Nine Issues That May Frame the Next Generation of Political Debate

With gay marriage legalization proliferating and the near-inevitability of same-sex marriage being legal in nearly every jurisdiction within a decade, the question becomes what will be the next “cause” that will begin to make legislative gains over the next twenty years?

Keep a few things in mind.  First, as I’ve explained before, the desire people have to be engaged in “important” ideological battles or “culture wars” never goes away, even if issues become settled.  In other words, even if every major political question currently in play in American politics—universal healthcare, abortion, and so on—were answered definitively for the time being, Americans would find something new about which to push for change.

The desire to be in the fray—and to feel important—is a kind of hunger.  Just as with actual hunger, even if you eat every morsel of a given type of food until there isn’t any food left, you’re eventually going to be hungry again.  The lack of that food won’t prevent you from getting hungry.  You’ll be craving food again soon enough.[1]

Secondly, I’m going to skip obvious causes, or ones that follow completely from current events.  The decriminalization of pot, or transgender issues (which have already been lumped in with gay rights) are so clear as to feel like cheating when compiling such a list.  I’m also excluding mere cultural / technological shifts, such as the almost-certain death of daily print media and the effects that might have on our society.  I’m limiting this list to nine topics that may give rise to debates that generate legislative or regulatory efforts.

Here, I think, are nine of the topics at the margins of discussion in 2012 that will become quite pivotal over the next decade or two.  I conclude each with the best guess at the chances of some degree of widespread reform occurring within the next twenty years.

1. Outlawing fossil fuel use – One trend you’ll note in most of these topics is the concept of a “critical mass” of support.  Sometimes, that’s dependent upon institutionalized persuasion (usually through the media, the entertainment industry, and academia).  Sometimes, however, having a dog in the fight—or suddenly not having a dog in the fight—is what it takes to accumulate the prerequisite critical mass.[2]  So, I believe that a critical mass of Americans will be driving hybrid or electric vehicles within twenty years’ time.  Once we pass a certain percentage who no longer have any personal interest in keeping traditional combustion engines readily-available, the move to phase out such vehicles entirely will begin in earnest.  Exceptions will be made for certain industrial and military vehicles, as well as air travel (barring some technological breakthrough), but, for the first time ever, it’s not unrealistic to think that most petroleum-using vehicles will at least begin to disappear relatively soon.  Likelihood = 85%

2. The abolition of marriage – I’ve talked about this one before.  I’m not referring to the abolition of the institution of marriage in a cultural or religious context, only its elimination as a status recognized by and given benefits by the government.  There was some noticeable momentum for eliminating any sort of recognition of marriage in the tax code about a decade ago, which spread more broadly to the idea of erasing civil recognition of the arrangement at all.  The rise of the gay marriage movement overwhelmed and superseded much of the anti-marriage scholarship of the early 2000s.  As a result, I think the newly-won status of gay marriage has delayed the libertarian abolition of marriage altogether for some time.  I still believe that this will ultimately happen, perhaps even in my lifetime, but it’s not very likely to occur within a generation.  Likelihood = 10%

3. Banning of meat consumption – This one isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.  There’s already an established anti-meat contingent in the United States, and the percentage of folks who are vegetarian or vegan continues to rise, while admittedly remaining small for now.  More to the point, per-capita meat consumption in the U. S. may have peaked.  Numerous advocacy groups will be happy to tell you about how harmful eating red meat is to the environment, how inconsiderate and barbaric killing animals for food is, or how evil the major agribusiness companies are.  With all of those factors in place, does anyone seriously doubt that this issue will get major traction once a critical mass (there’s that term again!) of Americans doesn’t eat meat?  The only problem is that it’s going to take more than a generation for us to get to that number, if we do at all.  Consider that at least three out of four Americans are non-smokers, yet we’ve only begun hammering away in earnest on that group in the past twenty years.  At least ten percent of the country will have to back the idea of a meatless society before this becomes fodder for, say, presidential debates.  I think this will happen eventually as well, but twenty years is a fairly aggressive timetable for a country that eats a ton—or, many, many, many tons, actually—of animal products.  Likelihood = 15%

