Not just political division: the economic component of our national problems

The midterm elections were almost two months ago, but that’s not going to stop me from posting this roundup of perceptive comments about them.

My friend Rick posted an article about evangelical turnout and shared some thoughts about the role of Christians in elections:

Christians voted in large measure because we are a nation that houses many Christians. When Christians are unmotivated, their voting turnout is mediocre and Liberals start to think we are a Middle-Left country. Liberals are guilty of overreading elections and proceed hard left, like in 2006 and 2008. When Christians are motivated and vote, we are reminded that we are a Middle-Right country, like 2000, 2004, and now in 2010. It’s true that a 30% voting block will hold a lot of sway over elections that are determined by 5 points or less. President Obama knew this and worked hard for the Evangelical vote in 2008. He was realistic and knew that if he could just flip even 5% of the Evangelical vote, it could lead to victories in some battleground states.

My friend Joel compares the elections of 2008 and 2010 in a way that makes a lot of sense to me:

The voters rejected the Republicans as hypocrites and took out their vengeance for bad economic times on them. What they did not do, by and large, was endorse the Democratic agenda of a large welfare state, unlimited abortion and other radical notions. Many GOP voters probably stayed home in 2008 out of anger or disgust.The Democrats, however, interpreted the results as a sweeping wave that affirmed their agenda and was ushering in a new Rooseveltian or Great Society vision of the country. As George Will wrote, all they were in 2008 was “not George Bush.” The Democrats assumptions of generational and demographic realignment were wrong.

Christopher Beam explores the back-and-forth swings between parties in Slate, and thinks that the prophecies of triumph for one party don’t make sense any more:

But the last few years should put predictions of permanent anything to rest. The key data point: Voters appear to have voted Democrats out for the same reasons they voted Republicans out before. And those reasons don’t appear to be going away. Foremost is the bad economy. (As we constantly reiterate but never seem to process, the economy is the No. 1 factor in electoral outcomes.) Voters didn’t examine Bush’s economic policies and dismiss them, only to examine Obama’s economic policies and dismiss them. They’re just responding to hard times. As long as times stay hard, voters will punish incumbents. The economy may recover in the short term, but the need to address the long-term national debt means that future presidents and Congresses will have to make much more difficult decisions than the current leaders—and will probably be punished for it.

Have we entered a new era of seesaw government, constantly switching back and forth between parties? It seems likely: The speed of the media makes voters impatient about how quickly politicians can get things done. The spike in partisanship—just look at filibuster usage over time—makes it harder for the party in power to pass legislation. Voters are therefore more likely than ever to dismiss a president as ineffectual and a Congress as “do-nothing”—even if they’ve done quite a bit.

What would that mean for how the parties behave? Two things, both bad. It means the party in power will be less ambitious, since it knows the opposition will misrepresent any accomplishments and a fickle public will punish them for it. (Exhibit A: Harry Reid saying he’s open to trimming back parts of health care reform.) And it means the minority party will resist cooperation so as to take advantage of voters’ discontent with the majority. (Exhibit B: John Boehner’s speech Tuesday night, in which he declined to name concrete goals.)

Walter Russell Mead had some good pre-election commentary here and offers his take on the Obama presidency thus far here.  From the first:

The presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 were both fought out over the same issue.  Think of America as a car: the Democrats offered a competent and smooth ride to Boston.  Under the accident-prone George W. Bush, the Republicans offered a bumpy ride towards Dallas.  In 2004 and 2008 Democrats attacked Republicans for crashing the car; Republicans attacked Democrats for wanting to take it in the wrong direction.  In 2004, the Democratic argument did not convince.  In 2008, with the economy melting down, it did.  Barack Obama ran as a competent, smooth driver who would make the ride so pleasant and easy that the country wouldn’t much care where he was going. Republicans keep driving off the road, the new President argued, because the roads to Dallas are bad.  Without a vigilant government to invest in infrastructure, superintend the road builders, subsidize ethanol, enforce speed limits and require safety belts, the road to Dallas is a series of disasters waiting to happen.  The road to Boston, on the other hand, has been built by intelligent, credentialed technocrats.  The tolls may be high, the renewable fuel has some problems, and the 35 mile an hour speed limit can be a little irksome, but the road is safe and the ride is smooth.

