone for respectful dialogue—and respectful disagreement—between experts on public policy issues and in the wider American public sphere, I spend a lot of time reflecting on the reasons those qualities are so increasingly rare in our political culture today.
Consider the trajectory of these policy discussions: Empathy for the children of undocumented immigrants has morphed into demands for a totally open border; sensitivity to marginalized groups at universities has created backlash fears that overemphasis on trigger warnings and safe spaces prompt people to be “oversensitive and opposed to dialogue,” making others fear for the right to free speech; a concern that 8.5% of Americans lack health insurance becomes a plan to eliminate private insurance coverage altogether, which will likely be more complicated than it sounds.
As the proverb says, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And America is fast advancing to some kind of political hell.
The law of unintended consequences often frustrates even the best of intents. I have identified the following reforms as some of the key drivers of our current political dysfunction. Perhaps we can learn something from looking back, and give ourselves a chance at restoring political civility.
The demise of the “smoke-filled room”
Party candidates used to be selected behind closed doors in “smoke-filled rooms.” The people in those rooms had risen to political influence in a competitive process, were professionally committed to electoral success, and were choosing candidates they knew personally and as professional peers. In other words: Donald Trump would not have emerged from such a process.
But the method was neither transparent nor democratic. To address this, both parties adopted direct primaries in the 1970s, and since then primary voters have done the choosing. On average, only about 20% of the eligible electorate votes in primaries. Those voters lean toward the extremes: They are generally the ideologues who pull the democratic party to the left and the republican party to the right.
Campaign finance reform
Like the primary election system, the concept behind campaign finance reform was to make elections more democratic by limiting the amount of money voters could contribute to individual candidates and to federal election campaigns in total. But again, the unintended consequence of this regulation was to drive our politics to extremes. Political campaigns have become dauntingly expensive. The average Senate race can cost more than $20 million; and a presidential election costs more than $1 billion. In order to raise that kind of money with a $2,800 individual giving limit, a candidate must attract tens of thousands of people to write individual checks. To get those checks, the popular winning strategy is to scare voters into thinking they will lose their gun rights, or their abortion rights, or their jobs. A losing strategy is to promise that the candidate will seek bipartisan compromise in pursuit of more effective government.
Broader choice of news outlets
When most voters received their news from one of three TV networks, the network owners were powerful, and the viewers had limited choice. But the networks also had incentive to please as big an audience as possible with balanced coverage, and to alienate as few as they could. The networks generally took centrist positions and supported a political culture in which “politics stops at the water’s edge.”
When there are dozens of cable news outlets, the freedom of choice for the viewer changes the incentives for the owners and decision-makers of news outlets. The going strategy is now to build a strong tie to a specific group. Examples of such networks include Fox News on the right, and MSNBC on the left. Fox is the most profitable news network by a large margin. Its audience, whose average age is 65, does not appeal to advertisers; but its viewers are so loyal to Fox that cable operators pay Fox whatever it takes to include the network in their offerings.
… which leads to custom-tailored news
When you access your news on the internet or on a mobile device, you tend to see the stories you are most interested in, as reflected in the stories you have opened or forwarded in the past, which is fed into an algorithm. Your experience is better in many ways because it is custom-tailored to your preferences.
No editor or network curates your news consumption—you do, or at least your behavior does. But once again, the law of unintended consequences kicks in. After a while, you find yourself living in a filter bubble, in which all the news you read reinforces your already existing political leanings. You rarely encounter contrary views, or facts at odds with your preconceptions. This means you also never consider the logical or moral justification of the opposing side.
All the changes I have discussed so far originated with good intentions. Gerrymandering is an exception, as an intrinsically cynical political maneuver in which politicians re-draw existing district lines to garner votes for their own party. But I include it here because its impact on our political discourse is too big to not mention.
With gerrymandering, voters don’t choose their political leaders. Instead, politicians choose their voters. Some 90% of congressional districts are safe for their Democratic or Republican incumbents. In those districts, it is only the primary election that matters. And it’s the primary voters who have been angered enough to write the checks, who have received their news from one-sided sources, or who have lived in filter bubbles that encourage contempt for conflicting views.
No matter how seasoned and successful a legislator might be, if she or he fails to align with the extreme wing of her or his party, there’s a real risk of being “primaried,” in which a more extreme challenger can end a political career. Joe Crowley, fourth-ranking Democrat in the House in 2018, was defeated in a landslide by Alexandra Ocasio Cortez. A few years earlier, Eric Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican, lost nearly as badly to Tea Party upstart David Brat. Less secure legislators have surely taken these lessons to heart.
What I describe here is a toxic brew that has driven our politics to dysfunctional extremes. My own platform, Intelligence Squared US, has been a useful antidote to these trends, but I can hardly claim that it has slowed them down, or that any one initiative can at this point. That said, in my lifetime, I have seen billions of people lifted out of poverty; near universal access to the world’s knowledge on the internet; dramatic improvements in medical science and longevity; and striking progress in societal attitudes toward women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.
We should be thankful that all of life is not politics. But most of all, we should be careful what we wish for.