No Winners Tonight

11.04.14 10:45 AM ET

Relax—Both Parties Are Going Extinct

Our parties are shrinking because each in its own way can’t come to terms with decentralization. But it’s real, and it’s going to bury them.

It’s safe to say that by the end of today, a large chunk of Americans will be bitterly disappointed. If Republicans win big, Democrats will hang their heads and cuss the Koch brothers. If the GOP fails to snag the Senate and a fistful of statehouses, its partisans will mope around and blame Ebola-infected illegal immigrants for the loss.

But whichever side emerges victorious, both Republicans and Democrats should face up to a much bigger truth: Neither party as currently constituted has a real future. Fewer and fewer Americans identify as either Republican or Democratic according to Gallup, and both parties are at recent or all-time lows when it comes to approval ratings. Just 39 percent give Democrats a favorable rating and just 33 percent do the same for Republicans. Not coincidentally, each party has also recently had a clear shot at implementing its vision of the good society. If you want to drive down your adversary’s approval rating, just give him the reins of power for a few years.

What’s going on? The short version is that political, cultural, and even economic power has been decentralizing and unraveling for a long time. Whether you like it or not, The Libertarian Moment is here, a technologically driven individualization of experience and a breakdown of the large institutions—governments, corporations, churches, you name it—that used to govern and structure our lives. The result is that top-down systems, whether public or private, right wing or left wing, have less and less ability to organize our lives. That’s true whether you’re talking about the workplace, the bedroom, or the bar down the street (that may now be serving legal pot). This is mostly good, though it’s also profoundly disruptive too.

Given the penchant for the good old days when men were men and women were in the kitchen, you wouldn’t expect conservatives to grok any of this. But Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and a former George W. Bush adviser who has been anointed an “intellectual prodigy” by The New York Times, does. Writing in the theocon journal First Things, he notes, “Younger Americans are growing up amid a profusion of options in every realm of life, with far more choice but far less predictability and security. Dynamism is increasingly driven not by economies of scale but by competitively driven marginal improvements. Our culture is becoming a sea of subcultures. Sources of information, entertainment, and education are proliferating.”

Indeed, the signal characteristic of the past several decades of American life has been the ways in which all sorts of decision-making has been pushed outwards to individuals or end-users in whatever system you want to gin up. In virtually any commercial transaction, for instance, even budget buyers have far more information and leverage than they did 30 years ago (think of the immense difference in the experience of purchasing a car before and after Edmunds.com came online).

Traditional authorities in social institutions such as churches wield less control too. Our world is in so many ways more based on voluntary exchange than ever before. As Albert O. Hirschman would put it, we’ve got more ways of exiting a given situation and giving voice to criticism too. That in turn leads to a premium on what the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has recognized as the “sweet talk” of mutually beneficial exchange and persuasion rather than brute force. (Sadly, the fact of decentralization doesn’t mean that centralization by government and other large forces isn’t also taking place.)

For libertarians in particular, this isn’t news and it’s cause for celebration. It’s good to see other folks catching up. Levin rightly disparages the “nostalgia” that he says “blinds” both liberals and conservatives to this new reality. “The near-total (and bipartisan) failure of our politics to confront these changes explains a lot of the dysfunction of our government today, and much of our frustration with it,” he writes.

For liberals, it’s always 1965 and social justice is just one mega-entitlement program away from arriving. For conservatives, it’s always 1980 and the next tax cut will solve all problems forever. Each side can appreciate some but not all aspects of decentralization. Conservatives and Republicans can embrace it when it applies to some economic issues and to things like school choice, but they can’t abide the profusion of sexual and cultural identities and the diminution of authority in general. Liberals and Democrats may be more comfortable with some of the latter but then they want tighter and tighter controls and limits on all sorts of commercial transactions.

Levin can at least diagnose the problem and recognize that this leads to an evacuation of traditional politics. In this, he’s years ahead of Vox’s Ezra Klein, the sort of liberal dogmatist who isn’t quite able to step outside of his own bubble. Klein recently wrote about how #GamerGate proves “the politicization of absolutely everything”. Don’t you see, wrote Klein, that “our political identities [have] become powerful enough to drive our other identities.” Sure, dead-enders are more bitter than ever. But what Klein can’t acknowledge is that fewer of us actually invest in our political identities. That helps explain why party self-identification keeps heading south and approval for political parties has been on the skids for a long time.

In a world where you can personalize and individualize your online experience, your clothing, your work situation, even your sexuality, why would anyone join up for ossified, rigid, centuries-old groups such as the Democrats or Republicans? “The Repulican brand sucks,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said recently of his own party, which he compared to Domino’s Pizza. If the Republicans are Domino’s, then the Democrats are Pizza Hut. Neither is appealing in a world of easy-to-find gourmet fare.

And that’s why the future of politics and policy doesn’t belong to doctrinaire Democrats or Republicans who want to control large swaths of everyday life. It belongs ultimately to the libertarian decentralists such as Paul who not only understand what is happening to America but are growing comfortable with it. Americans are increasingly wary of government’s power, and they don’t want it to teach a single set of morals either. Everything is proliferating and people just want a government that will keep people from starving on the streets and get out of the way as they go to the corner pot shop to buy edibles to take to their friends’ gay wedding celebrated by ministers who are not forced to do so.

Politicians and parties who champion policies that embrace economic and social decentralization will own the future, even as they wield less power by letting people discover how they actually want to live. Whoever wins tonight would do well to remember that. Because if they don’t, they’ll be losers again, and sooner than you think.