How They Did It

Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (Yale University Press, 272 pages, $25.00)

Most observers expected at the beginning of 2001 that George W. Bush would pursue a moderate course in office. Some thought he would do so because they'd been duped by the faux-moderation of his “compassionate conservative” campaign. Most, however, calculated that simple pragmatism would dictate a moderate presidency. With Bush losing the popular vote to Al Gore (despite a strong showing by Ralph Nader to the vice president's left), the 2000 election showed little indication of popular appetite for a dramatic shift to the right. Republicans retained both chambers of Congress, but their margins were narrow and growing narrower. The American system is generally resistant to large-scale change, and the politics of the situation indicated that even if Republicans succeeded in pushing through their agenda, they would pay a heavy price come election day.

Needless to say, it hasn't worked out like that. Why and how domestic policy has shifted so far right in recent years is the story of Off Center -- by Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker, political scientists at Yale and Berkeley, respectively -- and it isn't a pretty one. Little in their analysis is genuinely original, but the synthesis is executed with a deft balance of grace and rigor. The rise of what they term the New Power Brokers -- the network of para-partisan conservative institutions and their leaders -- has filled the ranks of the Republican congressional caucus with a group that's much more uniformly conservative than in generations past. On the Hill, GOP leaders have succeeded in creating the most cohesive, disciplined congressional party in American history. Moderate Republicans have either been crushed or else are faking their moderation in the most crucial respects. And a hyper-empowered group of corporate managers and super-rich individuals is running amok through federal policy. Changes in the tax code are redistributing wealth upward even as underlying economic trends push toward inequality. Regulations are rolled back, or simply not implemented. Federal spending remains high, but much of it is being redirected away from the public good and into the coffers of Republican-allied businesses and constituencies. Rather than suffer a backlash at the hands of the voters, the designers of this agenda have been rewarded, repeatedly, with election victories and expanded majorities.

The obvious explanation -- embraced by conservatives, most of the power-worshiping press, and even a few liberals -- is that this is, in some sense, what the American people want. Perhaps the book's most effective passages are those dedicated to briefly and devastatingly refuting this theory. Not only does polling show specific Republican policies to be unpopular in their details; on broader questions of national priorities, opinion has shifted somewhat left in the past 25 years, and generic ideological self-identification has been remarkably stable. Nor, as Thomas Frank has asserted, is good governance being swept away on a rising tide of false consciousness. Though still low by world standards, class polarization in American voting patterns is increasing and has never been higher than in recent years.

Instead, Republican legislative success has been astonishingly dependent on what a layman would call “lying,” or, as Pierson and Hacker put it, “the careful design of public policies to highlight some effects and beneficiaries and downplay others.” Dishonesty has, of course, always played a role in politics. But today's right does not -- or at least does not only -- lie to cover up misdeeds or embarrassing facts but governs by fundamentally misrepresenting the nature of its policy objectives. Chapter Two uses the 2001 tax cuts as a case study. Along with simple public misstatements of fact, the administration structured the cuts to include a complicated series of phase-ins and sunsets to obscure both their true cost and their distributive consequences. Later battles to cancel the scheduled phaseouts could then be framed as efforts to forestall large tax increases rather than as what they in fact are: further large tax cuts.

Most boldly, the changes to the tax code, though implying large future reductions in social outlay, were not paired with any offsetting spending cuts. Along with abuse of the conference-committee process and refusal to allow votes on alternative proposals, this strategy exploits low levels of political awareness among the general public to obscure the relationship between cause and effect and allow politicians to evade accountability for their actions.

Beyond subtle manipulation of the policy process, contemporary elites are likewise sheltered from accountability by broad elements of the political system. Partisan gerrymandering allowed Bush to win a majority of House districts (227 out of 435) with a bit less than 48 percent of the popular vote. Under the current apportionment, that 48 percent would give Bush almost 55 percent of congressional districts. The Senate is naturally gerrymandered to favor Republicans, and the rising cost of political campaigns both advantages the party of wealth and entrenches incumbency by reducing the number of competitive races.

As a result, the traditional centrist and “small-c” conservative cast of American politics has eroded, producing not so much the “polarization” of finger-wagging pundits as great policy leaps to the right unaccompanied by any such shift in public opinion. Rather than make the case on the merits against the consequences of all this, Hacker and Pierson portray it as an erosion of democracy itself, yet the brute policy effects and disturbing implication that formulating more appealing alternatives is neither necessary nor sufficient to reverse them should be sufficiently unnerving to alarm even those disinclined to accept the claim.

But if the authors' analysis of the country's present predicament is a tour de force, their briefer efforts to outline a path forward is less satisfying. The reforms on the table here -- concerning labor law, election and campaign rules, and congressional procedure, among others -- are largely worthy ideas. Under present conditions, however, enacting them into law or even getting a serious hearing for them is impossible, precisely as a result of the factors the rest of Off Center lays out. Hacker and Pierson explicitly acknowledge this problem but don't resolve it.

Fortunately, the political situation may not be quite as bleak as the book makes it seem. The authors are both scholars of the welfare state in their academic work, and consequently give short shrift -- indeed, almost no shrift at all -- to the politics of national security. They argue, correctly, that September 11 was not the fundamental cause of America's great leap right, citing the current situation's antecedents in the behavior of the Clinton-era congressional Republicans and the passage of the first Bush tax cut before the terrorist strikes.

Nevertheless, the revived prominence of national security as a campaign issue has fairly clearly been a necessary condition for the viability of the Republican strategy. Despite all the gimmicks, lies, and structural biases of the system, recent elections have been close ones, and both Bush's margin of victory in 2004 and the Republican gains of 2002 depended on the GOP's large advantage on security. These problems are, of course, outside the scope of the book, but resolving them is likely a necessary precondition for addressing the dangerous trends at home that Hacker and Pierson identify.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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