Options for a Path Forward Politically for a Divided U.S.

Anxiety over the direction of the country in the face of social and political divides and disappointment about gridlock and partisanship in Washington and in society as a whole leave many people wondering about the future of the country. This informal paper discusses some of the options for a path forward into the future, primarily from a political perspective.

There are of course an infinite number of possible options for a path forward from our present political situation. This paper covers only a few that were carefully chosen and designed to be both representative and cover the full range of options.

This paper doesn’t offer much in the way of details on the various options, but merely briefly summarizes them and links to previous papers which describe some of the major options in more detail.

Roughly, the options are:

  1. This is just normal and we don’t realize it. Everything is really okay and really working the way things are supposed to work — people are just getting confused by hyperventilation by an out of control media coupled with way out of control social media. Just turn off your TV and disconnect your Internet and stay away from social media and you will be fine.
  2. Just speed bumps and a phase we’re going through that eventually will pass. Media exaggerates the bumps, which they see as their job. Change is common in America. Speed bumps are part and parcel of change. The bumps are the result of needed change occurring, not a cause for alarm or a signal that something is broken or that anything needs to be fixed. Nothing further needs to be done. Stay the course. Try to ignore the media coverage.
  3. A new normal. Change has occurred and we simply haven’t fully adapted to it yet. It may take some time, but nothing needs to be done other than simply wait for the adjustment phase to complete.
  4. Policy is fine but the messaging is off and needs to be changed. A communications problem. A marketing problem. No new laws or drastic changes in policy needed.
  5. Policy needs minor tuning. No big changes, just incremental, minor changes here and there. Our representatives and leaders have got this. Let them do their jobs that we are paying them to do.
  6. Major policy changes needed. Again, leave it to elected representatives and leaders. Maybe they won’t change things as quickly as we might like, but eventually they will get the job done.
  7. The major political parties have the right policies, but need to tune their messaging. No real, substantive change, just better marketing.
  8. The major political parties need minor changes to policy.
  9. The major political parties need fairly substantive changes to policy.
  10. Some significant degree of devolution of governmental responsibilities from the federal to the state level or even to the local level. Give citizens much greater accountability for the actions of their government by making policies and decisions much closer to the citizens where they live and work. Allow for much greater diversity of policy options, varying between states, between regions, and between locales.
  11. Demographic change is on the way. As older citizens retire, pass away, or otherwise drop out of civic participation, and as young people get out of school and begin active participation in civic affairs and voting, and younger generations evolve towards a different ethnic distribution, the younger generations will have more at stake and potentially very different views from their older peers of today. In short, wait 5, 10, 20, or 25 years and the social, political, and economic scene will be significantly different from today. My own personal rationale for no longer voting — in favor of handing control over to the younger generations, Why I No Longer Vote.
  12. Revisit our notion of American Values and adjust their formulation to be more compatible with our current vision of what America is supposed to be all about. See In Search of American Values.
  13. Review, revise, and renew the social contract. Then the parties will have to adapt to the new social contract. See the companion paper, We Need to Review, Revise, and Renew the Social Contract of America.
  14. We need a declaration of dependence before going forward any further. Precursor to a revised social contract as well. We need to be sure that we all really want to be in the same boat and agree that we will all row in the same direction. See the companion paper, We Need a Declaration of Dependence to Show Our Unity.
  15. The major political parties need dramatic revamp of their ideologies.
  16. The two major political parties need to split in two so that four groups of voters will then have candidates that they can get a lot more excited about. Government by coalition, most commonly by the two moderate party wings. See the companion paper, Divide to Unite: Split the Democratic and Republican Parties.
  17. New political parties are needed. Not just tiny fringe parties, but big new parties with big new ideas that really excite people and appeal to much broader segments of society.
  18. Revise the U.S. constitution so that the U.S. can be dissolved and so that smaller groups of ideologically like-minded states can form federations that are much, much more socially and politically cohesive, with a much greater sense of ideological and social harmony. Some larger states may need to divide. A fair number of people may need to move so that they can associate with a government more compatible with their personal values and ideologies. See the companion paper, Should We Dissolve the United States?.

