Nearly everyone understands a dangerous and disruptive force is tearing at American politics. There’s the steady increase of anger and contempt seeping into American life. Red and Blue America eagerly hurl bricks at each other’s skulls. There’s our increasingly fanatical political culture in which we toss away more and more longstanding norms. Yet the most alarming development is that we no longer understand how politics in America works.
For as long as all of us can remember, American politics had always meant the same war between Republicans and Democrats. The Democrats were the party of New Deal liberalism, as they had been since Franklin Roosevelt. The Republicans were the party of conservatism, just as William F. Buckley, Jr., announced it in National Review. When America voted Republican or Democrat, national policy might slip a little in one direction or the other, but we always knew more or less what we were going to get. Now we don’t.
Desperate for answers, political observers have naturally latched onto convenient explanations for this disruption. Some fault unruly personalities and politicians. Others blame technologies like social media. Others fear unfamiliar ideas and movements challenging the consensus. In other words, most of us are looking for some irritant or villain in the hope that, if we can identify and eradicate the nuisance, America might go back to its natural order—meaning the 20th-century political world.
But it won’t. The problem isn’t some technology, movement, or institution we can identify and remove. It’s that an entire stale order is crumbling down. The great debate of the 20th century is over. America is heading toward its next realignment.
The idea that American politics is about a “spectrum” of ideas running left to right is a destructive myth. The endless stream of ideas and possibilities flowing out of the human imagination doesn’t stack up neatly in some imaginary line. The only reason we even started talking about politics in terms of directions, left and right, is due to an historical accident from the French Revolution. While debating whether to install a republic in France, the politicians who wanted to dethrone the king happened to sit together on the left side of the meeting room while those favoring a constitutional monarchy sat on the right. Scholars since have repeatedly attempted and failed to divine some principle or value to determine what makes something “left” or “right” outside that original debate over republics and kings. Unlike in that French assembly hall, however, no one today really knows what it means to call some idea “left” or “right” other than the fact that it’s the sort of thing the people we arbitrarily label “left” and “right” at the moment happen to believe.
The Republican and Democratic parties, in other words, aren’t vehicles for some permanent human division. Unless you define left and right in some childlike way—say, based on whether you find a historical figure more oppressive or cruel—there weren’t any “liberals” or “conservatives” as we now define them before the modern era. The political fights of ancient and medieval societies weren’t over the role of markets, providing universal health care to peasants, the political status of women and the disadvantaged, or any of the other major political issues over which modern Americans obsess. Nor can you find these same ideologies in America’s own political parties before our present era. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists, generally considered the early republic’s “conservative party,” championed a powerful Federal government. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, widely considered “liberals,” stood for a weak Federal government and state’s rights. The pro-business Whigs, often called conservative, championed modernization, national infrastructure spending, education, and reform. The Jacksonian Democrats, sometimes called liberal, were rowdy populists who railed at elites and believed in a powerful national executive and strong states. The most powerful Republican around the turn of the 20th century was Teddy Roosevelt, a pro-business progressive championing a powerful reforming government whose views on international relations were to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The most important Democrat at the time was William Jennings Bryan, an Evangelical Christian populist who lionized workers, spit venom at elites, and fought against teaching evolution in public schools. None of them were reliably conservative or liberal as we now use those words.
In reality, American parties are temporary coalitions forged as tools to self-govern our republic at specific moments of crisis. They bind fractious collections of people who disagree about many things but agree on how to solve the biggest problem of their age. They rally around a unique ideology forged from sometimes clashing principles important to its different factions. And unbeknownst to them in the moment, they are significantly affected by the waves of moral renewal, called Great Awakenings, that have pulsed through American history. The failure to understand the interweaving of these Awakenings with shifts in the party structure over time is one of the great deficiencies of standard American political history.
