11 min read

Why America's Ungovernable

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most. If you like what you read, please consider sharing the Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

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Today's Read: 11 Minutes.

Is America Ungovernable? We dive deep into it, explaining how it's baked into the system. going beyond polarization. What happens when a society's politics rejects universals, the basis of modernity? A Race to the Bottom is set off, which only fanatics, like authoritarians, can win.

 1. Amazon’s Alexa has been claiming the 2020 election was stolen. (WaPo)
 2. We're on the verge of breaching a key global warming limit. (SciAl)
 3. How an AI chatbot encouraged a fanatic to try to kill the Queen. (Independent)
 4. Climate change and habitat loss push amphibians closer to extinction. (Nature)
 5. The ungovernable Republicans: ‘Their goal is chaos.’ (FT)

Today's Issue. Paradigms. Politics. America. The Road to Collapse.

By now, you've heard the cry heard round the world. After the Republicans proceeded to eject their own Speaker, for...not shutting down the government...rendering it paralyzed anyways. America's in disarray. Republicans are in disarray. Who elects these clowns, anyways? Trump pulled the strings, behind the scenes. A veritable flood of pundits' tears was shed. Is America ungovernable?

Here's the hard truth. I want to take a moment to explain it to you, so that you really get it. And it doesn't matter if you're not America—this is a lesson to the world in how societies collapse.

Yes, America really is ungovernable now. It doesn't just 'look' that way. It's baked into the system at a paradigmatic level—not just a procedural one. In the deepest way of all, which isn't often discussed. And so the hopes that America's class of intellectuals and thinkers keeps on desperately clinging to—wringing hands for more moderate Republicans, or some semblance of sanity from them, negotiation and compromise etcetera—are futile. Sadly, America's been trapped in its own bubble so long that it's forgot how to think about modern political economy at all.

Remember how we spoke recently of negative and positive politics? A brief refresher. Negative politics: those focused on taking rights away, limiting and circumscribing them. Positive politics: those focused on expanding and elevating rights. Just hold that idea in your head for a moment.

When we're spoken to about America, a theme that comes up is "asymmetrical polarization," or the right growing more extreme than the left. Don't kid yourself. First of all, there is no left in America. There are two right wing parties, at least in the modern context—even the Democrats are far to the right of many conservative parties in Europe and around the world, who happily champion...


What is positive politics really about? I put it to you before as the expansion of rights. Let's now understand it in an even more fundamental way. Positive politics is about universals. What does that mean? Exactly what it sounds like. Universal...healthcare. Higher education. Retirement. Decent media, real information, not the gusher of gunk that spouts like a fire hydrant of toxic waste on social media. Right down to hospitals, town squares, medicine, parks, libraries, for all.

America doesn't have that stuff. Not really, as in, universally. It's an outlier among not just rich countries, but just...around the world. It doesn't have a modern social contract in this sense of the word, which is the definine one. Here's a particularly gruesome story about a poor guy who's 72 years old, took out a student loan in 1977...and hasn't even touched the principal yet. That's the grim reality of American life. You are screwed. You're basically milked for predatory capitalism's titanic-scale profits, your whole life long, left impoverished and indebted. That guy isn't the exception, he's the rule: the majority of Americans struggle to just...pay the bills.

That's normalized in America, but it shouldn't be. What's the point of becoming a wealthy nation...if you skip the "also becoming an advanced one" part? Not much, really. But why didn't America advance, in formal terms, modernizing its social contract?

Universals. Or a lack thereof. You see, what's happened in America is perhaps the textbook exemplar of how societies collapse. Asymmetrical polarization. It's a bad phrase, a mouthful, that makes people miss the point, which is in fact really simple.

American political economy works like this. One side is against universals, of any kind, in any way, period, full stop. That's fanaticism, of course. But the other side isn't for universals. It's...against them...too.

Let me now formalize "universals." That just means universal public goods, and even the first word in that phrase is redundant. It means, simply, "stuff that belongs to everyone." What are rights? They're just guarantees, of universal resources, meaning, those we all enjoy. Rights construct the necessity for institutions, to enact those universal endowments of resources. And in turn, institutions construct systems, to bring universals to life, transforming resources into capabilities for people.

That's academic-ish jargon, so let's do an example to make it clear. Europe's post-war social contracts were based on expansive, groundbreaking sets of universals. Universal healthcare, education, retirement—right down to abstractions, in fact, like dignity, in some cases. Institutions were built to guarantee those rights—like, for example, France's pension system, the very one which Macron got into a lot of trouble for trying to alter. Another example, one of my favourites, Harvard will set you back a cool $55K per year...while the Sorbonne in Paris is free. What do you get there? Educated. A resource—books, classrooms, medicine—becomes a capability, knowledge, longevity.

