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May 13th, 2012

Sowing The Wind

Brad DeLong asks…

Is American Democracy Broken?

This post on his blog is apparently a talk he gave at the second Berkeley Faculty Club symposium on American Politics and Democracy.  He begins by noting he is out of his comfort zone discussing these matters, being an economist and not a political scientist.  You should read it anyway because he brings to it the same thoughtful, insightful thinking he brings to economics.

I want to quote some of its passages…

An economist is going to start thinking about democracy with Tony Downs’s economic theory of same. First-past-the-post electoral systems and office-seeking politicians should produce a two-party system. Office-seeking candidates simply won’t join any third party because their chances of election will be too small. Only those who want to make some ideological or demonstrative point rather than to actually win office and then make policy–cough, Ralph Nader, cough–will do so. Hence the stable configuration has two parties. And then the two parties hug the center and follow policies attractive to the median voter.

Ideology will matter–politicians do not run purely for love of office but rather to then make the country into what they regard as a better place. There will be swings to the left, to the right, to the up, to the down, to the forward, to the back. But the policy views of the median voter ought, according to Tony Downs, function as a strong attractor and we should not expect the policies implemented by the politicians who get elected to deviate far from them.

Now there are qualifications. It is the median voter, not the median citizen.George W. Bush became president not because his policies came closer to the preferences of the median person who voted on that Tuesday in November but because his policies came closer to the preferences of the median Supreme Court justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor. Gerrymandering and misapportionment–cough, the Senate, cough–matter a lot. But these are qualifications. Tony Downs made a very strong case that first-past-the-post electoral systems will produce policies that the median voter likes. Thus in this sense the electorate gets the government it deserves. If there are problems, the problems are in the minds of the voters rather than in the Democratic system.

That is the economist’s not theory, not analysis, but rather prejudice. theory. Political scientists will scorn it as hopelessly naïve. But it is the benchmark from which I start.

In a democracy…in a healthy functional democracy, the middle will act as a check on the extremes. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, like when the middle position still favors segregation of the races and the second class status of women as it did here in the 1950s.  But the point is the voters generally get the government they asked for, or in H.L. Mencken’s lovely phrase, “Democracy is based on the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

But the middle does not like republican policies. I could go on and on about that but it’s basically a fact that the polls show next to no public support for republican economic policies, which are generally understood to benefit only the richest of the rich. Yet those are the policies we get, often with lackluster democratic opposition, if any. So what happened?

Now let me shift and talk about our experience here in America since I got to Washington in early 1993, carrying spears for Alicia Munnell in Lloyd Benson’s Treasury Department in the Clinton administration.

Clinton was a centrist Democrat. The Clinton administration’s priorities were by and large, with exceptions–gays in the military–what you might call “Eisenhower Republican” priorities. Expand healthcare coverage so there were fewer uninsured and fewer people dumped by ambulances on the corners of the Tenderloin. But also control government healthcare cost which were then ballooning out of control–even though we didn’t know what “ballooning out of control” really meant. Balance the budget. End welfare as we know it–thus buying into the Republican critique of the Depression-era belief that raising children was real work–even if you were not married to a rich husband who was the chief executive of Bain Capital–and a socially-valuable task. Passing NAFTA. Creating the World Trade Organization. Strengthening Social Security through a combination of tax increases, benefit cuts, retirement=age increases, mandated private accounts requiring individuals to contribute their own money over and above Social Security (as an add-on but not a carve-out, as a supplement to and not a substitute for Roosevelt’s New Deal’s Social Security).

All of these seemed to us in the early 1990s to be bang-on the median voter’s preferences, Eisenhower Republicans. Clinton Democrats. We in the Bentsen Treasury at the start of 1993 looked forward to doing an awful lot of technocratic work–cranking out centrist legislation approved by large bipartisan majorities.

We found Republicans cooperative on NAFTA.

