Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Thoughts on the Election

Yesterday's electoral results are obviously disappointing to Democrats like myself.  But in some ways what is truly depressing is the longer-term dynamic that seems to be in play.  Voters can be mobilized by an inspiring candidate like Barack Obama, who handled both the 2008 and 2012 elections masterfully.  But all of the incentives for Congressional Republicans point toward severe obstructionism.  The goal is not just to block Obama's policies, but to undermine his administration along every dimension.  Block his nominees so that his government is never fully staffed.  Shut down the government periodically, doing real economic damage and shredding the credibility of the United States.  After Democratic legislation is enacted, refuse to entertain even technical, uncontroversial fixes.  Republican governors turn away stimulus money and refuse to extend Medicaid because it is part of Obamacare.

The basic attitude, in other words, is that if the voters really want to elect Democrats, there's nothing the Republicans can do about it, but if that happens, the Republicans will sabotage the government as much as possible and refuse to cooperate on anything.  The Democrats can have whatever power is strictly entailed by their electoral victories, but they won't even have a rational bargaining opponent to do business with.  As a result, Democratic administrations are held to a standard of perfection that would be difficult to attain even if they weren't constantly under siege.

Because the American government isn't designed to function under those circumstances, in the absence of a supermajority, periods of Democratic rule will always be marked by weakness and ineffective governance.  When Obama had a supermajority, he passed a stimulus bill that helped prevent a depression, a healthcare reform bill that dramatically extended health insurance coverage, and a financial reform bill.  But the moment he lost his supermajority, he faced near-complete powerlessness on just about every issue.  It was easy for Republicans to cast him as ineffective and weak, because that was the reality they had created.

Now I don't know whether this strategy is good for the Republican agenda in the long term.  It creates a dynamic of punctuated equilibrium, where Democratic initiatives are stifled for decades and then come pouring out in a burst of activity.  As a result, when Democratic ideas are enacted, they are enacted without any meaningful Republican input, and arguably the result is much further to the left than would otherwise be the case.  For a very long time, the country was rigidly laissez faire, and then the New Deal swept through and forever expanded the role of the public sector.  For a very long time, blacks couldn't vote, and then the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act swept away almost every barrier to black voting.  (Recently the Supreme Court and Republican state legislatures have pushed back a little.)  Health care was fragmented and patchy, and then a massive expansion was enacted all at once.  So the strategy may be good for conservatives and bad for conservatism.

Arguably all of this is not so different from what happens under a British-style parliamentary system.  There, a new government is swept into power and completely controls the agenda.  But over time, the realities and complexities of governance make the government seem weak and tired, and the opposition is able to seize the reins.  The difference, I think, is that the British system allows proper governance to happen when the government has merely a solid majority, not a supermajority.  In other words, the zone of political paralysis is much smaller.

But it's fair to note that in a Parliamentary system the Democrats' defeat would have been much more sweeping, and Obama would have submitted his resignation to the Queen by now.  And it's also worth noting that the Democrats can fight back against these tactics.  Bill Clinton was famously good at it.  You need a knife fighter, not an intermittently popular "above the fray" figure like Obama.  (I acknowledge, though, that much of Obama's legislative ineffectiveness is structural and not personal to him.  And Bill Clinton was a once-in-a-lifetime political talent.  You could make the case that given the structure of American politics, it's better to roll the dice on someone like Obama and try to do all your policymaking in those brief periods of supermajority.)

It's also fair to note that Obama's policies are legitimately unpopular, and while we can cast blame on the media, superPACs, white resentment, etc., there's an element of incompetence in Democratic politics that shouldn't be tolerated by the party.  (Again, Republican obstructionism tends to magnify any shortcomings, because there is no margin for error.  But those are the rules of the game as it is currently played, and there is no excuse for playing into the Republicans' hands.)

Anyway, the essence of my complaint is that power and accountability are deeply divided in this country.  Unless the Democrats have a supermajority, the Republicans can easily frustrate everything the Democrats want to do and weaken the United States to a great degree, and voters don't pay enough attention to allocate blame appropriately.  The Republicans occasionally overplay their hand, as in the government shutdown, but voters quickly forget, and anyway many voters have no meaningful comprehension of the link between policies and consequences.  (As far as I can tell, all of the best Obama policies have been deeply unpopular.  Healthcare, stimulus, bailout . . .  is there a major Obama accomplishment that is approved by even a majority of the voters?)

So it appears to me that the system is deeply broken, and while Republicans are entitled to gloat for a few weeks, I hope they don't suffer from the illusion that their role in American politics is anything but destructive and immoral.


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