The Smoldering Electorate

WORKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY

  • Kevin Phillips, Arrogant Capital (Little Brown, 1994).

  • Jonathan Rauch, Demosclerosis (Times Books, 1994).

  • Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to
    George Bush
    (Belknap Press, 1995).


For well over five years now, accounts of the American mood have used such
descriptions as "sour" and "cranky" and "irritable." After a political stasis
that seemed to give congressional incumbents life tenure, impatient voters
began a housecleaning in 1990. Even before the earthquake of 1994, the 1990 and
1992 elections had produced congressional turnover at levels comparable to such
previous high- water marks as the post-Watergate election of 1974. In 1992 the
voters ended the Republican Party's 12-year reign in the White House and then
two years later handed the new incumbent the worst mid-term defeat since
1946.

Through all this, except for a brief interlude during the Persian Gulf War,
polls registered record high levels of Americans saying the nation was headed
in the "wrong direction." To some in office, the voters' pessimism seemed, if
not inexplicable, at least irrational. After all, they argued, America had won
the Cold War, experienced sustained economic growth during the 1980s, and
conquered the leading economic malady of the 1970s-stubborn inflation. If only
people would stop dwelling on their problems, or perhaps if the news media
would just stop talking so much about them, America's mood would improve.

That stance was the more or less explicit view of most senior officials of the
Bush administration in its last two years, and it proved remarkably unpopular
with voters. It also failed to take into account some real problems, most
notably declining wages for a substantial share of working Americans,
particularly men without college educations, and a badly stressed social fabric
that left many middle-class families, even those who had done well by
conventional measures, feeling that their standard of living had declined.

As those worries came into focus during the 1992 election, analysts in both
parties offered new theories to explain why government had seemed unable to
respond. Many Democratic analysts attributed the problem to gridlock. End
divided government and restore a sense of activism to the executive, and both
the nation's true prospects and the mood of the electorate would brighten-so
they hoped. On the conservative side, some Republican analysts attributed the
problem to the continued dominance of what they viewed as an outmoded liberal
hegemony in Congress. "Clean House," as the GOP slogan went, and the country
would once more return to the right track.

Both of those diagnoses now appear almost quaintly naive. As the record of
Clinton's first two years in office painfully showed, divided government was
only one-and probably not the most significant-of the barriers to effective
responses to the nation's problems. Nor did an end to Democratic control of
Congress usher in a new era of optimism, as some Republicans hoped it would.
After the 1994 election, the percentage of Americans who felt the nation was on
the "right track" did go up. But like the increase after Clinton's election,
this one proved short lived. By the time Newt Gingrich's first 100 days as
Speaker drew to a close, a spate of public opinion polls showed pessimism
reigning once more. In a Los Angeles Times survey in late March, for
example, only 30 percent of respondents said they believed the nation to be on
the "right track"-a sharp decline from polls earlier in the year and a return
to the low levels that had prevailed before. Moreover, the success of the new
Republican Congress in passing portions of its program was greeted with a
steady drop in its public approval ratings. By the time the House and Senate
completed action on the Republican budgetary blueprint in the late spring, a
plurality of Americans in several polls were expressing disapproval of the
GOP's course.

That result should come as little surprise. Most of the legislation passed by
the House in the opening months involved largely symbolic "process" issues that
had a popularity which was wide but not deep. Legislation to apply
workplace-safety laws and similar requirements to Congress, for example,
responded to a gut sense on the part of many voters that members of Congress
had unfairly insulated themselves. But while most Americans support that sort
of change, few give it a high priority for the obvious reason that it has
little direct impact on their lives. (And as cynical voters might suspect, the
bill as passed by Congress and signed into law does not even achieve the
limited goal it claims. Congress will not be directly subject to the scrutiny
of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other regulatory
agencies; anyone expecting to see inspectors descend on the Capitol will be
sorely disappointed.)

As Congress in the next few months plunged into full debate on far more
important, and controversial, legislation, such as proposals to reduce the cost
of Medicare, the already high degree of polarization and volatility in the
electorate predictably grew. That result, in turn, has once more focused
attention on what appears to many to be the central question in American
politics: Just what is it that so many Americans feel has gone wrong with their
political system, and what, if anything, can be done to fix it?


