The Smoldering Electorate



  • 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?




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.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

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.




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.




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.

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)