Once formed, these new parties wage a great national debate over the problems facing the country. That debate goes on for decades, until Americans almost forget that those parties and their ideologies weren’t always there. With time, however, the country changes and the coalitions and ideologies of its parties decay. Eventually, in another moment of crisis, those parties come tumbling down. Out of the rubble of their ruin, America then scrambles to form two new parties and a new debate begins. As a matter of habit and convenience, we arbitrarily label one the left and the other the right.
America throughout its history has had five distinct sets of parties, which scholars call party systems. Each underwent a similar cycle of birth and collapse. During each party-system era, America had two major parties competing on fairly equal terms for about half the national vote. Those parties ruled for decades, attracting consistent coalitions around stable ideologies that were nothing like the Democrats and the Republicans we know today. After decades of battles, however, America slowly changed. When the issues America designed those parties to debate were resolved or faded away, the parties turned into weak institutions coasting on old ideas. Eventually, they crumbled in what the scholars call a realignment. Realignments are the moments in which we tear an entire old order down and build a fresh new era with new coalitions, new ideologies, and new ideas. In the rubble of the old system’s collapse, the American people then create two new coalitions designed to debate new solutions to the nation’s new problems. Sometimes new people or ideas take over the husk of an old party. Sometimes a party simply dissolves and a new one takes its place. Either way, a new era begins with two new coalitions trumpeting new ideas ready to engage in the next era’s great debate.
That’s why American politics seems so troubled. That’s why there’s increasing disorder and chaos. That’s why the political world we’ve always known seems to be decaying before our eyes. The “conservative” Republican and “liberal” Democratic parties we take for granted are merely temporary coalitions built to contest a great debate that’s no longer relevant to our lives. They’re artifacts from an industrial age world built in the wake of a terrible depression that was followed by horrific global war. That great debate is over, so the parties built around it are naturally fading. At the same time, new problems have risen to which those parties have no ready answers because they were never intended to address them. Our parties are dying because one great debate is passing away and another is being born.
America’s very first party system emerged out of the great debate of the Founding era: an explosive question over the nature of the new republic. When the Founders created their republic—of a kind never before tried in history—they themselves had no experience of how it might actually work. They had lived their entire lives in a world of kings. While they agreed on the importance of creating a republic founded on reason and liberty, they had different ideas about how to achieve it. Washington’s protégé and Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, dreamed of a strong commercial republic that would grow to challenge the Old World’s great powers. Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, envisioned a decentralized republic of farmers, who he believed had the virtues necessary to stave off tyranny. Fighting broke out in Washington’s government over issues like Hamilton’s banking and economic plans, and the correct stance on the revolution in France. These questions, however, were aspects of a great and important national debate. Was America meant to grow into a meritocratic world power of commerce, great cities, and standing armies? Or was it to be a nation of independent farmers, wary of such pretensions? That debate created America’s first parties, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
Hamilton and his partisans, who grew into the Federalist Party, favored growth, a strong, national government, and Britain over revolutionary France in foreign affairs. Jefferson and his allies, who formed the Democratic-Republicans, favored a decentralized nation of independent farmers, a weak Federal government, and France over Britain. Each feared the other’s vision would lead the republic to ruin. While we sometimes describe it as a clash between regions or interests—New England and commerce versus the plantation South and agriculture—it was in fact a great philosophical debate about what the American republic was supposed to be. While this debate raged across America, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans thrived politically. Over time, however, Jefferson and his party, while continuing to denounce the Federalists, effectively embraced most of Hamilton’s Federalist policies. America, it turned out, decided it could be both Hamilton’s meritocratic nation of banks and commerce and Jefferson’s honest republic. The debate resolved, American politics went into decline. Then the Federalists blundered during the War of 1812 by demanding major Constitutional reforms implicitly backed by the threat of secession. Caught looking like traitors, the party imploded and America descended into the corrupt and ineffective era of one-party rule we call the “Era of Good Feelings”—until, in 1824, the next debate began.
