From Here to 2020
Peggy Noonan is right in her column reviewing Trump’s Inaugural Address — he is a man alone. An ideologically-agnostic populist who co-opted the Republican brand, Trump is — as Huey Long used to say of himself — sui generis, a class (in the scientific sense) all his own.
In politics this is dangerous. Without an institutionalized base, his room for maneuver will rely on continued support by a vocal but amorphous base. They will be patient. They have waited almost a generation, since Ross Perot, for this moment; but their patience through the vitriol and distractions to come will not be infinite. Political capital is hard to husband and easy to waste.
However, beyond Washington, there are forces that give reason for hope.
Political power is about building majorities, in other words, electoral math. And that, in turn, is ultimately driven — not necessarily determined, but driven — by demographics.
The most important demographic trend is that we are living longer. What this means, and will mean, is only just beginning to be perceived. How we work, how long we work, what a “career” means, what retirement means, how long and where our children go to school, and the nature of higher education — are all, now, up for grabs. Labor force participation statistics, disrupted by the Great Recession, now reflect demographic reality. Americans in their sixties are working longer, some because they must, many because they can. Meanwhile young entrants take longer to finish schooling and launch their careers. The next great civil rights movement will be about age-ism and the right to augment failing biology with assistive technology. (Take note, Uber, millenials may love you but it’s the elderly that will give you political staying power, in Europe too.)
Second, we are on the brink of medical and scientific breakthroughs that will ensure we live healthier and longer. Mostly today, when we think of science, we think of technology, Silicon Valley-technology. Phones, gaming software, immersive entertainment — that’s where scientific attention seems focused. But it is in the medical realm that we will realize the greatest impact, with wide-ranging ramifications for our economy, our labor markets, and our politics.
Weirdly, official Washington — Democrats and Republicans alike — continue to see longer lives and better medicine as a bad thing, a driver of higher health care costs. This is substantively and politically short-sighted, as we shall see as Trump and congressional Republicans try once more (and fail) to disentangle the Gordian Knot of health finance. The only way to reduce the cumulative cost of chronic disease is to cure it. That will be immensely expensive at first, and then remarkably cheap. Universal access to tried and true therapies can coexist with a sustained effort to cure Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and the most lethal cancers; indeed it’s economic and political survival will depend upon it.
And, for those who worry that open immigration allows people to enter America who mean to harm Americans, consider the threat from highly infectious, drug-resistant bacterial or viral agents. Neither laws nor walls will stop them. Only great science will.
Beyond medicine we will see breakthroughs in materials science — how goods and food are made, and how the materials that constitute them are synthesized. Fabrics, crops, water filtration, furniture, energy storage, how drugs are delivered — all the “stuff” of our daily lives that cannot be digitized are going to change. Increasingly they will be made domestically because of the economics of design, manufacturing, and distribution, and a public demand for quality control and local regulation. Political pressure will help, fed by a growing belief that the know-how, and the workers and researchers who enable it, are strategic assets.
Third, the genie of political activism cannot be put back into the bottle. In a time of political gridlock in Washington, activism will seek productive outlets. The most attractive target is Silicon Valley and the global tech elite. Yes, people crave the latest devices and the coolest games. But parents — even parents in Silicon Valley — see the distractive potential of always-on electronic stimulation. They will seek to limit their children’s exposure to commercialism and vice. Privacy advocates on the left and right want to limit what big corporations know about us. Chat apps encouraging teens to engage in behaviors once understood to be borderline sociopathic will suffer a backlash. Communication will not continue to regress to hieroglyphics and synaptic farts.
Silicon Valley is vulnerable for another reason. It is commercially and politically fragile. E-commerce relies on garnering ever-larger shares of ever flattening disposable incomes, as Jaron Lanier among others point out. Its main business model, advertising, hits a point of diminishing return, colliding with the limits of attention and income. People can make only so many purchase decisions in a day. And those with unlimited time to surf (even aided by bots) tend to lack unlimited capacity to spend.
The backlash against tech will also focus on the outsourcing of manufacturing capacity, and tech companies are already trimming their sails to the new political winds. Companies like Tesla (with its Gigafactory in the desert and assembly plants in California) will be better positioned than “Designed in America, made in China” companies like Apple.
Finally, we may see the apotheosis of identity politics. By and large, liberals and libertarians have won the culture wars, at least in terms of new laws on the books. These gains may seem, on the second day of the Trump Administration to be in grave peril. But again, demographics are on the libertarians’ side. Those under 30, having grown up in a more permissive culture, will soon be a plurality. The likelihood that protections for women, gays, lesbians, and minorities will be rolled back will recede. Yesterday’s radicalism is tomorrow’s conservatism.
Issues of personal identity will give way to economics — to demands for government to improve Americans’ earnings prospects, to protect Americans against predatory technologies and corporate practices, and prevent cyber or military attacks. Opportunity, fairness (though not necessarily equality), and security will animate debates over America’s purpose.
So how will establishment Washington respond to a changing world of scientific and medical discoveries, new kinds of manufacturing, and a diminution of liberation politics?
That is hard to say, except as Harold Macmillan surmised, “Events, dear boy, events.” Lasting change — for good or ill — often begins with acts of great imagination (e.g. CRISPR or the iPhone) or catastrophe (HIV or 9/11). We can hope for the former, but we should prepare for the latter.