So. Rights, institutions, systems. Universally. To more and more sophisticated sets of resources—not just, for example, a little patch of a commons in which to grow shared crops, like peasants had centuries ago, but, today, education, healthcare, information, finance, resources which are more and more powerful, transformative, elevate living standards higher. That's modernity.

Now let's come back to America. It's problem, The Fundamental Nuclear Bomb of Stupidity that's ripping it apart, is simple. Neither side is for universals. But what happens when that's the case? A Race to the Bottom explodes, which the fanatics are going to—inescapably—win, and I'm going to shortly explain why.

One party wants no universals of any kind, anywhere, whatsoever, period, full stop. In more and more extreme ways, in fact. The GOP—we know that, but let's refresh our memories,

Remember Reagan? The "Reagan Revolution" was one of history's most foolish agreements, choices, movements. It was basically the choice not to have universals—"I won't pay for those dirty peoples' healthcare!" Great, guess you like not having much yourself. That line of thinking never went away. It's all the modern GOP has ever been about. It's couched in nonsense like "fiscal responsibility," but any garden-variety economist can tell you, these days, that genuine fiscal responsibility is investing in universals, so living standards rise, and there's more of a surplus, which yields greater levels of investment still—the European Miracle.

That line of thinking in America has never changed. Not one iota, not one inch. The American right has always been against universals, full stop. What's happened is that those who are against universals have become willing to be more and more extreme in their fanatical pursuit of...not allowing any, ever, period, full stop. So Ronald Reagan did his corny aw-shucks grin, to sell it gently. Then along came Newt Gingrich, who couched it in abstruse, crackpot theories, which at least sounded impressive, to lay people.

But now? That road's been trodden. And all that's left are the hardcore extremists. Who don't care about persuasion. They're happily willing to resort to coercion, instead. So now it's not Reagan selling a message to the masses, it's the fanatical, neofascist wing of the GOP...trying to shut down the government...and damn the consequences...and when they couldn't do that...they ransacked their own party's leadership...to paralyze it anyways.

All so that there'll never be universals in America. Ever, period, full stop.

Now. That's half the story—perhaps the more important half, but still, only half. The other half?

The other side in America...doesn't want universals, either. This is what people mean when they say that America has "two right wings," and they're not wrong.

Think of the Democrats. Sure, they've made progress in the last few years, but it's not paradigmatic progress, as in, their foundational beliefs still haven't changed. And chief among those foundational beliefs is the notion that Americans shouldn't have universals...too. They don't want Americans to have...universal healthcare...retirement...college education...anything. Certainly not anything remotely approaching Canadian or European levels of modern social contracts.

So in America, there are two sides of politics...which, in reality...agree, philosophically, in a primary and fundamental way. This society is not to have universal...anything.

And that's why America's ungovernable. Because what happens next is a Race to the Bottom. Did you see how yet, or not? Let me spell it out, because I know it's still abstract.

What is the governance of an organization, anyways? Any organization, from a corporation to a...country? It's about universals.

Imagine that if I were the CEO of a company, and I suddenly said, hey, these guys don't get a salary anymore. And you guys? No bathrooms for you. Oh, and you over there? Sorry, you don't get pens, pencils, paper, laptops, and phones. That'd be ridiculous, right? People would walk, and my company would crater. So even running something as elementary as a company is about the administration of universals. What "managers" are there to do is decide who gets a little bit more, sometimes a lot, and who, less—but they don't decide that suddenly, hey, you get nothing. If they did that, even companies would collapse, in microseconds.

Now that you get that, imagine societies, which are much more complex and sophisticated. Have that many more moving parts, goals, purposes, people.

What do you do...if...you've already decided...that there are to be no universals?

There's nothing left to do.

Except squabble and bicker. Over who doesn't get what.

Endlessly. Over and over again. Pointlessly. And who wins that game? The loudest, angriest, and most extreme—by definition.

But proper administration, management, as in, the real thing? You've ruled it out from the very beginning. You've decided that there isn't really anything to govern or administrate. No universals, no rights, no institutions, no systems. Sure, America has government agencies, some, anyways, but increasingly, they're wracked by chaos and dysfunction, precisely because they're always being ripped apart by precisely the folly above. When you decide that there are to be no universals, the task of management or governance is rendered...futile...to begin with, because that's it's point.

