Scott Rasmussen: America’s political system will catch up with society

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In my previous column, I argued that President-elect Joe Biden’s time in the White House would represent the end of an era. Biden’s understanding of America was shaped in another era, as was that of President Donald Trump. Our nation will never again 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 emerge. These new generation leaders only know Biden and Trump’s America as history. Having grown up in the digital age, they will naturally look to America’s future rather than its past. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner) someone from this group will emerge to tackle the issues and challenges of the 21st century in a way that gives voice to the hopes and aspirations of the American people.

This new leader will redefine the national dialogue and the parameters of American policy. It will look a bit like the transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, or from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt. During these two transitions, the national mood shifted from whether America’s best days had passed to the song “Happy Days Are Here Again”.

Reagan and Roosevelt, of course, became 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 understand why these two presidents have had such a lasting impact. It is not, as many in the political world mistakenly believe, because their agenda and policies changed the course of the nation. The reality is almost the opposite.

Reagan and Roosevelt wielded influence not because they changed the national mood, but because they followed the nation and put words to the mood. The two presidents did not change America. Instead, their rhetoric and leadership confirmed that America had already changed. This is how things work in a country where culture is ahead and politics lags behind.

The programs and policies that flow from their leadership 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 moved away from public mood and forced it to come closer to the consent of the governed. Ultimately, the two presidents helped the political system catch up with where America had already gone.

This understanding matters to us today because it means that we do not have to wait for the next influential President of the United States to determine the fate of the nation. Instead, we can glimpse the future of American politics by looking at where culture stands today.

As a starting point, it is safe to say that establishment politicians from both political parties will be disappointed. Many in Washington officials are hopeful that the Biden presidency will signal a return to the politics as usual that existed before President Trump took office. However, the polls I conducted in the 2020 election found that only a third of voters want a return to establishment Republican or Democratic-style politics. Twice as many people 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 very centralized society in which there were only three television networks broadcasting information and setting cultural norms. At that time, important information was tightly owned and controlled by a handful of large corporations and governments. This world has demanded a highly centralized political system headquartered in the nation’s capital.

Over the past four decades, however, the digital revolution has decentralized American society. Americans in the 21st century have virtually limitless information and entertainment options. As a result, no source of information or entertainment is watched or followed by more than a fraction of the population. Everyday Americans use smartphones to personalize their own mix of news and entertainment.

Smartphones also mean that we no longer depend on large organizations to own and control information. These portable 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 from the centralized world that produced President Trump and President-elect Biden. It demands a decentralized political system with no defined hierarchy.

This disconnection between a centralized political system and a decentralized society is unsustainable. A single top-down political system simply cannot work in a decentralized society. Citizens who personalize everything in their daily lives are reluctant to follow standardized rules drawn up by distant officials.

The next influential president will be someone who recognizes this disconnect and gives him a voice. She or he will understand that their job is not to change America. Instead, they must force the American political system to change so that it can catch up with American society. When this happens, our nation will be more free, equal and self-reliant.

Next week, I’ll take a look at how recent electoral trends confirm this assessment and what it might mean in terms of political 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”.

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