We found Republicans pushing for welfare reform–but only to the extent of passing things that were so highly punitive that they could not believe any Democratic president could in good conscience sign them. But Clinton fooled them. He signed welfare reform–and then spent some time in 1996 campaigning on the message: “re-elect me because only I can undo some of the damage that I have done to the welfare system”. Which was true. And which he did.


That was the old game. Hammer out compromise legislation and move on because at the end of the day what was important to both sides was keeping the country strong and prosperous, even if they had different ideas of how to go about that, even if it meant their individual constituencies didn’t get everything they wanted. Everyone agreed at the end of the day that the government still had to function and it’s work needed to get done.

But notice how the center as defined by Bill Clinton was by then way further to the right on economic policy then it was at any time since The New Deal. What was happening was since Watergate the republicans had become more radicalized and the democrats just kept playing the old game of Find The Center.  And over a span of just a few elections that had moved the center way to the right. What happened next was the logical outcome of that.

Otherwise the Republicans when I got to Washington at the start of 1993 decided that they were going to adopt the Gingrich strategy: oppose everything the Democratic president proposes, especially if it had previously been a Republican proposal and priority. That is not a strategy that would ever be adopted by anybody who wants to see their name written in the Book of Life.

But Gingrich found followers.

And so things that we in the Bentsen Treasury all expected to happen, did not happen. We had expected that sometime between January and June 1994 Lloyd Bentsen’s chief healthcare aide would sit down with Bob Dole’s chief healthcare aide. We had expected that they would hammer out a deal so that people in the future would never be as dependent on on charity for their healthcare as Bob Dole was when he returned injured from World War II.

That meeting never happened. Bob Dole decided he would rather join Gingrich to try to portray Clinton as a failure. So Bob Dole never got a legislative accomplishment out of his years in Congress. Instead, he got to lose a presidential election. And I now remember Bob Dole not as the co-architect of health care reform in 1994 but as somebody who denounced Roosevelt and Truman for getting us into those Democrat wars that saved Europe from the Nazis, China and the rest of Asia from Imperial Japan, and that have allowed South Koreans to grow five inches taller than their North Korean cousins.

As my friend Mark Schmitt wrote in his review of Geoffrey Kabaservice’s book about the moderate Republicans, Rule and Ruin, the moderate Republicans were partisan Republicans first and Americans second…

Exactly.  He goes on to give an account of this just getting worse and worse, first with Clinton and the impeachment circus, then, massively so, with president Obama.

Then came Obama in 2009 and 2010. My friends–Christina Romer, Lawrence Summers, Peter Orszag, and company–headed off to Washington to plan a Recovery Act that they thought would get 25 Republican votes in the Senate. It was a squarely bipartisan fiscal stimulus: this tax cut to make the Republicans stand up and applaud, this infrastructure increase to make the Democrats applaud, this increase in aid to the states to make the governors and state legislators applaud.

It didn’t get 25 Republican votes in the Senate. It got 3.

On healthcare reform, Barrack Obama’s opening bid was the highly-Republican Heritage Foundation plan, the plan that George Romney had chosen for Massachusetts.

RomneyCare got zero republican votes.

On budget balance Obama’s proposals have not been the one-to-one equal amounts of tax increases and spending cuts to balance the budget of Clinton 1993 or Bush 1990. Obama’s proposals have been more along the lines of $1 of tax increases for every $5 of spending cuts.

And the Republicans rejected them

And so on…  DeLong starts the time of the breaking of our democracy with Gingrich.  That’s likely because he saw it first hand there in Washington.  But Gingrich was the next logical outcome down a course the republicans have been relentlessly following since Nixon and the Southern Strategy.

In the years after the civil war and the first and second world wars, we thought of ourselves as one country. Regardless of where people stood on the left/right spectrum there was this general sense that at the end of the day we were all Americans and there was a love of country that moderated all but the lunatic fringe. Nixon understood that this e pluribus unum mindset would leave a party that by then existed simply to represent the interests of big business, the rich and the powerful in a permanent minority status.