For decades, settlers had packed their belongings into Conestoga wagons and moved west, building homesteads in the wilderness. From a small collection of colonies along the eastern coast, America blossomed into a vast nation claiming land on both banks of the Mississippi River and beyond. A new generation of Americans came of age who had never been subjects of a king. This frontier generation was divided over a new question: how to bring the people into the Founding generation’s elite-driven republic. This debate produced the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The hot-tempered Jackson was quite unlike the Presidents of the Founding generation. Orphaned during the American Revolution, he moved west and made his fortune in Tennessee. He rose to notice as a military hero. In a duel he killed a man over a dispute about betting on a horse race. Most important, Jackson loathed corruption, banks, and national elites and wanted to bring common working people into the center of the democracy. Jackson and his partisans became a new party, the Democrats, that celebrated common Americans, handed out government jobs to ordinary supporters not on merit but in a spoils system, and wanted to clear more land (which included “removing” native Americans) so settlers could build fresh starts out west.
Jackson’s presidency alarmed a lot of people, from commercial elites who feared his war to destroy the Bank of the United States (something like the Federal Reserve) to Southern plantation barons who resented his use of Federal power to stamp out state nullification. They rallied around another frontier stateman, Kentucky’s silver-tongued charmer Henry Clay. Clay and his followers became the Whigs, who wanted to build roads and canals as the nation expanded west, to encourage education and modernization, and to grow the nation into a meritocratic republic of national improvement. America launched another great debate. Would America be a rowdy populist republic for the common folk, or a meritocratic republic of modernization and reform? As America moved into the 1840s, the Whigs and Democrats had both built popular machines with parades and bunting and spoils while infrastructure and cities had sprouted further and further west as the nation grew. It turned out again that America could be both.
A new debate, however, had now captured the nation’s attention. When President Polk invaded Mexico, winning vast new territories stretching to the Pacific, America would have to debate whether to admit each new state carved from that territory as a slave state or a free one. America was also in the midst of a great religious revival, the Second Great Awakening, sparking a new fervor for moral reform and for causes like temperance, women’s suffrage, and, most powerfully, for the abolition of slavery. Newly impassioned abolitionists refused to watch slavery spread farther. Slave-state leaders feared the implications of adding more free-state senators. The Whigs and Democrats, both of which had Northern and Southern wings, wanted to get back to normal politics, meaning the dead Jacksonian issues. They made clumsy efforts to push past this national distraction. Instead, in 1852 the issue ripped the Whig Party apart, bringing the Second Party System down with it.
After years of turmoil, two new party coalitions emerged. These parties, a new Republican Party and a changed Democratic Party, launched another great debate pitting North against South. After a horrific civil war, those parties fought over the aftermath of post-war Reconstruction. America passed the Constitution’s civil rights amendments, created a Freedman’s Bureau to help former slaves adapt to their new life as citizens, and sought to create new regimes across the Old Confederacy. Eventually, through a combination of politics and violence, one Southern state after another restored local and Democratic Party control. After an economic crash and a destabilizing election marred by charges of fraud, the Democratic Party agreed to acquiesce to a Republican President in exchange for a promise to end Reconstruction. An exhausted America fell into the corrupt Gilded Age, and American politics once again went into decline. Although America’s parties fought over issues like tariffs and civil service reforms, often within their own coalitions instead of between them, old war resentments still defined them, as many American continued to “vote as they shot.”
America, however, was changing once more. Now industrialization was disrupting everything. For those savvy enough to seize wild new opportunities, like Rockefeller and Carnegie, the Gilded Age was a truly golden one. For the family farmers who made up America’s great middle class, along with those living in the small towns that supported them, it meant the unraveling of everything they had known. A generation of Americans had grown up believing that if they worked hard and played by the rules their parent had followed—get up early, toil all day on the farm, take care of your family and community—everything would be all right. Now they discovered those rules no longer applied. Little towns across America were emptying, while cities offering jobs for a wage swelled. Railroads sprouted everywhere, and railroad companies had a stranglehold on farmers’ access to markets. New immigrants flooded into the country. Each year, farm prices fell, and farmers found themselves deeper in debt to eastern banks. America’s two major parties, still obsessing over the Civil War, had nothing useful to say. As their livelihoods unraveled, the family farmers of America’s middle-class got angry. Then the economy crashed, sparking a great populist revolt.