THE NEOPOPULIST

CONFUSION

Even before the great upheavals of the past six months, the persistent sense of
a gap between the nation's needs and the performance of its political system
had brought forth a new set of analyses of what ails us. Three recent books,
one by a well-regarded Washington journalist, a second by a Yale political
scientist, and a third by one of the country's best-known political strategists
and pundits, exemplify the arguments.

During a public career that has lasted for more than a generation, Kevin
Phillips has honed a reputation as an insightful and original political
analyst. In the late 1960s, he correctly surmised that lower-middle-class white
resentments of Democratic policies on civil rights and Vietnam and of the
influence of cultural elites within the party would provide Republicans an
opportunity for victory. That insight helped shape Richard Nixon's successful
"southern strategy" and also propelled Phillips and his first book, The
Emerging Republican Majority
, to prominence.

Twenty years later, Phillips correctly sensed that Republican policies favoring
upward redistribution of income and wealth had gone too far to be politically
sustainable. At a time when most analysts (and Democratic politicians) viewed
George Bush as unbeatable, he predicted Bush's downfall.

In a profession where persistent error is no bar to fame, Phillips's record of
being right twice on major shifts in American politics has justifiably earned
him considerable attention. Nonetheless, his most recent work, Arrogant
Capital
, is a miserable book, an unpersuasive op-ed essay swollen to book
length with overheated rhetoric.



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The book does have a few useful insights. Writing last year, Phillips correctly
predicted that if they gained power, the GOP would push to replace the current
income tax with some form of highly regressive consumption levy-anticipating
such proposals as Senator Richard Lugar's 17 percent national sales tax and
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer's proposal for a
consumption-oriented "flat tax." As Phillips correctly points out, all such
proposals would either shift massive portions of the tax burden away from the
wealthiest 1 percent of households and toward average wage earners or would
rapidly become as complex as the system they propose to uproot. Phillips also
correctly anticipated the public's volatile response to such political changes
as the Republican takeover of Congress. "The frustration among Americans that
has built up since the late 1980s is real and valid, and apparent revivals of
national confidence will only be temporary without changes in the political,
governmental and interest-group system," he writes. Unfortunately, those
points are only tangential to his main thesis.

The central point of Phillips's book, as reflected in his title, is that
America's problems reside almost solely in the capital city itself. Gussied up
with thinly documented parallels to Madrid, Amsterdam, London, and Rome in
their imperial heydays, Phillips proposes that the capitals of major powers
inevitably grow corrupt and decadent and drag down their nations. Having never
read, or forgotten, Mark Twain's account of the Gilded Age, he amazingly writes
that Washington's "transformation" into a sink of corruption "has only been
recent."

Washington, this resident of Bethesda, Maryland, complains, has too many
lawyers, lobbyists, and French restaurants. The city has grown out of touch
with the rest of the nation and has, in particular, fallen into the embrace of
that other great populist bogeyman, the financial powers of Wall Street.
Together, the two forces of arrogant capital have fastened on the backs of a
virtuous citizenry and threaten not only the republic as we know it, but
nothing less than Anglo-American civilization. This juxtaposition of evil
capital and virtuous citizenry echoes complaints as old as Thomas Jefferson's
indictments of the Hamiltonians and as recent as Ross Perot's attacks on
Washington insiders. It is also largely imaginary-a chief point of Jonathan
Rauch's book, Demosclerosis-but Phillips spends little time documenting
his argument, preferring, instead, the broad brush.

After some 180 pages of indictment and call to arms, Phillips then closes
with a thinly argued 30-page outline of a reform program. In keeping with the
rest of the book, his proposed solutions are contradictory in places and only
sketchily described in others. He proposes, for example, to reduce the power of
Washington by moving some government agencies to other cities-the Department of
the Interior to Denver, perhaps-but simultaneously suggests amending the
Constitution to reduce a separation of powers that he feels now stands in the
way of effective presidential action. He also suggests diminishing the role of
lobbyists in the government without saying how and suggests experiments with
"direct democracy," such as national initiatives and referenda, without
considering how to prevent the direct ballot from becoming an expensive
playground for special-interest campaigns, as has happened in California.

