26 April 2011

Partisan gridlock and independent paralysis

Rush Limbaugh was playing on the radio in an office I passed through this afternoon, and I heard him rave at independents: "How can you call yourselves independent if you support the Democrat party? They're the party of dependence!" This post isn't about Limbaugh, who was mixing political metaphors, but his remarks reminded me of the David Brooks column that appeared in the local paper today. Brooks was lamenting the fact that, while frustration with both major parties is near all-time high levels, nothing seems to follow from that frustration. His own frustration with the Bipolarchy is clear enough.

[T]he two parties are about to run utterly familiar political campaigns. The Democrats are going to promise to raise taxes on the rich to preserve the welfare state, just as they have since 1980. The Republicans are going to vow to cut taxes and introduce market mechanisms to reform the welfare state, just as they have since 1980.
The country is about to be offered the same two products: one from Soviet Production Facility A (the Republicans), and the other from Soviet Production Facility B (the Democrats). It will react just as it always has. From this you could easily get the impression that American politics are trundling along as usual. But this stability is misleading. The
current arrangements are stagnant but also fragile. American politics is like a boxing match atop a platform. Once you’re on the platform, everything looks normal. But when you step back, you see that the beams and pillars supporting the platform are cracking and rotting.

As more long-term structural problems go unaddressed in any serious way, Brooks warns that "Americans have lost faith in the credibility of their political system." Their political malaise has not lifted with signs of economic recovery, as it usually does; a growing number of people believe that things are still getting worse despite the official statistics. But what are they doing about it?

If you dive deeper into the polling, you see the country is not mobilized by this sense of crisis but immobilized by it. Raising taxes on the rich is popular, but nearly every other measure that might be taken to address the fiscal crisis is deeply unpopular. Sixty-three percent of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling; similar majorities oppose measures to make that sort of thing unnecessary. There is a negativity bias in the country, especially among political independents and people earning between $30,000 and $75,000 (who have become extremely gloomy). It is hard to rally majorities behind immigration, energy or tax reform.

Brooks suggests that only a more extreme crisis or trauma might shake many Americans out of their demoralized paralysis. Then, he suggests, voters might turn to a charismatic crackpot like Donald Trump who projects or promises decisiveness, or else they might defer to a "centrist" establishment faction like the present bipartisan "Gang of Six" in the Senate. Neither prospect sounds especially appealing, but they appear likely only because most of the Americans who call themselves independent seem incapable of acting independently. If they remain dismissive of the potential of existing independent parties, they have no clue about creating a movement of their own to contend for political power. Trapped in a party system, they seem intimidated by the institutional challenges of fielding their own candidates and building their own platforms. They apparently prefer to wait for someone like Trump to make them an offer. This passivity, the implicit concession that a political campaign is something best left to expert professionals, is the dependence that really belies the protests of so many self-proclaimed independents. We depend too much on institutions that generate candidates for us, while other institutions discourage us from generating our own candidates. Democracy has become a matter of choosing among the powerful rather than the electorate asserting its own power. Brooks doesn't make such a stark forecast, but in his predictions we can see a choice looming for us all when a true crisis comes: take the reins or accept the saddle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, people could take the reins if they would just figure it out for themselves. Should they choose, through silence and inaction, to wear the saddle, then they better be prepared to obey without question.