Those options are roughly ordered although not absolutely. The simpler ones first. The more dramatic and more difficult ones last.

My main proposals

Although I have listed quite a few options above, the main options for which I have anything resembling detailed proposals are:

  1. Demographic change is on the way. Make way for the younger generations. See Why I No Longer Vote.
  2. Revisit our notion of American Values and adjust their formulation to be more compatible with our current vision of what America is supposed to be all about. See In Search of American Values.
  3. Review, revise, and renew the social contract. See We Need to Review, Revise, and Renew the Social Contract of America.
  4. We need a declaration of dependence before going forward any further. See We Need a Declaration of Dependence to Show Our Unity.
  5. The two major political parties need to split in two so that four groups of voters will then have candidates that they can get a lot more excited about. See Divide to Unite: Split the Democratic and Republican Parties.
  6. Revise the U.S. constitution so that the U.S. can be dissolved and so that smaller groups of ideologically like-minded states can form federations that are much, much more socially cohesive, with a much greater sense of ideological and social harmony. See Should We Dissolve the United States?.

Social and political divides must be addressed

None of the proposed options or any other imaginable options will be very effective except to the degree to which they address and eliminate or heal the many social and political divides which are causing excessive anxiety about politics and society in general.

Conflicting values

Politicians speak of American values, but there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on those supposedly shared values these days. Even if we agree on the superficial words, the interpretations vary greatly. We no longer speak the same language when it comes to values.

As a result, these value gaps are the proximate cause of so many of the divides that currently plague the U.S.

I’ve documented this issue at great length, including:

  1. In Search of American Values
  2. Master List of Values in America — Updated
  3. Still Searching for American Values

Non-options: reform of gerrymandering, the electoral college, and senate suffrage

Three options for reform that are frequently discussed but are not on my list are:

  1. Elimination of gerrymandering of congressional districts.
  2. Elimination of the electoral college.
  3. Elimination of equal suffrage in the senate. Voters of smaller states having more voting power than voters of larger states.

Although all three reforms address fairness issues, none will do anything to address the overriding issue of social and political divides.

The most that might happen even if all three reforms are achieved is to shift power between the parties and some states, a little, but not in any dramatic fashion.

Without addressing the social and political divides, the main problems remain, and might even be exacerbated.

It is the social and political divides that are the issue, not which party has more power at some point in time.

The main issue with reform of gerrymandering is that it only addresses a small fraction of voting issues — voting for the representatives for the U.S. House of Representatives. To wit, no amount of gerrymandering reform will in any way change:

  1. Voting for senators. Statewide election — congressional districts are irrelevant.
  2. Voting for president. Statewide election — congressional districts are irrelevant.
  3. Voting for governors. Statewide election — congressional districts are irrelevant.
  4. Voting for state ballot initiatives. Statewide election — congressional districts are irrelevant.
  5. Voting for state representatives. Local elections independent of congressional districts.
  6. Voting for school boards. Local elections independent of congressional districts.
  7. Voting for mayors. Local elections independent of congressional districts.
  8. Voting for city and town officials. Local elections independent of congressional districts.

The electoral college affects only voting for president and vice president. No impact on Congress, state, or local elections.

Okay, there is one nuanced catch with the electoral college, which is that in the event no presidential candidate has a simple majority, the House votes in a runoff election with the top three presidential candidates. Gerrymandering reform could in some extreme cases make a difference in that scenario, which is itself extreme. But if both gerrymandering and the electoral college are eliminated, that extreme scenario vanishes as well.

People may want to change the Senate with its equal suffrage for small, medium, and large states alike, but… that is effectively prohibited by the Constitution, which specifically and explicitly excludes that change as an amendment — the very last clause of Article V of the Constitution says:

that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

Technically, if smaller states voluntarily agreed to give up their full suffrage in the Senate, then the change could be made. But even if all other states voted to take away equal suffrage in the Senate, they would not be permitted to do so. The usual three-fourths voting threshold for ratification would not apply in this one case.

Tinkering with any of these three issues will not address the social and political divides.

