In time, America’s political system will catch up to American society
The next influential president will be someone who recognizes the disconnect between politics and society at large.
In my previous column, I made the case that President-elect Joe Biden’s time in the White House will represent the end of an era. Biden’s understanding of America was molded in a different time, as was President Donald Trump’s. Never again will our nation have a president who came of age before the digital revolution transformed American society.
Beneath the surface of the Biden transition, a new generation of leaders will arise. These next-gen leaders know about Biden and Trump’s America only as ancient history. Having come of age in the digital era, they will naturally look to America’s future rather than its past. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner), someone from that group will emerge to address the issues and challenges of the 21st century in a way that gives voice to the hopes and aspirations of the American people.
That new leader will redefine the national dialogue and the parameters of American politics. It will feel a bit like the transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, or from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt. In both of those transitions, the national mood shifted from wondering whether America’s best days had come and gone to singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Reagan and Roosevelt, of course, went on to become the two most influential presidents of the last century. As we look forward to the next influential president, it’s worth taking a moment to recognize why these two presidents had such a lasting impact. It’s not, as many in the political world mistakenly believe, because their agenda and policies changed the course of the nation. The reality is nearly the opposite.
Reagan and Roosevelt were influential not because they changed the national mood, but because they followed the nation and put the mood into words. The two presidents did not change America. Instead, their rhetoric and leadership confirmed that America had already changed. That’s the way things work in a land where the culture leads and politics lag behind.
The agendas and policies that flowed from their leadership did matter, of course. The significance, however, was not that they changed America, but that they changed American politics and government. Reagan and Roosevelt took a political system that had drifted away from the public mood and forced it back into closer alignment with the consent of the governed. In the end, both presidents helped the political system catch up with where America had already gone.
The two presidents did not change America. Instead, their rhetoric and leadership confirmed that America had already changed.
This understanding matters to us today because it means we don’t have to wait for America’s next influential president to determine the fate of the nation. Instead, we can glimpse the future of American politics by looking at where the culture is today.
As a starting point, it’s safe to say that establishment politicians of both political parties will be disappointed. Many in official Washington are hoping that the Biden presidency will signal a return to the politics as usual that existed before President Trump took office. However, polling I conducted during the 2020 election found that only a third of voters want a return to establishment politics of either the Republican or Democratic variety. Twice as many want some sort of populist challenge to the status quo.
The status quo of establishment politics is doomed primarily because it reflected the outgoing era of President-elect Biden’s youth. It was a highly centralized society in which there were only three television networks delivering news and establishing cultural norms. In that era, important information was closely held and controlled by a handful of large corporations and governments. That world demanded a highly centralized political system headquartered in the nation’s capitol.
Over the past four decades, however, the digital revolution has decentralized American society. Twenty-first century Americans have virtually limitless news and entertainment options available. As a result, no single source of news or entertainment is watched or followed by more than a fraction of the population. Everyday Americans use a smartphone to customize their own mix of news and entertainment.
Smartphones also mean we are no longer dependent upon large organizations to hold and control information. These handheld devices make more information available to every individual than the president of the United States could access in the 1970s. The digital world is fundamentally different than the centralized world that produced President Trump and President-elect Biden. It demands a decentralized political system with no defined hierarchy.
This disconnect between a centralized political system and a decentralized society is unsustainable. A one-size-fits-all, top-down, political system simply cannot function in a decentralized society. Citizens who customize everything in their daily life have little desire to follow standardized rules made by distant officials.
The next influential president will be someone who recognizes this disconnect and gives voice to it. She or he will understand that their job is not to change America. Instead, they must force America’s political system to change so that it can catch up with American society. When that happens, our nation will be more free, equal, and self-governing.
Next week, I’ll look at how recent election trends confirm this assessment and what that might mean in terms of policy expectations and direction.
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”