The debt ceiling compromise is the end of the liberal dream that the Obama presidency would do for the left what Ronald Reagan’s time in office did for the right.
Stanley Greenberg, one of the best pollsters anywhere and a leading intellectual light of the Democratic party, has a must read in the NY Times on the mysterious inability of Democrats to turn widespread public support on individual issues into a stable governing majority.
It’s perplexing. When unemployment is high, and the rich are getting richer, you would think that voters of average means would flock to progressives, who are supposed to have their interests in mind — and who historically have delivered for them.
Yet they don’t. Why, Greenberg asks, do so many voters tune the Democrats out. And what can the Democrats do to win them back?
That he’s asking these questions at all is a testament to the colossal failure of Democrat hopes in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election. The “transformational President” failed to bring about the Great Realignment Democrats thought they saw. Healthcare was a poisoned chalice; the debt ceiling bill was a disaster. The electorate keeps trending right and the Democratic establishment, more than thirty years after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, is no closer to solving the problem of the New Right than it was when Jimmy Carter turned the White House over to the Gipper.
Ronald Reagan (Wikimedia)
Greenberg, a man who studies American voters with great care and who combines a deep knowledge of American politics with decades of experience interpreting the nuances of voter opinion, lays out a clear though incomplete vision of the Democrats’ problem. The difficulties he finds in outlining even superficially plausible ways for the party to recapture the political high ground illustrate the depth of the Democrats‘ crisis.
Greenberg diagnoses the problem as a crisis of legitimacy:
Just a quarter of the country is optimistic about our system of government — the lowest since polls by ABC and others began asking this question in 1974. But a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism. It doesn’t hurt Republicans. If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end?
Voters like Democratic ideas and policy proposals, notes Greenberg, and on a wide range of issues, the public prefers Democratic positions to Republican ones. The problem is that they don’t think the Democrats can or will make their ideas work. The rhetoric inspires; the reality disappoints.
Government operates by the wrong values and rules, for the wrong people and purposes, the Americans I’ve surveyed believe. Government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible. Wall Street lobbyists govern, not Main Street voters. Vexingly, this promotes both national and middle-class decline yet cannot be moved by conventional democratic politics. Lost jobs, soaring spending and crippling debt make America ever weaker, unable to meet its basic obligations to educate and protect its citizens. Yet politicians take care of themselves and party interests, while government grows remote and unresponsive, leaving people feeling powerless.
Greenberg is right to call this a crisis of legitimacy for liberal and progressive thought. A strong and active federal government is the cornerstone of progressive politics. If voters lose faith in the power of more government to better their lives, the progressive era has come to an end.
Attentive readers of these essays will recognize Greenberg’s legitimacy crisis as part of the larger plight of the blue social model Via Meadia and its readers have been analyzing in so many posts. The progressive, administrative regulatory state and more broadly the technocratic and professional intelligentsia who operate it sold themselves to the public as an honest umpire in charge of American life. No more corrupt urban bosses robbing city hall to feather their nests, they said. No more robber barons of the Gilded Age buying and selling legislatures and congresses.
Instead, we would have government by philosopher kings, or at least by incorruptible credentialed bureaucrats. Alabaster towers of objectivity such as the FCC, the FDA, the EPA, the FEC and so many more would take politics out of government and replace it with disinterested administration. Honest professionals would administer fair laws without fear or favor, putting the general interest first, and keeping the special interests at arm’s length. The government would serve the middle class, and the middle class would thrive.
Plato, from Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Plato’s utopian city Kallipolis was ruled by philosopher kings (Wikimedia)
That was the theory; as Greenberg eloquently tells us, fewer and fewer voters believe it describes the actual government in our actual world. The next questions for Democrats are obvious: what is the cause of this problem and how can it be treated?
Greenberg’s answer is a more sophisticated and comprehensive version of a classic progressive idea. It is not simply, Greenberg points out, that special interests fight progressive initiatives; special interests have actually managed to subvert the institutions of the government itself. The progressive state has been taken captive by those it was supposed to keep in check.