Beyond the pale

Some of the additional options for a path forward that are explicitly not covered by this paper include:

  1. Revolution. Always an option for any people.
  2. Civil war. Ditto.
  3. Rebellion and uprisings. Ditto. Could be open or guerilla.
  4. Extreme, massive protests. Ditto.

Again, these are options that this paper is not considering or proposing.

The primary reason these more draconian measures are not considered here is their focus on outright violence.

Granted, massive protests wouldn’t necessarily involve violence, but the history of such protests has shown that they do indeed quickly devolve into violence. Rarely they don’t but too frequently they do.

Role of protest

Protest alone rarely leads to any significant and durable change.

Protest works best when used in conjunction with electoral and legislative efforts, not in opposition to electoral and legislative efforts.

Protest is a tactic, a tool, not a strategy or policy option. It works best when used sparingly. Overuse will undermine its effectiveness, and undermine normal democratic processes (voting and legislative efforts) as well.

Protest can focus attention, focus the agenda, and get the ball rolling, but without the full-hearted backing of the people in the ballot box and in the legislatures (including Congress), protest rarely results in any significant and durable change.

Worse, chaotic and emotional mass protests can lead to severe civic and social disruption that can quickly segue into violent confrontations, rioting, uprising, rebellion, and even civil war, none of which tends to end well.

Protest which focuses on direct confrontation with law enforcement and mass disruption of civic and daily life will not tend to end well. Anything which incites authority to crack down will not tend to end well.

Protest which respects public order and allows other citizens to go about their daily lives without significant disruption can be an effective complement to efforts focused on the ballot box and legislative efforts.

Disrespect for public order tends to end very badly for all.

Again, it is efforts in the ballot box and legislative action which leads to significant and durable change.

Role of the media

In theory, a more pure form of the media would merely distribute neutral, positive, useful information, but most media outlets are very far from being so pure.

The result is that people get:

  1. Confused.
  2. Conflicting messages.
  3. Biased information.
  4. Excessive focus on irrelevant detail.
  5. Lack of focus on important detail.

Unlike the old days, the glorious golden age of objective media in the 1960’s, media too often devolves into:

  1. Hyperventilation.
  2. Exaggeration.
  3. Scandalous details.
  4. Salacious details.
  5. Opportunistic.
  6. Exploitative.
  7. Inflammatory rhetoric.
  8. Inciteful rhetoric.
  9. Use of dubious sources.
  10. Excessive dependence on anonymous sources.
  11. Trafficking in gossip.
  12. Trafficking in innuendo.
  13. Excessively narrow and overly-literal interpretation of facts and conclusions.
  14. Excessively broad interpretation of facts and conclusions.
  15. Over-reliance on narrative and storytelling more than raw facts.
  16. Prioritizing the 24/7 news cycle over more careful and cautious fact-checking and waiting for the full story to unfold.

In short, the media generally tend to pursue their own proprietary and partisan interests rather than being a neutral, objective public service, so that the media is not helping the cause of finding a path forward politically for a divided U.S.

Whether the media might evolve in coming years and decades in a positive direction is a dubious proposition at best. The current, recent trend has been that media has been evolving in a negative direction in an effort to attract viewers and advertising dollars — and to compete with free media on the Internet.

Role of social media

Early Internet pioneers had visions and great expectations that social media would raise social discourse to a whole new, higher, more positive level, and although that does indeed happen on occasion, far too often social media results in public discourse devolving into a lower, coarser, more negative level.

The net result is that finding a path forward politically for a divided U.S. is made much more difficult.

People become much more satisfied engaging in conflict rather than seeking progress through common ground.

Competing narratives evade common ground

We may be one people and each have a lot more in common than we are different, but you wouldn’t know it from the many competing narratives that are being created and pedaled by special interest groups and media alike.

Just about every social, political, economic, and technological issue is being painted in widely-varying hues which focus on seeking to polarize every issue rather than seeking to find common ground.

Win-win is no longer an option — only win-lose is acceptable

Compromise is now considered a sin, an ultimate evil.

Winning alone is no longer considered sufficient.

