Farewell Column From Gerald F. Seib: After Three Stormy Decades, Some Reasons to Find Optimism

From a Wall Street Journal column by Gerald F. Seib headlined “After Three Stormy Decades, Some Reasons to Find Optimism”:

This column was born 29 years ago this spring. The times weren’t exactly simple then, though they may seem that way in the rearview mirror.

President Bill Clinton had just taken office after an election in which he, a Democrat, won the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, among others. (Let that sink in for a minute.) The Soviet Union had dissolved, the Cold War was over and the U.S. was headed for a period of peace and prosperity. Within five years the federal budget would be in surplus, thanks to actual bipartisan stewardship in Congress.

From there, the road became, shall we say, a bit more winding and bumpy. It has been a privilege to chronicle the whole journey here.

Today, though, we reach the end of that road. I am retiring from full-time service to The Wall Street Journal, the only professional home I have known since being hired as a college intern in 1977. I will still write occasionally for the Journal and help in other capacities, but this weekly conversation about the capital and the world will conclude.

Over the life of this column, the landscape at home appears in many ways to have become less healthy and more unstable. America’s political system is fractured and polarized, and reasoned debate seems to have given way to mindless shouting. Democrats seem unable to talk to older rural voters, Republicans unable to talk to younger urban voters. The unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 presidential election was somehow stolen from former President Donald Trump represent a dangerous cancer growing inside the body politic.

Abroad, Russia has brazenly invaded a neighboring democratic state, Ukraine, simply because the autocrat in charge in Moscow wanted to do so. Nearly as distressing, some democratic nations—India most prominently—can’t bring themselves to condemn the action.

So it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of democracy.

Yet there is another, more optimistic way to look at the landscape. The genius of American democracy is that it isn’t static. It adjusts and adapts over time to changing circumstances. It renews itself.

These adjustments usually are messy and disruptive, as they were when America evolved from slaveholding to abolitionist nation, from an agricultural to an industrial economy, from isolation to world leadership, from liberal dominance to a conservative arising.

We are in the midst of another period of self-correction now, and that shouldn’t be surprising. It turns out economic globalization and a technological revolution haven’t spread their benefits uniformly across society. The progress in racial equity wasn’t as thorough as many assumed. The coastal establishment’s disconnect from the heartland has invited cultural warfare. Political leaders’ persistent failure to construct a more sane immigration system has undermined America’s powerful role as a magnet for talented and energetic people from around the globe.

So now that the country is trying to come to grips with that unfinished agenda, its politics are a mess. We have four parties, not two: Trumpists and traditional conservatives on the Republican side, and moderates and progressives on the Democratic side. The forces at play are driving politics away from the center, where solutions are usually found.

This is an unstable atmosphere, and unstable atmospheric conditions don’t last. So we are in transition to something different. To what isn’t clear, and there is no guarantee this transition will be peaceful and successful. Four steps would help ease the way:

• An outbreak of political courage. Specifically, the country needs the emergence of more lawmakers from both parties who are willing to risk their jobs by reaching out to the other side, and to take steps that displease the most extreme elements of their own base. Such leaders are in depressingly short supply.

• Actual steps to revive the political center, starting with dramatic actions to curtail gerrymandering. Both parties have taken brazen actions at the state level to redraw congressional districts into uncompetitive sinecures, thereby empowering those on the ideological wings.

• A bipartisan agreement on the rules for casting and counting votes, taking election integrity off the table as a divisive issue. Both sides are wholly dependent on confidence in the system that brought them to office. If, as seems likely, power in Washington is to be shared by the two parties after this fall’s midterm elections, they will have an equal stake in the soundness of the system, and the moment to end this corrosive argument could be at hand.

• A decision by voters across the spectrum to reward rather than punish responsible behavior and compromise. Voters aren’t powerless; politicians respond to the signals they send.

This column has given me the privilege of having an extended conversation with readers. They weigh in shrewdly and wisely, sometimes with compliments and sometimes with complaints, all received with gratitude.

The best compliment has come from those who say that, after years of digesting this column, they still can’t figure out the partisanship or ideology of its author. That is great. The goal has been to be analytical without being partisan or ideological. Honestly, that is where most Americans are.

That is cause for hope. Our democracy has always adapted, and it can do so again. The power to make it survive and thrive remains in the hands of all of us who participate in, and benefit from, the great American experiment.

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