What broke American politics?
A provocative cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine argues that too much democracy is undermining our democracy. But some aspects of that case are being rejected by the authors of a highly regarded book on Washington dysfunction, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”
OK, if you want to argue American politics aren’t broken and everything is basically working, we’ll save that for another day. The belief that our system is performing — how should we put this?— sub-optimally — is widely shared. According to me, we have a government that can’t govern much and that has to spend too much of its time and energy avoiding shutdowns and postponing a default on the debt.
The issue in dispute at this point is not whether our system is dysfunctional, but why.
According to the current Atlantic piece (“How American Politics Went Insane”), the U.S. system of politics and government is broken because a great many things that have been done, going back more than a century, to supposedly reform the system have backfired.
The author of the piece, long-time journalist Jonathan Rauch, subscribes to a theory he calls “chaos syndrome,” which he defines thus:
Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers — political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees — that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal — both in campaigns and in the government itself.
To give a few examples and decode that a little bit, Rauch is arguing that:
Party leaders like speakers of the U.S. House and committee chairs, who used to be able get their members to fall in line, have lost a lot of that power. You could view that change as a victory for a certain kind of democracy. You elect your congressman and you want him to represent the views of his constituents, the people who put him in office, not to be a rubber-stamp for a group of bigger cigars in the House.
But when you get a speaker of the House, like John Boehner, who loses control of his caucus, who can strike a deal with a president of another party to pass a bipartisan compromise package, but then cannot deliver the voters of his caucus to pass the deal and ends up resigning, perhaps you can also see how the loss of power of the speaker or other leaders is a victory for what Rauch is calling “chaos.”
Leaders of a party used to have almost total control over whom their party would nominate for president. Then came primaries, which gave the voters in certain states a bigger role. Then came the spread of primaries and caucuses to all states, draining even more influence from the party bosses.
Trump as a ‘chaos candidate’
Now comes Donald Trump, whose nomination was not favored by any of the Republican Party leadership but was chosen by ordinary primary voters and caucus attendees, in part to express their disgust with the party leaders. Trump is so disliked by the major-party leaders that they are still scheming to see if there is any way to deprive him of the nomination. You can see how Trump’s nomination is a victory for both “democracy” and “chaos.” Jeb Bush described Trump as a “chaos candidate” who would be a “chaos president.” But, writes Rauch, “Trump didn’t cause the chaos. The chaos caused Trump.”
Rauch’s article is long, and it makes this point in many ways. A great many things have been done in the name of “reform” and of “democracy” that have brought “chaos” and now we have a government that can’t govern. Here’s a nice fat paragraph of Rauch arguing that “machine politics,” in which “middlemen” had a lot of not particularly “democratic” kinds of power, made the system work:
Parties, machines, and hacks may not have been pretty, but at their best they did their job so well that the country forgot why it needed them. Politics seemed almost to organize itself, but only because the middlemen recruited and nurtured political talent, vetted candidates for competence and loyalty, gathered and dispensed money, built bases of donors and supporters, forged coalitions, bought off antagonists, mediated disputes, brokered compromises, and greased the skids to turn those compromises into law. Though sometimes arrogant, middlemen were not generally elitist. They excelled at organizing and representing unsophisticated voters, as Tammany Hall famously did for the working-class Irish of New York, to the horror of many Progressives who viewed the Irish working class as unfit to govern or even to vote.
In the name of “reform,” he argues, we reduced the power of the leaders, reduced the importance of seniority in Congress, banned closed-door meetings to hash out compromises, tried to reform money in politics and ended up making it worse, cracked down on “pork-barrel spending,”
Rauch’s piece is brave and counter-intuitive. If it helps you understand what he’s driving at, I’ll mention that the longer, more scholarly book-length version is titled “Political realism: How hacks, machines, big money, and back-room deals can strengthen American democracy.” Political realism, I take it, refers to the idea that we have to overcome idealistic notions that cause us to favor things like more democracy and more openness in government and understand that the restoration of past tradition of political hacks and back-room deals will actually make things work better.
Two schools of thought
But, I will confess, the argument was so counter-intuitive I found myself wondering whether it was right. Since I’ve been an admirer of the analysis of our political problems contained in “It’s Even Worse than It Looks; How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism” and since one of the authors of that book (local angle ahead) is Minnesota native Norm Ornstein, I asked Ornstein for his reaction to Rauch’s piece. That’s when I learned that we were dealing not just with a surprising opinion expressed by Rauch but with a gap between two schools of thought. Rauch’s school shares its name, “Political Realism,” also known as neo-realism, with the title of Rauch’s book.
