Failures of Politics

When historians review this era, they will point to the striking failure of our political system to engage, much less remedy, the most pressing national problems. Consider a few key examples: The most notable economic fact is a 25-year decline in living standards of ordinary Americans during a period of rising productivity. As Paul Krugman noted, more than half the income lost by the bottom 80 percent since 1979 was captured by the top one-quarter of one percent. If democracy were working, this would be Topic A. Both parties would be competing to persuade voters that they were serious about raising living standards for regular Americans. Mostly, that issue is off the political radar screen.

Meanwhile, systems of employer-provided health care and pensions are collapsing, shifting risks and costs to individuals. Imagine -- earnings, health care, and retirement security! If these are not of interest to ordinary voters, nothing is.

But even more dire political defaults loom. Despite Enron and the supposed remedy of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, America's vaunted capital markets are still the playground of insiders, not small investors. This failure squanders capital and courts systemic collapse.

Likewise, the chronic budget deficit is doing just what its sponsors intended -- relentlessly battering down the public sector. The size of the public sector is a legitimate subject for political argument. But the need for responsible fiscal policies ought to be beyond dispute. Instead, it is beyond serious discussion.

American business is whistling past the graveyard as the trade imbalance grows and the economy depends on foreign capital inflows of more than $2 billion a day. There is no serious debate about how American democracy and our social protections should engage with the destabilizing effects of global commerce generally. Instead, elites provide misleading bromides about the glories of free trade, virtually inviting know-nothing backlash. With more space, I could add immigration, education, collapsing infrastructure, global warming, energy dependence, the grave disrepair of American democracy itself, and the epic failure of foreign policy.

Only the period before the Civil War and the closing decades of the 19th century displayed anything like a comparable political abdication. At other times, as in the Progressive Era, elites brokered top-down reforms. Alternatively, in the New Deal and civil rights era, bottom-up pressures moved enlightened politicians. The present era is notable for complete default.

One is tempted to blame it all on the recklessness of the Bush administration. But the roots go deeper. What is not the cause is the alleged extremism of both parties. This premise informs conventional pundit wisdom from David Broder on down. The contention, however, was demolished in Off Center, written by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, who demonstrated that the Republican Party has moved far right while the Democrats have become ideologically centrist. The problem today is less partisan deadlock than one-party hegemony.

The two deeper problems are the abdication of financial elites who ordinarily look beyond narrow self-interest to the public good (or try to blend the two, as investment-banker statesmen once did); and of the Democratic Party. If there is a latent bottom-up constituency crying out for national leadership, too few Democrats want to energize it. In books by Democratic authors such as Gene Sperling, Matthew Miller, Robert Atkinson, et al, and you will find mostly small-bore ideas (in both senses of the word) that neither light populist fires nor find audiences for bipartisan elite reform.

Moderate Republicans, meanwhile, are AWOL. The Concord Coalition for fiscal discipline is a shadow of its former self. Advertised Republican revolts against George Bush keep fizzling, on everything from domestic spying to torture to official junk science and the packing of courts. Republican foreign-policy traditionalists, appalled as they are, have mostly followed Colin Powell's lead, and kept their critiques politely on background, perhaps out of concern for their corporate directorships and consulting deals. Powell and deficit-enabler Alan Greenspan are symbol and substance of elite abdication.

What next? As countries like Brazil painfully show, a nation can reconcile even wider extremes of inequality with a growing economy. Suffering can be internalized and depoliticized. Japan demonstrates that a society can function with a pseudo-democracy. Eventually, however, real problems become unsustainable. Yes, progressives might get to clean up after the next collapse. But how much better it would be if an outbreak of leadership re-politicized these latent issues, and devised remedies that served and energized ordinary Americans now.

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