The weak point is the electoral process. The administrative state and its professional managers don’t sit in a vacuum. Elected politicians write the laws that the regulatory agencies enforce. Those politicians like to get re-elected. They depend on the campaign contributions the fat cats can give; that money power means that the state becomes the catspaw of the greedy few rather than the honest guardian of the toiling millions. The bulwark of justice has become the arsenal of plutocracy; the public is skeptical of government because a cash hungry political class has turned the state over to the rich.
This is not, I fear, a complete account of the problem, but it is not without merit. And the argument has the honesty and decency to acknowledge that disillusioned voters are responding to real shortcomings in Democratic governance — not to mention the gaping venality of so many “progressive” progressive politicians. Greenberg is not one of those progressives who rails about the stupidity and backwardness of those bitter clingers who are too stupid, too poorly educated and too culturally crippled to understand their real interests.
If that’s the diagnosis, what is the fix? There are several items on the to-do list, but since the crux of the matter for Greenberg is the influence that special interests exercise over the electoral process, his solution begins with campaign finance reform. This is where the essay begins to go seriously wrong.
The Democrats have to start detoxifying politics by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions, which would mean a fight with the Supreme Court. They must make the case for public financing of campaigns and force the broadcast and cable networks to provide free time for candidate ads. And they must become the strongest advocates for transparency in campaign donations and in the lobbying of elected officials.
All parties ought to embrace the ideas in the last sentence; sunshine remains the best disinfectant. But the rest of the paragraph is a recipe for comprehensive failure. There are so many things wrong with the idea that campaign finance reform can revitalize the Democratic party that even one of the most persistent writers in the blogosphere cannot can’t deal with them all. But here’s a start.
1. It’s a political no-hoper. It’s inconceivable that the current Supreme Court or any court like it would approve the sweeping restrictions on political speech that an effective, publicly-financed campaign system would require to work. To get a Supreme Court willing to accept the wholesale limits on political speech that would nullify the power of money in election campaigns, Dems would have to control the White House and Senate to name and confirm a Court majority far more resolutely progressive than anything we have seen. The GOP has been chasing the Holy Grail of a court majority to overturn Roe vs. Wade for almost thirty years and doesn’t have it yet.
2. But let’s suppose that progressive Democrats managed to build this kind of political dominance and, with secure control of the White House and the Senate far into the future, they were able to nominate and confirm justices committed to this project. This is an enticing prospect for many — but remember that our premise was that the purpose of campaign finance reform was to build a progressive majority. But it turns out that the only way to get effective campaign finance reform is to have that majority already. If we had some eggs we could have some ham and eggs if we had some ham. This is a wish list, not a political program.
3. In any case, any new campaign finance laws would have to be written by legislators who got their seats under the old system. Wouldn’t the same vested interests who, Greenberg tells us, control the way Congress writes laws also control drafting of new the campaign finance laws? If all the other bureaucracies have been perverted into special interest fiefdoms and incumbent protection agencies why wouldn’t a campaign finance regulatory system be equally if not more perverse and corrupt? Or will the special interests be so stupid and obliging as not to notice that its bought and paid for legislators are plotting to kill their power?
Greenberg is telling voters who deeply distrust the nexus of power and money swirling around Washington to give that nexus even more power: power to regulate and control the process of competition for office. They would be fools to take him up on it; I don’t think they are that stupid and forty years of well funded efforts to get effective campaign finance reform have abysmally failed.
The campaign finance system Greenberg envisions has to come about by immaculate conception: born without taint even though its parents were mired in corruption and sin. The Catholic Church teaches that this is what happened to the Virgin Mary; few would suggest that the possibility is open to an Act of Congress. The election law and the election regulatory system will be written under the same crummy conditions that Greenberg believes are responsible for the comprehensive crisis of liberalism.
This is not a hopeful political road: a decades long hunt for an uncatchable unicorn will not inspire a new progressive era in American politics.
4. Meanwhile, Greenberg has not yet come to grips with the deepest and most difficult aspect of the crisis of liberal legitimacy. He roots the dangerous and corrupting special interests outside the state: with their money and their lobbying the corporations and the fat cats influence and pervert the state. But the state and its servants do not, in Greenberg’s story, constitute a special interest of their own.