Ornstein referred me to this longish refutation by his “Even Worse Than It Looks” co-author — political scientist Thomas Mann of Brookings — and journalist E.J. Dionne. By the time I finished the Mann/Dionne piece, I was reasonably sure that I wasn’t buying what Rauch and those in his school were selling.
To Mann and Ornstein, the root of the problem plaguing U.S. politics, which they term “asymmetric polarization,” is that the Republican Party over recent decades has become radicalized in its policy preferences and so committed to opposing everything the Democrats stand for that they — the Republicans in Congress — are unwilling to compromise.
As I have written before, the U.S. constitutional system, more than most other democratic systems in the world, cannot function properly without compromise across party lines, unless one party captures control of the White House, the House, the Senate by a filibuster-proof majority, and perhaps a reliable majority on the Supreme Court also. The famed “checks and balances” in our system that we were taught to worship in junior high make it all too easy for either party to block action.
But, over the last few decades, the Republican Party has not only become more radical in its conservatism, but also convinced that gridlock is better than a compromise with the Democrats that allow the Dems to accomplish some of their priorities. The term “asymmetric polarization” acknowledges that both parties have become more extreme — that Dems have moved left while Repubs have moved right — but that the movement on the Repub side has gone further than on the Dem side and includes the stronger resistance to compromise, which is often a factor in the brinksmanship that leads to government shutdowns and sometimes close to default on the debt.
To Ornstein, Mann and Dionne, if you don’t deal with the polarization, acknowledge its asymmetric nature and especially the asymmetric Republican resistance to compromise, you can’t really describe the action in Congress during the Obama years.
The extremism of the Republican agenda and the opposition to compromise was captured in poll results cited in the Mann and Dionne piece:
The realists willfully ignore that political polarization in the United States is asymmetric. The evidence — quantitative and qualitative — is overwhelming.
The Republican Party, at both the elite and mass level, has moved much farther to the right of the political center than Democrats have moved to its left, as Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson and other political scientists and historians have found.
The Republicans embraced a strategy that resists compromise, and they sharply escalated the use of the filibuster in the Senate. Two findings by the Pew Research Center nicely capture both the asymmetric nature of the polarization and its impact on attitudes toward governance among supporters of the two parties. In 2014, 67 percent of Republicans called themselves conservative. Only 32 percent called themselves moderate or liberal. Among Democrats, on the other hand, only 34 percent called themselves liberal; the vast majority called themselves moderate or conservative.
In 2013, Pew asked its respondents whether they preferred elected officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with” or those who “stick with their positions.”
Among Democrats, 59 percent preferred compromisers; among Republicans, only 36 percent did. To ignore empirical findings of this sort is, in our view, to operate from a perspective that is the antithesis of realism.
Ornstein, Mann and Dionne also point out that many of the factors to which Rauch attributes the breakdown of the government occurred long before the breakdown. Ornstein also told me that Rauch has so far been unwilling to defend his thesis against the points his critics make.
And, one last citation: In a shorter, more journalistic version of the counterargument, Jonathan Chait, writing for New York Magazine under the title “Why American Politics Really Went Insane,” comes back to asymmetry with these tough-but-fair paragraphs:
The more serious problem with Rauch’s argument is this: Virtually every breakdown in governing he identifies is occurring primarily or exclusively within the Republican Party. Democrats have not been shutting down the government, holding the debt ceiling hostage, overthrowing their leaders in Congress, revolting against normal deal-making, or (for the most part) living in terror of primary challenges. Rauch is right that [Sen. Bernie] Sanders has encouraged unrealistic ideas about a revolution that would make compromise unnecessary, but the signal fact is that Sanders lost.
And Sanders’s notion of a purifying revolution, while thrilling to a handful of left-wing activists, has no influence over Democrats in Congress — arguably not even with Sanders himself, who votes more pragmatically than his stump rhetoric would indicate. The disconnect implies a fatal flaw in Rauch’s analysis. Since he identifies causes of illness that afflict both parties equally, while the symptoms have manifested in only one of them, what reason is there to trust his diagnosis?