Summary: Please read this in full. Although it opens slowly, Brad DeLong (Prof Economics, Berkeley) gains power as he goes. In summary, it’s brilliant description of the decay of the American political system.
Is American Democracy Broken?
by Brad DeLong (Professor of Economics, Berkeley), 3 May 2012 — Excerpt:
I am here somewhat under false pretences. I am not a political scientist. I am an economist. And, with this topic, I feel myself outside my comfort zone.
What I have to say is made up of two parts: The first part is an economist’s not theories or analyses but rather prejudices about how modern democracy should work. The second part is my reflection on both my experience of serving as a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury for economic policy in the Clinton administration and from watching as my friends went to Washington in the Obama administration, in what seemed to me to be at times a bizarre surrealistic remix of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.
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.
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. … 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.
Otherwise the Republicans when I got to Washington at the start of 1993 decided that they were going to adopt the Gingridge 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. 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. … 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.
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.
Controlling global warming? Doing something to deal something to deal with our increasingly unequal and outsized income distribution? Strengthening financial regulation so that things like the 2008-9 financial crisis do not happen again? No republican votes for any proposals on any of these issue areas under any circumstances, not even when the proposals Obama makes were baked in republican think tanks even five years ago.
What’s going on? I look around and I see a number of things:
- I see a press core that is unconcerned with policy substance and the future of America and devotes itself to calling politics like a basketball game …
- An electorate that in my fears appears to want to be led by a strong or a competent leader …
- … everybody below the top 5% of the American income distribution today is not living any better than their predecessors did a generation ago. … For the top 5% things are better. For the rest of us, it looks as though they are not.
- Right now, for every 13 workers in America, we have one person who would be working in normal times — who was working back in 2007 — and who now is not working. … At the moment more people still think that this is George W. Bush’s fault than think that it is Barack Obama’s. But everyone agrees it is the governments fault somehow — although they are not sure how.
Is this broken democracy? Does our politics still work? I am just an economist. …
Comments posted about this at DeLong’s website
Omega Centauri (link here):
I think Joe comes closest to the prime cause. A democracy requires a well informed and clear thinking citizenry. We don’t have this anymore. Perhaps we never had it, but at least the sophistication of well funded agents with an agenda was low enough to have limited success.
Now we have very well endowed political agencies -mistakingly called think tanks. They use the latest cognitive and marketing science to design programs to move the citizenry in the direction choosen by their billionaire founders. The money is so great, and the damage that can be done to one’s reputation if these forces decide that your reputation needs to be destroyed, that the media is cowed into largely telling the stories that these well endowed organizations have.
On top of that, the information transmission business, has discoverd its really an entertainment business, and all the attributes of successful story telling (drama, emotion, avoidance of analysis) come into play. So now its largely become a matter of a few well endowed institutions, who were endowed by crotchety aging billionaires to push the political center as far as possible in the direction the founders favored, pushing the Overton window as hard as possible.
Dave (link here)
… Rather than view our political system as representing a set of classes, people have come to view it as representing a set of values. No matter which set of values a person agrees with, the parties that claim to support those values both support crony capitalism and increased oppression of workers. If a person doesn’t believe in handouts, they’ll vote against handouts for themselves, but because they don’t understand what a corporate handout is, they’ll also vote FOR corporate handouts. Their values don’t align with the reality of the outcome because they don’t understand the effects beyond their own class.
They’ll tell you they don’t like handouts, but they support handouts to the rich with glee. They don’t think they do, but they don’t understand it. They have been brainwashed into believing that the rich wouldn’t be where they are unless they worked really, really hard. This is mostly not true.
Bloix (link here)
American democracy has never “worked” in the sense of providing an elected government that accurately reflects the either the actual or perceived interests of a majority of Americans. The Constitution was never intended to that, and it has never managed to do it by accident.
American democracy has “worked” spectacularly well in the sense of providing a stable, self-perpetuating governmental structure that has overseen a growth in geographical size, population, wealth, innovation, and personal freedom unparalleled in the history of the world in a nation of equivalent size – and also in creating the world’s largest and most powerful informal empire.
What we are seeing now is the failure of American democracy to “work” in the second sense. This is the third such failure in our history. The first resulted in the Civil War; the second led to a massive change in the structure and powers of the national government in the New Deal; what will happen this time is anyone’s guess.
For more information about conservatives and the Republican Party
- Let’s play “Name that Liberal”
- Let’s play round 2 of “Name That Liberal”
- Let’s play round 3 of “Name That Liberal”
- Republicans have found a sure-fire path to victory in the November elections, 5 February 2010
- Whose values do Dick and Liz Cheney share? Those of America? Or those of our enemies, in the past and today?, 14 March 2010
- The evolution of the Republican Party has shaped America during the past fifty years, 8 May 2010
- Two contrasting views of the Republican Party, 23 May 2010
- Will people on the right help cut Federal spending?, 19 June 2010
- Conservatives oppose the new START treaty, as they opposed even the earlier version negotiated by Ronald Reagan, 24 July 2010
- The Republicans are serious about the budget. The results could be ugly., 24 November 2010
- Why do Rep Ryan and the Republicans want to gut America’s military defenses?, 14 April 2011
- Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011
- Mitt Romney and the Empire of Hubris. Setting America on a path to decline., 10 October 2011
- Why Republicans Need Remedial Math: Their Budget Plans Explode the Deficit, 16 March 2012