2010 is shaping up to be a terrible year for Democrats for two reasons: more people are aware of just where the administration wants to take the car, and the ride has turned out much bumpier than advertised.  Competent, professional, cool and cerebral doesn’t seem to be creating many jobs.  If the ride is going to be bumpy and crash prone and we are going to end up in the ditch whichever way we head, voters appear to have concluded that we might as well face Dallas while spinning our wheels….

The real problem for both parties is that the old roads and the old destinations don’t make that much sense anymore.  A global economic upheaval is changing the rules before our eyes.  This can play to America’s greatest strengths: our cultural dispositions favoring flexibility, innovation and hard work.  But we will have to reinvent some of our core institutions to do this, drastically reducing the size and cost of our government, legal, health and educational systems even as we find ways to make them much more productive than ever before.  The old progressive elite of Democrats’ dreams can’t lead us into the promised land — but while Republicans know this much, they haven’t figured out what comes next.

In this uncomfortable, in-between time, voters are turning restlessly from one party to the other.  Right now, unless President Obama starts pulling some rabbits out of his hat (a possibility I do not discount), we are on course for two failed presidencies in a row.  The cycle of voter disenchantment is speeding up; the electorate gave Bush six years before tuning him out.  President Obama risks losing the country’s ear after only two.

In the second, he writes:

The American economy is passing through a painful transition; there is no simple path to rising wages, rising house prices and declining budget deficits from where we now stand.  The core strategies that have guided both political parties and the mainstream establishment since the fall of the Soviet Union are not working very well.  Globalization seems to be making too many Americans less well off and the international environment is becoming more contentious and unstable, not less.  Neither neo-conservatism, liberal internationalism, neo-liberalism nor the Third Way worked as advertised.  The ideas and the policies of American intellectuals left and right seem largely inadequate and even irrelevant to both our foreign and domestic problems.  President Obama is not the cause of this systemic crisis in the American Project, but the public judges him by how well he copes with it.

I’ve been saving these for a while, but I never got around to actually publishing it because there was something more that I wanted to say.  I think that there are two major reasons that we find ourselves with a political system that’s become a meat grinder for whatever party occupies the seats of power.  We see this as both of our major parties come into office, think that they have a mandate (see Joel and Rick’s comments above), and then wind up turning off the electorate pretty quickly.

I tried to detail the most obvious reason here, the political-cultural divide about what kind of country we want to be and the resulting political culture of ultra-politicization and denunciation.  One party’s victory is also an impetus for the other side to organize and pounce on the other side’s failings.

But I think that there is a second component that prevents either party from convincing the electorate of its competence: the fact that the American economy is no longer at the center of the world economy, as it was from the time after World War II until about 1970.  This means that neither party’s economic philosophy can result in the same golden prosperity of the postwar period.  Democrats think that the cooperation of big labor, big business, and big government (what Walter Russell Mead calls the “blue model”) can get us back there; think of how many times you hear Democratic politicians say it was Republican deregulation that destroyed our prosperity.  Republicans think that it’s all about reducing suffocating  government regulations and lowering taxes, and of course Reagan is their hero.  But with all of deregulation and tax cuts since 1981 we still have a lot of economic anxiety.  I’d say that this is because the postwar period was unique and with the global economy we aren’t going to be at the center of the world economy again in the foreseeable future.

It’s possible that this economic component is hidden by the high stakes of the culture war discourse.  After all, both sides promise a return to prosperity if we follow their formulas, and these formulas are bound up with the moral visions of both sides of the cultural divide.  Republicans trumpet individual responsibility and economic freedom as the foundations of prosperity, while the Democrats call for a state empowered to protect the vulnerable and blunt the less pleasant outcomes of capitalism.  Also, it’s possible that if we did return to a more permanent prosperity, we wouldn’t even agree that it was prosperity because of the divide in how to measure that.

There’s much more that I could write, but fortunately Walter Russell Mead has written the article that I would like to have written, but would only have been possible for me to write if I had way more knowledge and economic understanding.  Mead seems to be writing some really good stuff these days about the current political situation, and I imagine that I will be passing on more of his observations.



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