The Complacency of American Democracy

By Tyler Fisher on April 13, 2017

Centrist Project contributor Tyler Fisher reviews Tyler Cowen's new book “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

Vincent Van Gogh created some of the most groundbreaking work the art world has ever seen. Many historians, though, attribute his artistic genius to a severe personal depression that motivated provocative work. Tyler Cowen asks his readers, if you could go back in time, would you give Van Gogh an antidepressant?

Cowen is the author of “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.” It’s a tour de force arguing--with incredible evidence--that the restlessness core to American Dream has all but dissipated from our country’s psyche.

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 The political class and our governing institutions reward and entrench such a complacent culture. And the fact that the American people have allowed the survival of two political parties who cannot work together nor solve long-term systemic issues is yet another piece of evidence of our complacency.

Today, more than ever, Americans are either happy with their status in life or not able to do much about it. Cowen examines physical mobility, segregation, entrepreneurship, protests, education, healthcare and much more to present a disheartening narrative that the number of people pursuing the American dream is dwindling.  

Consider these facts:

  • The interstate migration rate is 51 percent below its 1948-1971 average

  • America has 2 million citizens in jail, a 700 percent increase since 1970

  • Startups are only 8 percent of firms today. In 1980, they were 13 percent.

  • 15 percent of American children are diagnosed with ADHD. Two thirds of them take medication for a disorder that was not formally recognized until 1980.

  • In 2015, a school in Washington State banned the game of tag because of its excessive violence. Dodgeball used to be a schoolyard game.

Part of the lack of restlessness can be attributed to the lack of a grand project that all Americans are collectively working towards, or at least rooting for. In the late 18th century we built a republic. In the early 19th century, we settled a frontier. In the second half of the 1800s we reconstructed the south and built the world’s most powerful capitalist economy. In the early 20th century we exported democracy, built an interstate highway system, and won two world wars. Then there was the push for Social Security, Medicare, landing a man on the moon and defeating communism.

The grand American project today? Matching. From music, to life partners, to brands, Americans are more fixated than ever on finding the perfect match. Technology has allowed us to easily connect with things in life we like while simultaneously allowing us to abandon, ignore and forget the things we don’t. Every day we get matched to something by someone. Consider this scary truth: some TV commercials produce ultrasonic sounds you can't hear, but your phone can, allowing companies to know which ads you saw and acted on.

In many ways, the matching society provides a lot of value to individuals. We connect to people, platforms and products that make our lives easier and happier. But these individual fruits are outweighed by a decrease in collective action and innovation.

Our political system is not immune to complacency and matching. Cowen uses the term “fiscal democracy” to describe the portion of the budget current elected officials have the capacity to spend, as opposed to spending on permanent programs created by law. In 1962, two-thirds of all federal spending fell under fiscal democracy. Today, that number is 20 percent, and it’s slated to fall to 10 percent by 2022.

That is, today, 80 percent of tax revenues go to programs created by former elected leaders. If that’s not complacent, what is?

And despite Congressional approval ratings below ten percent and a recent primary process that put forth two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in US history, Americans remain matched to a ruling duopoly. Voters are frustrated with the political system, yet lack the motivation to fundamentally change how they vote and participate in democracy.

The Complacent Class is the final book in a Cowen trilogy on the slowdown of American progress which also included The Great Stagnation and Average is Over. Throughout, Cowen is cautious not to prescribe cures to the problems he has identified. Instead, he argues, a cyclical model of history predicts a major rebellion against complacency. He writes:

There is the distinct possibility that, in the next twenty years, we are going to find out far more about how the world really works than we ever wanted to know. As the mentality of the complacent class loses its grip, the subsequent changes in attitude will be part of an unavoidable and perhaps ultimately beneficial process of social, economic and legal transformation.

Cowen’s work creates a sense of unease in the reader and a desire to do something, anything, different. As individuals and partners, there is much we can do to fight American complacency and pursue the American dream.

One way is to fight an entrenched political system with independent candidates committed and incentivized to end business as usual in Washington. The Republican Party, the younger of our two parties, was founded to address slavery 150 years ago. Our country has changed alot since then, and the ideologies underpinning the parties no longer serve the American people’s interest.

Conservatives violate their stated preference for limited government on issues like gay marriage, military spending, and criminal justice. Liberals violate the principle of liberty when they rebuke free trade or use executive regulation as the de facto means of solving problems.

We must refuse to be matched to two parties that can’t advance our collective interests. Instead, we need a new set of leaders committed to pragmatism, evidence-based reasoning and truth. We’ll need committed voters, volunteers and donors to create the right incentives for independent representatives. We’ll need to stop being complacent.