This is not how voters see it. For large numbers of voters the professional classes who staff the bureaucracies, foundations and policy institutes in and around government are themselves a special interest. It is not that evil plutocrats control innocent bureaucrats; many voters believe that the progressive administrative class is a social order that has its own special interests. Bureaucrats, think these voters, are like oil companies and Enron executives: they act only to protect their turf and fatten their purses.
The problem goes even deeper than hostility toward perceived featherbedding and life tenure for government workers. The professionals and administrators who make up the progressive state are seen as a hostile power with an agenda of their own that they seek to impose on the nation.
This perception, also, is rooted in truth. The progressive state has never seen its job as simply to check the excesses of the rich. It has also sought to correct the vices of the poor and to uplift the masses. From the Prohibition and eugenics movements of the early twentieth century to various improvement and uplift projects in our own day, well educated people have seen it as their simple duty to use the powers of government to make the people do what is right: to express the correct racial ideas, to eschew bad child rearing technique like corporal punishment, to eat nutritionally appropriate foods, to quit smoking, to use the right light bulbs and so on and so on.
Progressives want and need to believe that the voters are tuning them out because they aren’t progressive enough. But it’s impossible to grasp the crisis of the progressive enterprise unless one grasps the degree to which voters resent the condescension and arrogance of know-it-all progressive intellectuals and administrators. They don’t just distrust and fear the bureaucratic state because of its failure to live up to progressive ideals (thanks to the power of corporate special interests); they fear and resent upper middle class ideology. Progressives scare off many voters most precisely when they are least restrained by special interests. Many voters feel that special interests can be a healthy restraint on the idealism and will to power of the upper middle class.
The progressive ideal of administrative cadres leading the masses toward the light has its roots in a time when many Americans had an eighth grade education or less. It always had its down side, and the arrogance and tin-eared obtuseness of self assured American liberal progressives has infuriated generations of Americans and foreigners who for one reason or another have the misfortune to fall under the power of a class still in the grip of a secularized version of the Puritan ideal. But in the conditions of late nineteenth and twentieth century America, the progressive vanguard fulfilled a vital and necessary social role.
The deep crisis of the progressive ideal today is that it is no longer clear that the American clerisy is wanted or needed in that role.
At bottom, that is what the populist revolt against establishments of all kinds is about. A growing section of the American population wants to think and act for itself, without the guidance of the graduates of ivy league colleges and blue chip graduate programs.
The fight for limited government that animates so many Americans today isn’t a reaction against the abuses and failures of government. It is a fight to break the power of a credentialed elite that believe themselves entitled by talent and hard work to a greater say in the nation’s affairs than people who scored lower on standardized tests and studied business administration in cheap colleges rather than political science in expensive ones.
In the progressive era, the hierarchy of American adult life came to look more and more like the opposite of the social hierarchy in a typical high school. There, the unpopular and awkward smart kids were marginalized by the jocks and the cheerleaders. In adulthood the nerds ruled the roost and the ex-jocks pumped gas. Or if they sold cars or developed real estate, the nerds looked at them as if they pumped gas.
One way of encapsulating the aims of people drawn to figures like Sarah Palin is to say that these are people who want adult America to look more like high school, with intellect less highly regarded and rewarded, and people smarts and character counting for more. There might have been a time when the regular kids were in awe of the special knowledge of the brainiacs, but the serial policy failures of recent years have dramatically eroded the prestige of the smart kids.
To understand the populist anger that seethes in a significant portion of the electorate (not, I think, a majority, but a group large enough that it’s hard to build a stable majority without at least a fair share of them), policy wonks and political intellectuals need to go back to those dark adolescent days and think about the resentment and anger they sometimes felt when the social hierarchy seemed hostile and unfair. Think about that resentment slowly ripening and deepening for a decade and more. Think about it tied to a sense of economic grievance and compounded by the (perceived at least) serial failures of brainiac policy on matters like immigration, health care, multiculturalism and trade. This anger feeds the energy that a Sarah Palin is able to tap; it is part of why the jocks and cheerleaders on Fox News so consistently outdraw the nerds on CNN — to say nothing of PBS.
This is the new Jacksonian surge, and progressives will have to dig deeper than even Stan Greenberg has yet done to figure out how to come to terms with it.