Understanding Political Decay and Its Effects on Society

Matt Harder
7 min readMar 22


Hey hey, ya’ll. This week is the beginning of a project I’ve been meaning to try out for a while. Being as I’m trying to have a positive effect on local governments and civic environments, I thought I would try to read a solid chunk of books on the subject. I’ll still publish weekly and a lot of that content is going to be blog-style posts where I describe what I’m learning and apply it to the “grand thesis”.

Wait, what is the grand thesis? I’m just making up the term now so don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize it. It refers to my conviction that many, most, perhaps all of America’s institutions (if not all of the Wests’s) are in precipitous decline and if we don’t succeed in proactively updating them for the 21st century, then we are at risk governmental breakdown, either of the anarchic or authoritarian sort.

These books will take me at least a year to read, and I’m not sure if I’ll write blogs for the entire thing. The order goes from top left to bottom right. A nice Fukuyama sandwich. I’ll probably swap a few books out as I go, and abandon any that I don’t like so that I don’t get bogged down.

My reading list for the project

Speed reading

One of the things I’m doing to get through this is learning to speed read. I’m just using an app on my phone called “Outread.” So far it’s very hard and gives me a headache each time I practice for more than ten minutes. It’s helping me get through the material faster, though I find myself skimming a lot more.

The Urgency

Here’s a looming question for you to ponder: Is the class of people currently in power capable of steering America into a thriving future with our freedoms intact? I’m referring to the entire US elite: Republicans, Democrats, Deep State bureaucrats, lobbyists, media elite, think-tank technocrats, those types.

Personally, I fear they are not. I suspect most of them don’t even trust the population or even truly believe in freedom, democracy, capitalism, rationalism, and science- aka the Western values. Instead, many of them worship power and authority by any means. We see good examples with the Covid response, or in the Twitter files, or in the way we start and conduct wars often based on fabrications. Information is hidden from the population. What are officially true and officially false whipsaw back and forth with little to no explanation. We are not treated as partners in democracy, but as subjects whose only job is to comply with the mandates of those in charge.

This is a very weak form of leadership and it creates a resentful and distrustful population. It generates it’s own resistance and it won’t last. So what’s needed is an entire theory of how institutions should be remade for the modern internet age for the benefit of the population, not those in charge. We need institutions that are transparent, responsive, and that place the citizen in their rightful role as a collaborator on equal footing with the government.

So I will be reading these books and each week I will take out at least one idea that interests me and discuss it in some detail.

The Origins of Political Order — Francis Fukuyama

This week I began The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. It’s part one in a two-part series that describes human government from the earliest forms of tribal organization to the present day American empire. Part 1 gets us from prehistory to the French Revolution.

I’m 100 pages in and have finished a section called “Before the State.” It covers tribal and clan group formation based on familial lines. As we know, this was how we lived until the state arrived and outcompeted it.

The topic that I want to highlight for this post is “political decay.” Here’s a brief summary:

Political decay

“Political decay occurs when political systems fail to adjust to changing circumstances. There is something like a law of conservation of institutions… When the surrounding environment changes and new challenges arise, there is often a disjunction between existing institutions and present needs. Those institutions are supported by legions of entrenched stakeholders who oppose any fundamental change.”

From what I can tell, it’s something like a broad theory for why governance systems go from order to chaos.

I’m fascinated by political decay because, understood correctly, it could help us zero in on why so many of our institutions are suffering from an inability to adapt to the modern era. “Political decay” is the key conceptual fulcrum because in its absence its easy to fool ourselves into thinking if government is simply big enough or well-funded enough, it can tackle the challenges facing our society.

Political decay helps us understand why we can have the largest and most well funded government in history and still have crumbling infrastructure, and ballooning homelessness. It helps us understand why California, whose economy is bigger than almost every European country, has completely failed at building high speed rail. It helps you understand why you can spend far more on healthcare than every other OECD nation and get worse health outcomes, and spend as much as top tier nations on education but wind up in the middle of the pack.

It’s political decay, and it’s a drag on everything.

Consider this a recipe for political decay. Short term fixes that corrupt institutions, give in to entrenched interests, and eventually bankrupt and delegitimize the state.

The above list of examples of political decay is my own. Below are a few mentioned by Fukuyama in the book, just to give you a feel for how he sees it.

Ballooning debt:

The United States faces a series of large challenges, mostly related to fixing its long-term fiscal situation. Over the past generation, Americans have spent money on themselves without paying their own way through taxation, a situation that has been exacerbated by years of too-easy access to credit and overspending on both a household an governmental level. The long-term fiscal shortfall and foreign indebtedness threaten the very basis of American power around the world, as other countries like China gain in relative stature.”

The Origins of Political Order was written 12 years ago and the size of the debt has increased dramatically since its publication. It’s worth noting that American indebtedness has gotten so out of control that neither political party seems to even want to address it. The inevitable result of such recklessness is inflation and eventually losing our status as the world reserve currency. Our political elites are going to sacrifice the greatest economic advantage a country can have because they lack the strength to act responsibly in the present.

Interest groups:

The American political system’s ability to deal with its fiscal challenges is affected not just by the Left-Right polarization of Congress but also by the growth and power of entrenched interest groups. Trade unions, agri-business, drug companies, banks, and a host of other organized lobbies often exercise an effective veto on legislation that hurts their pocketbooks.

We don’t often think of interest groups causing harm to our democracy, but Fukuyama points out that there’s a point at which they get too strong, and cause the government to stop working for the people.

He goes on to list the loss of compromise in congress, increasing polarization and populism among regular Americans, decreasing social mobility, and manipulation of the government by the financial services industry in the 2008 crash as further examples of political decay.

So what?

“There is no automatic mechanism by which political systems adjust themselves to changing circumstances.

This problem does not fix itself, but instead can get caught in a negative feedback loop.

“Once a society fails to confront a major fiscal crisis through serious institutional reform, as the French monarchy did after the failure of the Grand Parti in 1557, it is tempted to resort to a host of short-term fixes that erode and eventually corrupt its own institutions. These fixes involved giving in to various entrenched stakeholders and interest groups, who invariably represented people with wealth and power in French society. The failure to balance the country’s budget led to bankruptcy and the delegitimization of the state itself, a course that finally terminated in the French Revolution.” (emphasis mine)

Consider that a recipe for political decay. Short term fixes that corrupt institutions, give in to entrenched interests, and eventually bankrupt and delegitimize the state.


Friend, I hope you’re still with me. I know this is heavy, and that is enough to turn many people away from looking at it at all.

But does it seem to accurately describe where we are as a culture?

Is it true that political decay exists, that it follows a pattern, and that it leads to an unwinding like the one we are in the midst of it right now? If the answer is “yes” then think of the above like a piece of a map. It may be a low-resolution, sort of crayon map. But it reveals something to us. It locates us and shows us the dangers in our midst. According to history, there are a number of them.

What this fragment of a map does not yet show us is a way out of this dangerous spot. But take heart that we can (and I believe will) find a way out. Someday our institutions will function effectively, social trust will return, and wealth, abundance, and freedom will again be growing for the average person. This is the positive future that awaits us once we reform our decaying political institutions.

If you’re interested in coming along with me on this journey of discovery, please subscribe.

Matt Harder runs the public engagement firm Civic Trust, where he helps cities strengthen their civic environment by helping residents, civic organizations, and local government work together to create public projects. Follow him on Twitter.



Matt Harder

Exploring ways to improve our democracy via technology, the media, and civics. Editor at Beyond Voting. Founder at Civictrust.us