The Myth of the Middle
Why we should be skeptical about the current mania for a third party that appeals to independents and libertarians.
Libertarians do have what Americans Elect can only dream of—a ballot line. The Libertarian Party’s presidential ticket generally appears on the ballots of 45 to 50 states. But Welch and Gillespie mention the party only twice, in passing, with no explanation of why they don’t see it as a vehicle for their independence. While the book promises an optimistic alternative vision of politics, in form it adopts the conventional argument for the mystical independent or third-party candidate. That starts with the Friedmanesque litany of “Amazon, iPod, drugstore.com,” but Welch and Gillespie extend that riff into the bulk of the book, with only minimal effort to connect it to politics. These chapters are mostly interesting case studies in various businesses or individuals who broke down established structures through individual initiative—free-agent statistical blogger Nate Silver, Southwest Airlines, microbreweries. These anecdotes have their own shortcomings—very few people have the nerve, genius, and luck to be Nate Silver, and the microbreweries struggle daily against the price-setting power of the two multinationals that control four-fifths of the American beer market. And here’s where the implied analogy to politics shatters: If you start a microbrewery that gains 1 percent of the U.S. beer market, you’ll become fabulously wealthy, but if you start a political party that gets 1 percent of the vote, you are, even in the best-case scenario, Ralph Nader. In 1996.
While Gillespie and Welch are coming from a different orientation than the insider-centrists, their substantive argument takes a similar form: We need an independent candidate because of, you guessed it, the deficit. The federal deficit is what forces them to abandon their lucrative and rewarding private pursuits, and return, unhappily, to politics. They are pulled back to the battle, they say, only because “we are so out of money.”
The long-term federal deficit is indeed a problem to be solved, and there are lots of reasons to be concerned about it—but “we are so out of money” is a particularly misleading way to describe it. We can no more run out of money than we can run out of smiles. The United States has the good fortune to be sovereign in its own currency, which is to say that we can handle the current debt and much of the projected debt. At certain levels, there will be bad consequences, such as inflation, but we’re nowhere near that point and certainly not “out of money.”
From that stale premise, the authors recycle a wish list of unexciting or long-discredited ideas on health, education, and retirement, such as the Social Security privatization scheme that George W. Bush never even sent to Congress in 2005 or health-care ideas like allowing insurers to bypass state regulations or requiring individuals to bear more of the cost of health care. They’re too pragmatic to endorse the more bracing libertarian absolutes, like eliminating any public role in health insurance. On education, they write in apocalyptic tones about the failure of K-through-12 schooling (they’re wrong), but they pull their punch, not even endorsing private-school vouchers, but instead a budgeting scheme known as the “weighted-student formula” that has recently been embraced by many large urban school districts (you know, the same ones that are failures).
Most of this, by the way, would have no effect at all on the federal deficit. Unlike the straight libertarian tonic, in which government would simply stop doing certain things, these hybrid, market-based solutions are likely to cost more, for comparable public benefits, than direct delivery of benefits through government. That’s true in health (single payer is cheaper than a subsidized private insurance scheme), retirement (Bush’s Social Security privatization by itself would have worsened the system’s long-term finances), and education (student loans through banks cost more than government loans, and a real voucher system would cost more than public schools). There may be good reasons to prefer market-based solutions in all these cases, but “we are so out of money” certainly isn’t one of them. All the verve of the first part of the book is lost in the final journey through the zero-sum choices of deficit politics and stale policy solutions that don’t even address the deficit.
In many ways, the alternative politics that Americans Elect, No Labels, and, to a small degree, Welch and Gillespie were looking for was embodied in the campaign and election of Barack Obama—a campaign that reached people who hadn’t been interested in politics, promised to transcend partisanship, and built an electoral coalition that reached deep into Republican territory such as Indiana. As the President points out even in his more recent “populist” mode, many of the ideas he’s embraced on health-care reform, deficit reduction, education, and job creation come from Republicans. But his presidency quickly became a very ordinary one, smashed on the rocks of economic crisis and obstruction.
If you see this as a failure or betrayal by Obama, the case for a third party is strong. Here’s Politico’s Allen again, with executive editor Jim VandeHei, explaining their online primary: “Voters have watched first George W. Bush and then Barack Obama promise to reach out to the other party—then not only fail spectacularly at bipartisanship but make the city’s divisions even deeper.” But the failure here was not principally Obama’s. Nor was it entirely the fault of congressional Republicans. It was the system as it has evolved, a system with too many veto points and too much entrenched power, and one in which money carries too much weight. It’s a system that can be reformed, in ways large and small, but a third party or independent candidacy, absent other reforms, won’t do a thing to the system. And the fact that many of the leading advocates for a third party or independent candidate are so deeply embedded in the system, and are its winners, should make us all even more skeptical about the fantasy.
Post a Comment