It is no longer acceptable for the opposing party to merely lose or to lose with dignity. They must be completely and thoroughly vanquished. If the loser is not completely humiliated, the winner is considered to be doing something wrong.

Pursuing win-win options is considered a weakness, a fatal weakness. Only win-lose is considered acceptable in the current sociopolitical environment.

Is it all just a messaging or marketing problem?

Seriously, is the system actually, fundamentally broken, or is the system really still functioning just fine and it is just that people are getting the wrong impression due to faulty messaging? Is all the anxiety and disgust simply the result of poor and misguided marketing?

It could well be.

The messaging and marketing shows up in the form of the competing narratives that are getting people so excited, either excited in favor of one side or factions, or angry against the other side or factions.

It could well be that more attenuated messaging, calmer, more reasoned, more measured, and less provocative might just do the trick. Or not.

I personally suspect that there is more to it than that. But maybe with my proposal to split the two parties we could end up with the more provocative messaging being reduced and contained in the fringe parties, so that the mainstream, moderate parties can have much more moderated narratives.

Other options

I’m sure insightful analysts can devise a wide range of additional options for a path forwards. This paper is focused on a few realistic options, not intending to be exhaustive.

There is plenty of room for hybrids and partial measures for my suggested options as well.

Probabilities

What are the probabilities of success of each of my proposed options or their likelihood of ever even being attempted? I have no idea. There are simply too many variables and too many unknowns.

And, a lot of the decisions will likely be made by individuals who are not even politically active yet.

Who knows what the kids of today will want socially and politically in five, ten, or twenty years.

For now, I’ll just leave a placeholder here and suggest that the more likely option is that this is all just a speed bump — series of speed bumps, actually — and that we’ll find some smoother road in a few years or maybe five to ten years from today.

The bad news is that would be 5–10 years of pain and anxiety. The good news is that we won’t have to do anything to get through that period. Actually, we’ll have to do a lot, but nothing as dramatic or revolutionary as some of my other proposed options.

That, plus demographic change, which is coming whether anybody likes it or not. But exactly what the demographic changes will really look like in any given year is anybody’s guess.

Summary

There is no ultimate conclusion at this stage, but I would assert that overall it simply feels like just a phase of incremental change that we are going through and that the passage of time alone will cure most of our concerns.

That may indeed be the more likely scenario, but it is by no means a slam dunk.

That said, other, more assertive options may be required rather than to just wait things out, or if we do indeed wait for a few more years and then decide that waiting just isn’t working:

  1. Tuning of messaging.
  2. Tuning of policy.
  3. Advent of newer political parties.
  4. Demographic change is on the way. Make way for the younger generations. See Why I No Longer Vote.
  5. Revisit our notion of American Values and adjust their formulation to be more compatible with our current vision of what America is supposed to be all about. See In Search of American Values.
  6. Splitting the two main political parties. See Divide to Unite: Split the Democratic and Republican Parties.
  7. Review, revise, and renew the social contract. See We Need to Review, Revise, and Renew the Social Contract of America.
  8. Declaration of dependence to assure that we really do all want to be in the same boat and can agree to row in the same direction. See We Need a Declaration of Dependence to Show Our Unity.
  9. Dissolve the U.S. and form smaller federations of ideologically like-minded states. See Should We Dissolve the United States?.

Again, I am not proposing any of the more draconian steps at this stage, but it is still good to consider contingency plans in case things don’t just work themselves out of their own accord.

The real bottom line may be that changing demographics will mean that people 5, 10, 20, or 25 years from now are likely to have significantly different social, political, and economic views and needs than those of average Americans of today.

And the final bottom line is that no changes or tinkering are going to do much good if they don’t significantly dent or heal the many social, political, and economic divides that plague the U.S. and only seem to be getting worse with each passing day, week, month, year, and decade.

When in doubt and feeling most gloomy about our prospects for the future, simply turn off your TV, disconnect from the Internet and definitely stay off of social media.

Hmmm… maybe that’s a great suggestion for improving social media and email: an option to filter out any messages or posts that have any sort of politically or socially divisive content.

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