4. General nutrition law – This is somewhat related to the substance of #3, but much more plausible.  We’re already seeing the beginnings of this in a very limited way.  What I’ve got in mind here goes far beyond mere labeling (which most of us disregard anyway).  I’m referring more to the broad idea that society has a reasonable expectation for its citizens to be healthy.  After all, we’ll probably have to provide for healthcare through tax dollars, which gives us a “stake” in the health of our fellow Americans.  Moreover, this argument goes, we have a collective right to improve the health of our country for the sake of the common good or the general welfare of our people.  This movement will begin with kids, possibly with a ban of some type on the amount of sugar that may be legally sold to children, perhaps leading to an outright ban for children under a certain age.  The blueprint for this already exists, as certain food dyes have been banned under a “harmful to children” rationale (and advocates want more banned for everyone).  Chemicals and additives are a short leap from other kinds of ingredients.  With the proverbial foot in that door, it will be much easier to add regulations about what must be done to food (or what may not be done to food) before it reaches the marketplace.  This could take the form of minimal nutrition requirements, or perhaps maximum limits on things like per-weight fat content or salt.  What fascinates me most about this topic is that many of the same people who have advocated the position that there is no collective, societal right to interfere with what someone else does to their own body will be first in line to assert a collective right to prevent ingestion of, e.g., sugary beverages.  Likelihood = 80%

5. Legalization (or decriminalization) of hard drugs – I take it as a given that marijuana will be almost-universally decriminalized in short order.  But what about hard drugs?  The extreme libertarian position would hold that everything should be legal as a matter of principle.  Those on the left might support this idea because of their own discomfort with the War on Drugs, particularly its effects on non-whites.  There’s also the seductive example of Portugal, which decriminalized mere possession of hard drugs (while still retaining punishment for other drug-related activity) with some positive results.  I’m always cautious in accepting a small, generally homogeneous European country’s model as applicable to the United States, however (see also Iceland and education).  In spite of these persuasive forces, I still can’t help but think that the boogeyman of the ease of overdosing on a drug like heroin—or even dying during your first experience with the drug—will be enough to fight off libertarian arguments.    Likelihood = 20%

6.  Criminalizing hate speech – We take our right to free speech as a given in the United States, but, in other parts of the world, speech restrictions are the norm.  Anti-blasphemy laws are common, as are laws criminalizing or censoring criticism of the government or national symbols.  Even among Western-style democracies, though, we’re unusual.  Aside from Japan[3], most democratic, industrialized nations outside the United States have restrictions on “offensive” speech that range from significant to moderate.  Canada and Europe have criminalized forms of hate speech for years.  Some left-leaning intellectuals and academics who otherwise support free expression nonetheless believe that hate speech should not be protected by the First Amendment.  The problem I see with this is that most of the people pushing for the banning of hate speech are also the people who have the most expansive definition of what constitutes “offensive” expression.  That’s a dangerous combination.  Consider how free speech is treated on college campuses, or how the media reacts with tacit approval when someone loses his livelihood after expressing an “offensive” opinion or unwittingly using a poor choice of wording.  The take-home point is that there’s something like a consensus among elites that sacrificing territory at the edges of free speech is a worthy sacrifice if it leads to the expression of fewer ideas those elites find to be offensive.  Fortunately, the First Amendment serves as a fairly strong shield against any measures to put those feelings into practice outside of academia.  Absent an earth-shattering Supreme Court case in the next two decades, this will very likely not come to pass.  However, the force of the notion of restricting speech in a private context, thanks to the dominance of HR departments, lawyers, and special-interest groups, will continue to strengthen.  Likelihood = 15%

7. Further marginalization of religion – This one overlaps a bit with #6 in that it touches upon First Amendment principles.  The distinction is that, unlike free speech jurisprudence, the general trend of religion cases has been toward legal acceptance of stronger barriers between government and theism.  Even though a huge majority of Americans say they believe in God, the fact that’s somewhat obscured is that, while support remains wide, it isn’t quite as deep as it was a couple of generations ago.  That’s significant because I don’t believe it will take a an outright rejection of religion for an erosion of religious liberties to occur.  Apathy will be enough.  Most people like me—people who go to church once or twice a year, who aren’t particularly religious, but who still believe in God—won’t be the ones willing to fight that battle.  Again, we return to the issue of who has more at stake in the conflict.  That’s why strident atheists or those who believe strongly in the total separation of church and state don’t have to reach a huge number of supporters to achieve their critical mass.  Having said all that, they still have to deal with the First Amendment.  Even with the trends breaking in their favor, excising religion from American culture through the law is probably impossible in the short-term.  One thing that will begin to change will be more agnostics, atheists, or non-religious theists being elected to public office.  Partially as a result, we’ll hear something from at least a few legislators (as opposed to mere interest groups or plaintiffs) about symbolic measures like getting “In God We Trust” off of currency or removing “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance within the next generation, but anything beyond that is a stretch.  Likelihood = 25%

