The Challenge of Our Disruptive Era

It is arguably the largest economic transformation in recorded history. Can our politics adapt?

By Ben Sasse

I am a historian, and that usually means I’m a killjoy. When people say we’re at a unique moment in history, the historian’s job is to put things in perspective by pointing out that there is more continuity than discontinuity, that we are not special, that we think our moment is unique because we are narcissists and we’re at this moment. But what we are going through now—the past 20 or 30 years, and the next 20 or 30 years—really is historically unique. It is arguably the largest economic disruption in recorded human history. And our politics are not yet up to the challenge.

There have been four kinds of economies: hunter-gatherers, agriculture (settled agrarian farmers in their villages), industry (mass urbanization and immigration), and whatever we’re entering now. Sometimes we call it the information-technology economy, the knowledge economy, the service economy, the digital economy. Sociologists call it the “postindustrial” economy, which is another way of saying “we don’t have anything to call it.”

What it really means is that jobs are no longer permanent. It used to be that you did whatever your parents and grandparents had done. Hunter-gatherers and farmers never even thought about it. There was no such thing as job choice, only becoming 7 and 10 and 12 years old and taking on more responsibilities to earn your keep.

Industrialization brought a massive disruption. At the end of the Civil War, 86% of Americans still worked on the farm. By the end of World War II, 80 years later, 60% of Americans lived in cities. One of the most disruptive times in American history was the Progressive Era. And what was Progressivism? Not much more than the response of trying to remake society in an era of mass immigration, industrialization and rising cities. But it turned out not to be as disruptive as people feared, because once you got to the city, you got a new job, which you’d probably have until death or retirement. And the social capital that used to be in the village tended to be replicated in urban ethnic neighborhoods.

What’s happening now is wholly different. The rise of suburbia and exurbia, and the hollowing out of mediating institutions, is an echo of the changing nature of work. In the 1970s, it was common for a primary breadwinner to spend his career at one company, but now workers switch jobs and industries at a more rapid pace. We are entering an era in which we’re going to have to create a society of lifelong learners. We’re going to have to create a culture in which people in their 40s and 50s, who see their industry disintermediated and their jobs evaporate, get retrained and have the will and the chutzpah and the tools and the social network to get another job. Right now that doesn’t happen enough.

Think about qualitative survey data—polls that ask, “What are the top three or four things you’re worried about?” Ten years ago, nowhere on the top 10 of that list was anything about prescription drugs. Today opioids are a major concern. People are scared about drug abuse in largely middle-aged populations. That’s a symptom of the economic disruption.

I don’t mean to be exceedingly pessimistic. There are plenty of wonderful opportunities for American families and innovators in this new economy. For one thing, there are fewer middlemen complicating transactions instead of adding value. So we’re going to get a lot more visibility and transparency into product offerings, and consumers are going to get higher-quality and lower-cost stuff.

In other industries, we don’t know how to price for things that turn out to matter quite a lot.

Think of the news media. We are going from a world in which we had too much central control by a few large organizations, to one in which everybody, everywhere can deluge us with information. What is likely to happen next is not a lot more higher-quality journalism. We’re going to have higher-volume journalism, and some of it will be good. A free, thriving, and independent press is critical to self-government, so this is a big challenge.

But people are also able to silo themselves into an echo chamber, where they hear only things that they already agree with. More conspiracy theories come to flower than ever before. You can see it on our college campuses, where students don’t want to encounter any new idea without a trigger warning. If you’re never going to encounter ideas that you didn’t already know and affirm, I don’t know why your parents are paying tuition, because education is all about wrestling with new ideas.

The political result is not just polarization, which is a big problem, but political disengagement.

If you think that the biggest problem in America is the other political party and that your party has all the answers, if only you could vanquish the other team from the field, I’ve got a lot of people I’d like to introduce you to—because Washington doesn’t have very good answers right now.

With the magnitude of the challenges we face in this moment of disruption, it isn’t the case that one side is right and the other side is standing in the way, or that one side is enlightened and the other side is retrograde. It’s that we don’t have any of the right policy conversations. Most of the really big challenges of this moment are not easily reducible to core Republican or Democratic platform positions.

For one thing, we don’t have a national-security strategy for the age of cyberwarfare and jihad. Since the 1640s and the Treaty of Westphalia, we’ve had a view of geopolitics and national security that is about state actors. There are lots of state-actor problems out there, including Russia and China. But of the 200 or so countries in the world, only about two-thirds really control all their territory.

The rest are more like Afghanistan, Syria or Libya. There may be some entity that has more power than anyone else—think of the Taliban on the eve of 9/11. But we weren’t attacked by the Taliban; we were attacked by al Qaeda, which exploited the vacuums of ungoverned spaces in the territorial borders of Afghanistan. A lot of the dangers and the threats we face are from jihadi-motivated people who are going to self-radicalize in place and create their own terror networks.

We also lack seriousness about tackling the entitlement crisis. The Republican Party appears almost as indifferent as the Democrats to telling the truth about entitlements. People talk about the national debt, which is approaching $20 trillion. But that’s just the total of intergovernmental transfers and publicly held bond debt. The number that matters is the unfunded obligations of the U.S. government, including future Social Security and Medicare payments. It’s more like $65 trillion to $75 trillion.

And what about the policy implications of the economic disruption? The cultural, societal, familial and social-network responses to a world of lifelong learning and job disruption are far more important. But there are many potential policy responses in education and job retraining.

Are any of these conversations on our national agenda right now?

What will the American idea look like when we get to this new, disrupted world of the digital economy? What will entrepreneurship look like? What will cultural pluralism and a robust defense of the First Amendment look like? What will it mean to be able to say that the meaning of America is still centered in institutions that look like the Rotary Club—where people actually live, where they know and love their neighbors, and where they actually want to do good, not just wear tribal labels about some distant fight in Washington that isn’t anywhere near up to the task of the moment we face?

That’s the challenge before us, and here’s the good news: Throughout our history Americans have been optimists, ready to seize the day. Let’s get to work.

Mr. Sasse, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Nebraska. This is adapted form a speech he delivered to Colorado’s Steamboat Institute.

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