In 1896, a 36-year-old former Democratic Congressman from Nebraska named William Jennings Bryan walked into the Democratic National Convention in a longshot bid for the presidency. Few took it seriously. Securing the speaking slot at the close of debate, Bryan delivered a powerful speech on the biggest populist issue of the moment, free silver—moving America away from the gold standard to spur inflation that would eat away the growing debt of farmers while sticking it to the banks. In reality, it was a populist anthem. Bryan lionized farmers and working people, hurled invective at elites and cities, and ended in silence like a religious figure with his arms outstretched as if in crucifixion. The next day, the Democrats nominated him for President. Then Bryan pushed out his party’s leadership and threw out its playbook. He replaced them with the ideas and agenda of a populist third party movement then sweeping the American plains called the People’s Party. As Bryan campaigned on a whirlwind national tour to wild and adoring crowds, America’s elites, terrified at a man they saw as an ignorant bumpkin and demagogue stirring up populist fury, rallied to Republican William McKinley. Bryan lost the election—McKinley’s better organization and money ultimately chipped away at his early lead—but by the end the campaign, Bryan had changed the Democratic Party irrevocably.
Then another movement seeking to address the disruption of industrialization took hold of the Republican Party. Another religious revival was underway; this one preached a Social Gospel that held that it was Christian duty to reform America into God’s Kingdom. As the ideas of this revival spread among the middle and professional classes, it made common cause with secular reformers who were also eager to launch moral crusades for reform. Together they became a Progressive Movement that flourished inside a more Protestant, middle class, and moralistic Republican Party. These Progressives embarked on great projects to solve the problems of industrialization through a staggering array of charitable works and social causes—maximum work hour laws, abolishing child labor, building public parks, purifying the supply of food and medicine through new agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, taming the growing industrial monopolies, eradicating intoxicating drinks, and winning the vote for women, among many more. Aligned with this movement, Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt transformed the Republican Party into a pro-business progressive party that sought to address the disruption of industrialization through progressive social reform. Another great debate had begun, this one over how to address the disruption of industrialization.
By the 1920s, that debate was over too. America had implemented its reforms and emerged as a wealthy and powerful world power in the hedonistic throes of the Jazz Age. Its politics once again went into decline. Then, in 1929, America plunged into the shock of the Great Depression. By the end of Republican Herbert Hoover’s first term, unemployment was about 25 percent, and in some places worse. Many Americans now lived in tented refugee camps, dependent on soup kitchens to eat. Most alarming, many Americans turned their gaze longingly at the dictatorships abroad, which seemed to be thriving, and began to lose faith in the American republic. In 1932, America threw Hoover and his party out of office in disgust, electing Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had promised them a New Deal. It was time for a new debate, one over how to update America’s institutions in light of the devastation. Roosevelt, however, had no idea yet what his New Deal would even be.
Roosevelt assembled a group of academics and advisers, empowering this “brain trust” to do whatever they thought might work to mitigate the Depression, no matter how radical or bold. What’s more, Roosevelt, in assembling these advisers, welcomed many with progressive and Republican backgrounds. This brain trust, believing higher prices would lead to healthier firms and thus more jobs, implemented a flurry of programs and policies intended to bring more coordination to the economy. The hallmarks of their First New Deal were the creation of the powerful National Recovery Administration, which tasked industry and labor leaders to draw up uniform rules that each industry had to follow, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which limited agricultural production by paying farmers to leave land fallow and destroy crops. The aim was to impose rational planning across the economy, eliminating “overproduction” and limiting the ability of low-cost competitors to put downward pressure on prices.