Withal, Phillips's book does serve one useful purpose, as a compendium of those
ideas that now comprise the canon of American neopopulism: too many laws and
too many lawyers, too many lobbyists, too much concentrated wealth, too much
activity in the "paper economy" to the detriment of the "real economy," and too
little government control of international markets and capital flows.
Readers-and voters-will have different views of the relative merits of each of
those plaints, but both ends of the political spectrum-the Pat Buchanans and
the Jerry Browns, with Ross Perot in between-will continue to give voice to
them between now and the next election.


EVERYONE'S SPECIAL

Jonathan Rauch has an entirely different outlook. A longtime reporter, now a
contributing editor, at National Journal-the quintessential
Washington-insider policy magazine-Rauch rejects the notion that the nation's
problems can be traced to some peculiarly noxious emanations from the Potomac.
The legions of lawyers and lobbyists about whom Phillips complains do not
inhabit the capital city on their own initiative, Rauch points out. They are
agents, and the phenomenal growth in their ranks reflects the huge increase in
the number and scope of associations in America whose purpose is to secure one
or more public benefits for their members. "We Americans," he writes, "have
achieved the full democratization of the special interest deal: influence
peddling for the masses. . . . Today, everyone is organized, and everyone is
part of an interest group. We have met the special interests, and they are us."

Rauch is not, of course, literally correct. Not everyone is organized. The
poor, by and large, are not, although the social workers who serve them are.
Neither are the majority of children. Unsurprisingly, in the competition to
divide scarce resources, those two groups-to a depressing extent they
overlap-have come in last.

But while that exception is an important one, it does not undermine Rauch's
central thesis for a reason that liberal politicians and those who support them
should examine with care. For much of the past generation, conservatives have
successfully carried out a campaign to convince Americans that a
disproportionate amount of their tax dollars was being channeled by Washington
to the "undeserving" poor. That premise has girded Republican proposals to
balance the budget by first attacking such programs as welfare, Medicaid, and
food stamps. Liberals, to some extent falling into a conservative trap, have
attempted to fight back by opposing the notion of budget balancing itself,
rather than by shifting the debate to proposals for cutting other, far larger,
claims on federal resources.

The consequences of that strategy have been highly destructive for the groups
that liberals set out initially to defend. For a defense of antipoverty
programs has become, in the public's mind, almost inextricably bound up with
maintenance of large budget deficits. The reality, of course, is that the
conservative premise is wrong. Most federal resources do not go to aid the
poor. Even if, for argument's sake, one looks only at direct spending and
ignores the cost of tax loopholes, the vast majority of federal money flows to
the already comfortable, from defense contractors to large corporate farmers.
Even some programs that ostensibly serve the poor have often been structured in
ways that actually channel the bulk of the money to people of wealth, trusting
that the poor will benefit from the crumbs falling from a well-laden table. The
cost of some of the nation's largest housing programs, for example, has been
padded with heavy subsidies for landlords-subsidies that many analysts believe
go far beyond the amounts needed to provide shelter to the poor.

If tax expenditures are included in the analysis, as they must be for any
complete accounting of the government's impact on the economy, the
disproportion becomes overwhelming. The lion's share of government spending
goes to help those who are already well off, yet the benefits to the middle and
upper classes have been largely sheltered from the knives that have pared poor
people's programs.

Rauch's book helps explain why. The more government seeks to redistribute
wealth and income, he notes, the more organized groups will emerge either to
capture a portion for themselves or to defend what they have. In that
competition, money and power flow to those who already have it.

In America today, he asserts, seven of every ten people belong to some form of
association. The specific figure, derived from a survey by an association of
people who manage associations, may be suspect, but the overall magnitude seems
almost certainly correct. From the American Association of Retired Persons to
the National Rifle Association to the Association of American Historians,
America has become a land of organized constituencies, each intent on holding
onto a specific piece of the overall pie.

