Darkness at Dawn

In politics, things don't have to get worse before they can get better.


As a matter of astronomical fact, it is not actually darkest just before the dawn.

The brightness of the night sky is largely determined by the phase of the moon, a famously fickle celestial body. In the middle of the lunar month, for instance, it's darkest right after sunset.

It is not darkest before the dawn in politics either.

There is a temptation among certain types of ideologues—I count myself among them—to assume that once things get bad enough, the political classes or the general public will have a collective eureka moment, at which point everyone adopts the ideologue's worldview, policy prescriptions, and cultural preferences.

The appeal of this notion is obvious. Perhaps the suffering imposed by our messy politics will be worth it, we think, if it means triumph in the end.

I recently spent a deeply frustrating hour on the phone with the U.S. Postal Service looking for a box of '80s-era Baby-Sitters Club books that had been lovingly packed and shipped to my daughter by a family friend—and promptly lost in a warehouse of undelivered parcels. Surely, I thought, everyone who does business with the post office must naturally end up as a libertarian.

That moment is the genesis of this month's cover story by Christian Britschgi, an investigation into why the U.S. Postal Service suddenly became such a controversial mess in the face of spectacular slowdowns and an election conducted in large part via mail-in ballots. As Britschgi notes, "Libertarians and other critics who have long warned about the inefficiencies of a government-run postal monopoly could at least feel some vindication when they found their mailboxes empty."

Similarly, I remain incredulous that just gazing at a W-2 the evening before Tax Day doesn't make every salaried worker a few degrees more libertarian. Or that local zoning boards aren't converting homeowners into libertarians on a daily basis.

And the spectacle that the two major parties put on during the last election cycle, with credible accusations of profligacy, authoritarianism, and deceit flying in both directions, should surely be enough to put voters off the status quo and lead them to call for better choices.

But a person who hasn't imbibed decades of articles and white papers about the desperate need to privatize the U.S. Postal Service or rein in the IRS or repeal zoning laws or revamp ballot access might well come to opposite conclusions after experiencing the same dysfunction. The most likely outcome of all is a frustrated resignation and apathy in the face of the state's persistent failure and dysfunction. Repeated defeat isn't energizing for most people. It's deflating.

But still the search for hope continues. When things are bad, we look for silver linings.

And American politics right now are very bad indeed. As Jonathan Rauch explains in "Who Gets To Decide the Truth?" there is a powerful Enlightenment idea that "epistemic rights, like political rights, belong to all of us; empiricism is the duty of all of us. No exceptions for priests, princes, or partisans." In his new Brookings Press book The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch outlines the current epistemological crisis: We struggle to answer the question of what is right, because we have lost our grasp on the tools to determine what is true. Our lack of agreement about a shared reality makes the prospect of a civil and productive politics that much less likely each day. It is midnight and the storm clouds are rolling in, at least in my read of Rauch's narrative.

In this month's interview, newly anointed New York Times podcaster Jane Coaston approaches the same problem from another angle, describing "the urge to identify and exist as a political entity alone," a choice many people seem to be willingly making. "We are doing the politicization of our lives," she tells Nick Gillespie. "Joe Biden is not doing that to us. The federal government is largely not doing that to us. We are doing this. When we are having conversations, especially on social media, where we become flattened into just chimeras of our political opinions, we are doing this to ourselves."

When it comes to actual policy making, Jacob Sullum examines our near-miss with a full-fledged constitutional crisis over COVID-19 lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions on individual liberty. "COVID-19 did not kill the Constitution," he writes. "But the crisis made it vividly clear that we cannot count on politicians or bureaucrats to worry about limits on their authority, especially when they believe they are doing what is necessary to protect the public from a deadly danger."

Sullum's story is largely one of heroic behavior on the part of a few judges who were willing to stick their necks out to stop the slide of government overreach. But in "Why Is It So Hard To Sue a Bad Cop?" Damon Root describes a countervailing trend in the courts—an inability to address the shameful state of the law around holding federal officers accountable for misconduct, despite clear signs that we are indeed in dark times for trust between civilians and law enforcement. He quotes a frustrated Judge Don Willett's protest against judicial inaction on this matter: "Redress for a federal officer's unconstitutional acts is either extremely limited or wholly nonexistent, allowing federal officials to operate in something resembling a Constitution-free zone."

All of these are stories of darkness and danger, and they do not signal a new morning. This has been a year of heightened contradictions, but things are not going as Marx predicted and Lenin urged. Pushing a broken system to its limits doesn't fix the problems; it exacerbates them and entrenches them.

A variant of the "darkest before the dawn" theory is the idea that when a party is voted out, its leaders will go into the wilderness and emerge enlightened. Again, the person floating this theory typically believes that enlightenment will take the form of agreeing with his own views.

This does not seem to happen very often, if ever, in real life. When things are worse, or perceived as worse, people grow less tolerant, less empathetic, less open to compromise, and they offer each other less leeway. A sense of scarcity or impending scarcity fosters a zero-sum mindset.

This is one reason to work for incremental change, even when radical change is ultimately what is needed.

This is why Reason has been doggedly editorializing about alternatives to a monopolistic federal post office for decades, but also proposing ways to rebalance the agency's pension obligations. It's why we have praised gestures toward free minds and free markets in both parties, even as they fail time and time again to meet those standards. It is why we have argued for modest reforms to qualified immunity and other police accountability measures that seem achievable, even though we know the problems inherent in our criminal justice system are numerous and endemic.

It does not have to get worse before it can get better. It is our duty to do what we can to prevent things from getting bad in the first place and fix what is broken using the tools we have.

In the longest and darkest night, we must do what we can to make it to the morning.