By 1935, however, Roosevelt faced a profound populist backlash to this First New Deal. Large portions of his party’s traditional base believed the programs were a betrayal of traditional Democratic principles. The First New Deal was ultimately a progressive program that placed confidence in experts and empowered elites and business. Democrats traditionally favored a weak Federal government and distrusted bigness, both in government and in the private economy. The populist boss of Louisiana, Senator Huey Long, began attacking Roosevelt as a rich man selling out working Americans. He touted a plan he called Share Our Wealth, which promised to make “every man a king” by capping the income of millionaires and showering resources on the common people. Fearing that Long planned to challenge him for the presidency in 1936, Roosevelt pivoted to a Second New Deal that included a Works Progress Administration charged with putting people directly to work, a Soak the Rich Tax of 79 percent specifically targeting John Rockefeller, and an old age pension plan called Social Security. When the dust settled over his presidency, a new Democratic ideology had emerged, one combining the traditionally Republican progressivism of the First New Deal with the traditionally Democratic populism of the Second. This ideology, which we call New Deal liberalism, held that the Democratic Party could employ expertise and planning to design a better America that would directly benefit working people and the least well off.
Roosevelt’s New Deal was broadly popular, but not everyone agreed. Many, for example, worried that powerful business people could abuse their delegated powers under the National Industrial Recovery Act to harass smaller competitors. They worried about farmers destroying desperately needed food supplies to raise prices that people already couldn’t afford. They worried about the punitive intent of the Soak the Rich Tax. Most of all, they worried about Roosevelt’s scheme to pack the Supreme Court with new appointees after the Court struck down as unconstitutional several New Deal programs. Critics argued that the rapid expansion in Federal power under Roosevelt’s New Deal threatened American liberty. They also argued that its radical changes to American society might change the nation’s character, undercutting what we sometimes call the republican or national virtues necessary for a republic to thrive. Over time, these New Deal opponents—some Republicans but also many former Roosevelt Democrats—drifted into the Republican Party. They combined their criticisms into a new ideology holding that New Deal liberalism was creating a dangerous “big government” that trampled on American liberty and degraded national virtue. This is the ideology we call modern conservatism.
That’s what the “liberalism” and “conservatism” we now take for granted as two poles of a political spectrum are really all about. They’re ad hoc coalitions for a specific moment in history: the catastrophe of the Depression and the aftermath of the global war that followed it. Like every American party system, our Fifth Party System isn’t a permanent battleground between rival dispositions of humanity. It’s part of one era’s great debate. That debate, like the debates that created each of America’s previous party systems, was an argument over a specific collection of problems important at a unique moment in America’s history. For the better part of a century, American politics has revolved around this same fight over Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. That debate, however, is over. Which is why our parties are now in the process of falling apart.
American party systems always decline when the debate that created them fades away. The Federalist Party’s demise, the Whig collapse, the Bryan revolt, and the launch of the New Deal were all the result of the decline of the great debate that defined the previous era. Nor is it reasonable to expect parties to address problems we never designed them to address. The parties of the early republic simply weren’t equipped for the problems raised by the American frontier. The Jacksonian parties weren’t prepared for the intensification of the debate over slavery. The Civil War parties couldn’t grapple with the problems of industrialization. The Populist and Progressive Era parties weren’t designed to navigate through the shoals of the Great Depression. When just the right kind of force comes along to strike parties obsessed by irrelevant debates, those parties naturally collapse.
For the better part of a century, the story of American politics has been one of our debate over the New Deal playing out over time. In the early decades of this debate, what we call the post-war consensus, America gave the Democrats license to implement their ideals. From Dewey to Eisenhower to Rockefeller, Republicans understood that while they opposed the New Deal state in principle they would have to live with it in practice, offering both to slow its advance and to administer it better than the Democrats. By the mid-20th century, as the postwar consensus began to break, an intellectual band centered around William F. Buckley Jr., consolidated the New Deal’s opponents into a united conservative movement, one dedicated to actually rolling back the New Deal. That led to the explosive Goldwater campaign, which energized a growing grassroots conservative movement that eventually overthrew the old Republican establishment in the Reagan Revolution. During the 1960 and 1970s, a new generation of Americans also came of age, one motivated less by pragmatic concerns than by a moral revival. A counterculture and a New Left emerged that sought to apply New Deal liberalism to new issues like protecting the environment, fighting poverty, feminism, ending war, and continuing the fight for civil rights. Others got swept up in a new religious revival, and Evangelicals emerged as a new powerful political block that sought to apply conservative principles to new moral issues. Over time, as new issues gained prominence, the demographic coalitions of the parties shifted. The Democratic Solid South became a Republican bastion, and the formerly Republican Northeast became a Democratic stronghold. Yet through it all, the ideological basis for our politics, and the ideological factions of our parties, didn’t budge.