Rauch's contribution to the debate is to lay out the perverse dynamics that
drive the growth of organized interest groups. According to the Congressional
Budget Office, 48 percent of all American households, including many with high
incomes, last year received some form of federal entitlement check-unemployment
compensation, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, pension, veteran's
benefit, or welfare allotment. If I belong to a group of 1,000 people who share
in a million-dollar annual federal benefit, he points out, my fellows and I
would each be well advised to spend $250 a year to keep a lobbyist gainfully
employed preserving our program. In contrast, no one would have a comparable
economic incentive to kill our program. Divided 250 million ways, the reward
for thrift would be inconsequential. The reverse is not true. Those who
participate in programs that provide small benefits to a huge number have less
of an incentive to organize, and generally fewer resources to deploy even if
they wished to do so. The system encourages formation of additional groups, for
as word of one organization's success spreads, others inevitably see the logic
of organizing to seek their own benefit. Multiply all this by 150 billion, or
so, and you have the federal budget.

To make matters worse, Rauch points out, the hypothetical $250 we each invested
in holding onto a federal check is money we could have invested in an
enterprise that would have made society more productive. While our actions and
the actions of every other member of a group are perfectly rational, the effect
on society as a whole is not. As more and more groups accumulate, spending more
and more time and money to secure their "fair share," the process begins to
siphon significant resources away from more productive endeavors. Government
becomes inflexible, unable to adapt to new challenges, its arteries clogged by
demosclerosis.

The history of the Clinton administration provides a giant case study in this
problem. When Clinton sought funds for his chosen "investment" programs, he
found virtually the entirety of the $1.5 trillion budget spoken for. Even
before the Republicans began cutting this year, Clinton was forced to settle
for turning his grand plans into, at best, medium-sized pilot programs-too
small to have a significant impact on either policy or politics.

That, Rauch argues, is why demosclerosis ought to concern liberals.
Conservatives, after all, need not worry greatly about the problem, for they
have a ready solution. If government simply stops providing benefits or
meddling in the market, people would have nothing to lobby about and the
problem would go away.

Rauch, however, rejects that view: "To say that medicines have side effects is
not to say that medicines are worthless and should be abolished." Demosclerosis
is a side effect of government activism, he argues, but that does not mean that
activism itself should be abandoned. Either it must be disciplined, or it will
become impossible-foundering in its own by-products.


CYCLICAL TROUBLE

Approaching the subject from a different starting point, Yale political science
professor Stephen Skowronek reaches a similar conclusion. Skowronek's book,
The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush,
has received high acclaim in his profession, winning two major awards from the
American Political Science Association and garnering far more attention than
the average political science book. In Skowronek's conception, American
politics is cyclical, divided into "regimes." As every regime ages, its
inherent contradictions come to the fore. Those contradictions widen and
deepen, pushed along inevitably by each president's attempts to assert himself
as a leader. Eventually, the regime begins to lose coherence and collapses into
crisis. A new leader arises who repudiates the old regime and starts the cycle
anew.

That description leads to a major reconceptualization of presidential history.
For at least a generation, historians have tended to examine the presidents
since Roosevelt as a unique set-the Modern Presidents-

with little reference to their predecessors. Skowronek puts recent presidents
into better perspective, showing, for example, that the problems of a Jimmy
Carter can be illuminated by examining the situation faced by his analogues in
political time-men like Franklin Pierce, John Quincy Adams, and Herbert Hoover,
who shared the misfortune of presiding over a regime in its dying throes.

In Skowronek's view, presidents are constrained by whether they have come to
office as part of the dominant regime or in opposition to it and by whether the
regime itself is still strong or has begun to decay. The standard journalistic
convention, in which every modern president is compared to Roosevelt, 100 Days
and all, ignores the reality that few presidents come to office with the
freedom given to one who is the avowed opponent of a regime that the public has
thoroughly rejected.

Skowronek makes a second point as well: The cycle of political time exists
alongside the linear reality of secular time. Because of that, each cycle is
different, "in each successive cycle the roller coaster has taken a slightly
different loop." In the successive cycles, Skowronek sees a steady
"institutional thickening" of government and society-a thickening that
simultaneously gives the president more power and makes that power harder to
use. When Thomas Jefferson, the first president to repudiate an old regime,
came to office, he had relatively few direct powers at his disposal and also
little organized opposition. Each of his counterparts in political time-Andrew
Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan- had
successively greater powers to wield but found himself facing more entrenched
opponents. This thickening is another manifestation of the same phenomenon
Rauch has described-the steady accretion of interest groups and independent
power centers.