So what's left? What happens, in that vaccum? Well, like I said, all you do is squabble over who doesn't get what, instead of administrating stuff that everybody does. That's Level One Dysfunction, and it's permeated America for decades now.

Level Two dysfunction is worse. The belief hardens and becomes invisible, and nobody even remembers the point of governance or management anymore, which is to administer universals, not just squabble over who doesn't get them. This is why America's discourse, its newspapers, media, pundits, etcetera, is/are so painful to read, watch, hear, listen to, why it's way of thinking, seeing, understanding is a laughingstock around the globe by now, stereotyped as dysfunctional. At Level Two, ideology conquers reality, and nobody even remembers universals, except maybe a Bernie Sanders, being politely ignored by everyone with a degree from an Ivy League university and an office on K Street.

Level Three? Think about what happens when all that's left is to squabble over who doesn't get what, instead of actually governing, which is administering universals. When that's all that's believed to be possible, right, just, fair, because now, reality's left the building? Who's going to win that fight? The lunatics are.

Why? Because they shout the loudest, because they're the angriest, because...it's an unfair fight, a fight of Most Stupid against Slightly Less Stupid. Most Stupid and Angry will always win the fight of Nothing Matters and Nobody Should Have It Anyways. Let me explain.

If you believe that there shouldn't be a thing, in this case, universals, and the other side also believes it, then...what are you even fighting over? Just who doesn't get it, basically. But the most extreme side will always win, because you both believe it shouldn't exist. The fight is rigged to begin with. So there you are, bargaining nicely, saying, OK, we also believe that people shouldn't have this. The other side, meanwhile, is willing to crash and burn everything from government to the marble Congress is made of itself, so that people will have even less of it.

See what I mean? This isn't really a "fight" at all. It's...a race to the bottom. And in that race, the one who's willing to get the dirtiest, the dumbest person, willing to drown themselves in muck, the most blind, who won't care one whit about kind of toxic waste they're about to leap into...they're going to win. You might consider yourself above them, holding your nose, and debating, delicately, well, maybe we should just a breath here, and dip a toe in. But you're going to lose, by definition, because you decided to run this race, too.

This is why America's ungovernable.

It goes deep, but it's also simple. Even a kid can understand it. One side thinks there shouldn't be universals, period, full stop, no compromise. The other one...also thinks there shouldn't be universals. So who's going to win? Obviously, the more extreme side, which is going to be willing to do fanatical things, like shut down government, or storm Congress, to take away a thing, because when you're taking things away, which is negative politics, of course, shutting down the gears of institutions is perfectly fine and legitimate, even if after the fact, it's debated and decried. So what? It just happens over and over again, because...

It's baked into the system. I really mean that, and in a deep sense. Not just as in "K Street's corrupt," or "it's the swamp!," or what have you. I want you to actually see the problem here. Two "sides." Neither one believes in universals. The entire task of modern governance—at that precise instant—goes up in smoke, disappears in a puff of ashes. The only thing left to do is squabble about what people don't get, and in that game? The most fanatical faction will always win. Always. It can't end or proceed any other way, because the starting assumptions bake that endpoint into the game itself.

So. Yes, it's true. America really is ungovernable. There's only one way out of that mess, and that's for a "side" to develop that really is one. Meaningfully so. That does believe in universals. So there's something to administer. So that governance can exist. So the entire task of politics isn't just who-gets-less-of-what, which is a negative sum game: who gets less, me, or you? And when a society's reduced to that, of course conflict breaks out, social bonds rupture, and open enmity emerges, because now it's become existential. Instead of the focus becoming what we all have, share, enjoy, create, invest in, do, live, become, it becomes...what can I take away from you, because this is all that's allowed in our society. Who get less of what. Me—or you?

A society with that logic baked into its assumptions can't do much but collapse. Into chaos and dysfunction. Impoverishment and indebtedness. Hostility and rage. Just like America is now. I know some of you, regular readers, will grasp that. But widely, in America? This principle, set of ideas, isn't talked about, grasped, understood, even discussed, ever, at all. Meanwhile, in much of the rest of the world, understanding the above is just...common sense. Modernity. Because, after all, it's what history spent millennia trying to teach us, too. We're not just here to bicker over what we can take away from each other. Where does that lead? Where did it lead, for millennia? Nowhere. War, empire, stagnation, folly, ruin. We're here to give to each other what we can all share, have, live, do, be, in common.

That's it. That's history's great lesson. It's that simple, and all the more profound for it. If only America would take a second to try and get it.

❤️ Don't forget...

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