8. Full amnesty for all illegal immigrants – This is one of the easier calls on the list.  Two forces are at work that will give this the needed momentum sooner rather than later.  First, there’s the clear demographic shift.  Hispanics are now the largest minority in the United States.  The percentage of the overall population that is Hispanic has nearly tripled since 1980.  Given that this segment of the population is overwhelmingly dissatisfied with even President Obama’s handling of immigration and deportation matters, it stands to reason that they won’t suddenly begin to support stronger border controls anytime soon.  The second force is the irresistible urge politicians have to pander.  Pandering to minority groups is the easiest form of the practice.  So, whereas politicians today can still get traction by claiming to be tough on immigration, or at least claiming that they’ll push for immigration reform, that probably won’t even be an option in another ten years.  I’m almost certain we’ll get some form of amnesty (or an equivalent practice, possibly euphemistically-named so as not to upset conservative voters).  Likelihood = 90%

9. Unprecedented forms of wealth redistribution – You can call the current resentment of the wealthy whatever you like, but, whether you reject the term “class warfare” or not, there’s a clear message being drummed into our collective heads: The wealthy have “too much,” they’re to be resented for that fact, and many of our nation’s problems would be solved if they would simply give it to people who have less.  A commentary on the propriety of that view may be fodder for another column, but the important thing to note here is that many Americans—especially young people—have bought it.  So, before the pendulum swings back the other way, I think we’ll have some very aggressive income redistribution policies in place, ranging from obvious things like higher income tax on the very wealthy to other measures like quasi-socialist student loan repayment plans.  In the 1980’s and 90’s, the presumption was strongly with right-leaning principles regarding income-earning, hard work, etc.  This was a shift from the late 60’s and 70’s mentality.  Likewise, we’re now entering a period where financial problems are viewed as systemic and inescapable in the absence of government intervention.  The wealthy (in the abstract) and successful companies and institutions are seen as the problem, not the potential solution.  Feelings will shift back again eventually, but, until they do, the rich will take some lumps to an undetermined extent.  The only thing mitigating against this is the increasingly short American attention span.  Likelihood = 75%

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive.  But these could be several of the topics about which the cable news (or streaming equivalent) panelists and pundits (or their robotic equivalents) will be screaming in the year 2018 or 2025 or 2032.

See you there, mis amigos.


[1] And, to take the metaphor a step further: Let’s say the best food in the world is considered to be lobster.  Eventually, you and your friends eat all the lobster.  No more lobster.  Your kids will still be hungry, even though you’ve eaten all the lobster.  And, no matter what, they’ll believe that whatever it is they’re eating is just as good as lobster.  Why?  Because they have to in order to give their lives meaning.  No one wants to believe that the objectively important things predated their birth, so they’ll make whatever is happening at the time subjectively important.
[2] A good example of this is anti-smoking regulations.  We’ve known about the health risks of smoking since the late 50’s (if not earlier), but we didn’t collectively begin to make major pushes to ban smoking in many different kinds of locales until the decline in the percentage of smokers crossed a certain threshold that allowed for the political expedience of that sort of reform.  Put simply, if too many people belong to a group that will resist a particular reform, it becomes exceedingly difficult to do it.  Even when smoking was known to be a health hazard, there were too many people who participated in the activity (or who were culturally accepting of it) to push too hard against that group.  Where the critical mass is for a given issue depends as much on attitudes by the majority about the topic as it does the number of people in the minority.  To wit, it’s much easier for the non-smoking majority to condone (or at least stomach) condemnation of the minority in this instance than it would be if the minority in question were designated by some characteristic that would be more sympathetic, such as mental illness or poverty.
[3] Which makes sense, because we essentially wrote their constitution for them in 1946.
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4 Responses to Nine Issues That May Frame the Next Generation of Political Debate

  1. Very thought provoking. I could quibble about the percentages you’ve assigned to some perhaps but I agree all could easily become issues du jour.

  2. Tom Garrett says:

    Had I picked a tenth topic, it likely would have been something to do with football becoming too much of a legal liability for many school systems (and possibly even colleges) to continue. Football at the pro level will also look quite different, even if it survives into the 2030’s.

  3. Chad Dreyer says:

    I’m not sure if you were keeping these issues largely domestic-centric (domesentric?), but I would have also thought the continuing erosion of American foreign power projection and/or in conjunction with the continued irrelevance of NATO as a military force.

    It feels to me that once Iraq and Afghanistan are all but withdrawn from (excluding a nominal “training” force) we’ll have little patience or desire (or money) for broad high-cost military interventions, and that this sentiment may reach into pulling out US forces in low-risk areas such as Europe. This momentum may be tough to stop once it starts, and unless the USSR (CCCP) makes a huge Undertaker style resurrection from the grave, couldn’t NATO become the stuff of history books? Or will the excuse of China be the sole reason to keep the old girl around?

    • Tom Garrett says:

      I’m only focused on American politics for the purposes of this article. I contemplated adding military downshifting as one of the topics, but that’s too unpredictable. I think most people in 1993 would have predicted that military spending in 2003 would be dramatically lower, for example.

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