Down through the years, the issues over which America fought changed and shifted. We debated taxes, regulations, the role of government, the environment, and civil rights among countless others. Yet Democrats have always continued to unite the same ideological factions around advancing their ideology of government: New Deal liberalism. Republicans have united the same ideological factions pushing back against what it saw as big government. Democrats have framed their ideas around the same idea, that we should employ national planning and expertise to serve working people and the least well off. Republicans have always framed theirs around the idea that Democratic excesses threaten liberty and undercut the nation’s virtue. Through everything that has happened over the many decades since 1932, the Democrats have continued to be a party of populists and progressives dedicated to the ideology of New Deal liberalism. The Republicans have remained a party dedicated to protecting liberty and virtue according to the ideology of modern conservatism.
This New Deal debate continues to drive our parties today. Democrats continue to think in terms of New Deal liberalism. Republicans continue to fight against big government. Yet that debate, notwithstanding all the sound and fury of our politics, is essentially over and has been for many years. America resolved it decades ago, sometime in the 1990s, and everybody knows it. The American people reached a consensus. As in every party system, neither party won the debate outright. America adopted some of what the Democrats proposed but agreed to some of the limits that Republicans proposed. It agreed that government would indeed take responsibility for many matters of health, safety, and welfare. It would have Social Security, Medicare, and an Environmental Protection Agency. America also agreed that those responsibilities shouldn’t be unlimited in scope, and that national planning isn’t always the best way to meet them. There will be no more Great Societies.
America has always taken something from both camps. It accepts Hamiltonian policies wrapped in Jeffersonian ideals. It brings the people into the center of politics as Jackson wanted, while modernizing and reforming as the Whigs hoped. It reunites North and South. It takes reforms from both the Populists and the Progressives. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, both parties accept this resolution and have for years. No matter what they say, Democrats wouldn’t really attempt to implement a new Great Society even if they could. Nor would Republicans really abolish Medicare, or any of the other New Deal programs Americans like. All of American politics is organized around a dead debate.
However, the country now faces an onslaught of new problems our parties were never designed to address. Our national debate is still built around a fading mirage of industrial-age America. We no longer live in the America in which a single high school-educated worker can support a middle-class family with an industrial job. America is no longer a beacon of the “free world” in a cold war, exporting its bounty to the world—cars, appliances, movies, and music—as the only untouched economy after a devastating war. We stand at the cusp of a global social and economic transformation—from an industrial to a global information economy—as significant as the transformation from the agricultural world to the industrial. The new economy is fast, mobile, disruptive. Competition comes from all corners of the globe. We live differently. Cultural rules and customs are changing constantly. What’s more, we’re still only at the beginning—whether the future will be defined by robotic workers, artificial intelligence, gene splicing, new information networks, or something else entirely. We’re all like 19th-century farmers looking at a cotton gin, unable to see the legions of factories, motor cars, and urban metropolises about to spring up from the fields. The Democratic and Republican parties have nothing important to say about the next set of problems facing America. They lack even the language to think about them. We won’t find the solution to our problems in either the New Deal or the fight against the excesses of big government.
All that remains is the right disruptive force to knock these decaying party coalitions apart. As we know all too well, there are plenty such forces swirling all around us. The question isn’t whether America’s Fifth Party System is going to come flying apart. The question is when.