Skowronek's is not an easy text. Nonetheless, his analysis offers a fascinating
perspective on the past 15 years-and our current dilemma. In Skowronek's view,
Ronald Reagan was the latest, and least successful, in the line of presidents
to adopt the "repudiative stance." Like his parallels in political time, Reagan
campaigned against a long-entrenched regime that had lost public confidence and
pledged to restore ancient virtues and verities. But unlike his predecessors,
he failed to rout his enemies and was unable to establish his own regime firmly
in place.

Skowronek attributes Reagan's failure to the institutional barriers against
presidential action. Jefferson swept those barriers aside, but they were
daunting as early as Jackson's day and were sufficient to defeat Roosevelt on
some initiatives; by Reagan's time they were simply too strong to overcome.
Modern presidents, Skowronek argues, cannot expect to sweep away the old order,
in the fashion of Old Hickory taking on the Bank of the United States. Instead,
they must pursue their goals by the harder and less immediately satisfying path
of alternately co-opting and preempting their adversaries. Wilson, Eisenhower,
and Nixon, not Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, are the models that Skowronek
holds up for presidents today.

But the lessons of history may be learned too well. It is true, as Skowronek
notes, that Ronald Reagan failed to replicate Roosevelt's feat of building a
new regime on the wreckage of the old. But Reagan was a highly unusual
president-passive, intellectually uncurious, ideologically rigid, and
remarkably detached, according to the many accounts of those who served in his
White House. A more energetic and imaginative politician might have succeeded
where Reagan failed. Speaker Gingrich certainly believes so. And perhaps the
sclerosis that Rauch diagnoses is not so much a universal constant as a product
of the late stages of a regime that has stayed in power far longer than any
comparable political system in our history.

What, then, does all this portend for the future and, in particular, for
American liberalism? One possible conclusion is that the age of sweeping
change-the sort of political strategy that Skowronek calls the strategy of
repudiation-has simply come to a halt in the United States. Perhaps the country
has, at last, become too big, too crowded and, for most people, too prosperous
to risk the major upheavals of a sudden shift in policy. If so, perhaps the stance
that American liberalism has taken most of the time in recent years-one
that amounts essentially to tinkering with inherited machines, not building new
ones-is the best that can be done. That is certainly one conclusion that can be
drawn from the arguments Rauch and Skowronek have amassed and one line of
analysis that has emerged from the collapse of Clinton's health care reform
proposals last year.

But against that conclusion one must weigh the reality we began with: A clear
and persistent majority of Americans feel that the current system has stopped
working for them. For those Americans, a political movement that begins
its credo with "this is almost the best we can do" will attract little support.

Unfortunately for the moderate left in this country, liberal Democrats and the
interest groups that support them repeatedly have put themselves in precisely
that position in the last two decades. One has only to look at the stands
Clinton has taken since the Republican capture of Congress. The candidate who
exhorted voters in 1992 to "make change our friend" has now taken to warning
Americans of the risks of change that is too rapid, too dramatic. From
affirmative action to Medicare to public schools to welfare, Clinton has put
himself in the position of defending institutions and policies of the New Deal
and Great Society against attacks by Gingrich and his legions. The
congressional Democratic leadership has been still more focused on defense,
reacting with outrage to White House proposals that would change existing
institutions.

Of course, many of those institutions merit a strong defense. Medicare, for
example, successfully lifted a generation of older Americans out of poverty.
Public schools, while they have become dysfunctional in many major cities,
continue to provide high-quality education for the majority of American
children who live outside of inner cities. Moreover, as a matter of political
tactics, a defensive strategy might well prevail-in the short run. Gingrich may
well find that the status quo he seeks to overturn will, instead, crush him
under its weight. Should the Republicans seek to cut back Medicare benefits,
limit abortion rights, and eliminate environmental regulation, for example,
Clinton could well eke out an election victory based on fear of Republican
excess. Democrats might well succeed in recapturing one or both houses of
Congress in 1996.

But while that approach may get the party through the next election, it will
neither resolve the long-term problems of federal spending nor bring the
fundamental change that American voters seem to hunger for. Republican
proposals for responding to those problems largely amount to destroying the
system to save it. But Democrats, particularly in Congress, have failed to
offer a credible alternative. To respond to voter dismay, the party of
Roosevelt must get off defense. The books by Rauch and Skowronek help indicate
what a historic leap it will have to take.



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