Working Americans were fine with The New Deal.  As long as the prosperity of the working class was rising the tide for the upper classes too the republican establishment was fine with just tinkering around the edges.  But it couldn’t last.  Eisenhower was conservative on many social issues, weak on civil rights and civil liberties, but not overtly hostile as the Nixon/McCarty branch of the party was. He was the last of the moderate republicans who believed that a healthy middle class was necessary to the vitality of the economy and the security of the United States.

Nixon hated the elites, the intellectuals, the liberals.  He positioned himself as the champion of the common man against the elites.  But it was those elites who had improved the status of the common man, and now threatened to do the same for women and minorities. Nixon was no great friend to the rich and powerful either, but as they would decades later in a man called Dubya they saw in Nixon’s paranoia and bottomless hatred someone who might just break the New Deal coalition of labor, rural and urban voters. And then they could go back to what they were doing back in Hoover’s Day…getting rich quick in the Wall Street casino.

Divide the country and we’ll have the bigger half Pat Buchanan told Nixon.  But without a doubt Nixon took that advice because he was already considering it.  Divisive pit American against American campaigning had been his method of winning elections since his first run for congress.  They simply scaled the Nixon technique up and made it a permanent American against American cold war. Very deliberately they sought to replace in the working class voter love of country with love of tribe.  No more of this e pluribus unum communist socialist nonsense.  And like Gingrich would decades later, they found allies.  White blue collar workers who hated black people.  Males resentful toward independent women.  Rural voters who loathed big city people with their big city morals and ideas.  Poor people jealous of union workers with their union paychecks.  Christian fundamentalists who loath the people in the church across the street.

When you got right down to it, America was a country of the imagination only.  It wasn’t a nation by blood and ancestry.  Our shared history is very brief compared to what the peoples of Europe, Asia and South America see as their own.  The United States is a nation based on a political ideal of liberty and justice for all. The social contract was simply that we had each others backs when it came to that liberty and justice for all thing. Your freedom in the pursuit of happiness is as dear to me as my own. We are all Americans.  As long as that held true a party of the rich and powerful would never win very many elections or wield enough power to impose its will on the majority.  But the New Deal majority was a coalition of many diverse parts of working America and the republicans became expert at playing them against each other, that they might rule over all.

When Scott Walker was caught talking about using a divide and conquer strategy he wasn’t just talking about himself or just breaking the unions: this has been the essential republican strategy for gaining and keeping power since Nixon. Divide the country, set working American against working American, and in the end the rich and powerful take all. And it’s worked.

One thing I have learned from watching the Wall Street boys run the country is they’re not very good at it, and at some level they might even know they’re not very good at it.  But they don’t care about running the country, they just want to get it out of their way so they can chase some more money.  It’s all about the money chase with them.  When the economy tanks, when the stock market goes bust, when banks and businesses go bankrupt right and left, they blame everyone but themselves.  They’re like a bunch of drunk drivers convinced they’re fit to drive because they haven’t killed anyone yet, and when they do it was an accident and it was dark and that pedestrian just jumped right out in front of them and they didn’t mean to do it so stop treating them like criminals.  Once upon a time the nation had laws against their sort of drunk driving. Those laws were there to protect the rest of us. But those law got in their way.   Who are you to tell me I can’t drink and drive…it’s my car and my taxes paid for the highway and if I can’t drink and drive then it’s not a free country and all you other drivers on the road are socialists.

The money chase is all they care about. The New Deal coalition got in their way so they set about busting it apart. If in the process of doing that they ripped America apart too and put the nation at risk of catastrophic social upheaval that isn’t important. If once the brakes are off their reckless driving crashes the economy to smithereens and the lives of honest hard working Americans are destroyed and the future strength and security of the nation is placed in jeopardy that isn’t important.  They don’t care about America. They are citizens of the stock market.

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