America is facing a realignment whether we want one or not. However, this isn’t necessarily something we need to fear. We need parties actually designed to debate the problems of the still-emerging new world. If we’re going to start to solve our new problems, we need new parties prepared to do it. The question therefore isn’t whether we’re ready for a realignment. It’s what sort of transition this will be. We know from hard experience that American party systems inevitably end in one of two ways. Some crash hard in a collapse, like the ones that took down the Federalists and the Whigs. Other, fortunately, are much easier, like the party renewals that created the Populist and Progressive Era and our own New Deal party system.
A party collapse is a national tragedy. When the Whig Party imploded, the collapse created a vacuum that the most noxious voices sought to fill. Hot passions over slavery in a disintegrating national politics unleashed years of political violence. A bloody undeclared war broke out in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery activists. A Congressman beat a senator nearly to death on the Senate floor, while another Congressman held spectators at gunpoint. Many Americans turned to the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings—a conspiratorial party obsessed with Catholic immigrants. It took years before a new Republican Party emerged, became a new national party, and then established the next party system—which promptly unleashed a civil war that killed more than half a million Americans.
A renewal, like the 1896 realignment under William Jennings Bryan, is more hopeful. The realignment of 1896 was disruptive and frightening for many Americans, but it also managed to reform American politics in the span of just one presidential election cycle—without violence, a party collapse, a constitutional crisis, or the ascent of a troubling movement like the Know-Nothings. In one spirited campaign, America abandoned the old and ushered in the most productive era of reform in its history.
The difference between a collapse and a renewal lies in how we respond when a realignment looms. If we do nothing, seeking to ignore the challenges before us, some disruptive force will eventually strike our weakened parties provoking their collapse. A period of turmoil will follow, as all the factions and interests of America stumble about in the dark, possibly for years, while they search for new allies to create new majorities. Worse, since party collapses are uncontrolled, once our parties fall apart, we have to simply hope whatever new alliances and ideologies emerge from the rubble are ones we like, instead of ones that divide us in troubling ways around destructive ideas. If we act, however, we can seize the moment instead. We can renew our politics first before our parties collapse on their own. This way, we not only avoid the crises and the turmoil. We get to choose the shape we want our next parties to take.
We therefore face a choice. We ought to renew our parties now, while we can. We shouldn’t cede our future to forces outside our control, left to hope whatever happens to emerge are parties that channel our differences in healthy ways in a useful debate about our future. With an eye on history’s lessons, we should act first, now, to renew our politics around a new debate we choose. Moreover, one debate in particular cries out. All the problems that loom ahead come back in some way to one issue: the perceived decline of the American Dream. Although we often talk about the American Dream as a dream of prosperity—a house in the suburbs, a good job, and a middle-class lifestyle, if not a chance at great wealth—it’s actually something more. The American Dream is a promise of social equality. America throughout its history has always made an implicit promise to its people: that America will offer all its citizens equal dignity and a level playing field to achieve their dreams, whatever they may be. Our transforming world provides new opportunities for some Americans. For others, however, who worked hard and played by the rules as they understood them, the rewards they believe were promised won’t come. It’s no surprise they believe that they were cheated, that the game is rigged, that people in control aren’t honest, and, most critically, that people like them no longer have a fair shot. There’s a growing fear across America, one felt by very different groups of people who disagree on many other things, that the American Dream is fading away, if not entirely gone.
The American Dream isn’t a promise that everyone in America will achieve everything they’ve always hoped for. It is, however, a promise that, with hard work, grit, and a bit of luck, everyone in America has a fair shot at doing anything they want to do and becoming anything they want to become. America has never perfectly kept that promise—and the imperfections have hit some groups more than others. Yet that doesn’t mean the American Dream is merely aspirational. Americans have always believed in the American Dream’s promise, and it’s important they believe America is always working hard to ensure we keep it. That’s the next debate America needs to have. We need to rally our parties around new visions for preserving and protecting the promise that so many Americans now fear is disappearing. We should rebuild our parties around America’s national promise, the American Dream.