The Politics of Less
Why the coming battles over scarcity don’t necessarily favor the party of small government.
Most political reporters float on the surface of politics, carried here and there by the ebb and flow of daily events. Thomas Edsall has built a distinguished career by identifying one strong current in contemporary American politics—in a phrase, the reluctance of many white Americans to fund an expansive, multiethnic welfare state—and charting its course with diligence and perception through three decades. With The Age of Austerity, Edsall brings his story up to the present—though perhaps not quite to the future.
In his influential 1991 book, Chain Reaction, Edsall focused attention on “the dynamic interaction of race, the rights revolution, the rise of a Democratic middle-class reform elite, and the intensifying battle over taxes.” He argued that racial resentment “provided conservatism with an essential ingredient in overcoming class differences between segments of the white electorate, in establishing an ideologically coherent structure of rewards in actual policy, and in creating, for the first time in fifty years, a sustainable national majority.”
In 2006, Edsall doubled down on the thesis of Republican ascendancy with Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power. He depicted a “highly coordinated” conservative movement “with a shared stake in a strong, centralized political machine” competing against a Democratic Party saddled with “values frequently antagonistic to those of moderates and conservatives—attitudes toward the distribution of wealth, equality, the women’s movement, codes of sexual conduct, religion, the business ethos, education, multiculturalism, and the rights of the unborn.”
Many of the same moving parts reappear in The Age of Austerity. Edsall portrays today’s Republican and Democratic parties as “enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases, each attempting to expropriate the resources of the other.” Though his focus is on austerity, he devotes chapters to immigration and race, arguing that “the fight over government benefits, taxes, and spending programs re-emerged in energized fashion in the context of identity group conflicts, escalating hostilities to a new level.” And he scores that fight, at least for the time being, as distinctly unequal due to the Republican Party’s significant advantages in resources, its “facility in deploying wedge issues,” and its fundamental psychological aptitude for the tough politics of scarcity.
Edsall is by no means rigid in applying his earlier insights to the contemporary political scene. In Chain Reaction, he suggested that Republicans were flourishing because the country was prosperous: “Conservatives benefit politically to the extent that they are able to divert public attention from the danger and instability of market forces (a diversion possible only in times of relative economic calm).” How then to account for Republican success in the wake of the most spectacularly unstable market conditions in decades? In The Age of Austerity the formula for Republican success seems to be reversed: “The politics of scarcity favor the right, which is better equipped ideologically than the left to inflict the hardship measures a sustained economic crisis invites.” Economic calm, conservatives win; economic crisis, conservatives win.
Much of Edsall’s case for the notion that Republicans enjoy “a substantial long-term advantage” in contemporary politics will sound familiar to readers of Building Red America. The tone is sometimes reminiscent of the way the Reagan Pentagon used to portray the Red Army—larger than life and poised on the verge of global domination. It seems worth recalling here that this is a party that has won five presidential elections to the Democrats’ three in the generation since Ronald Reagan first won the White House, but only with considerable help from the Supreme Court and Osama bin Laden—and a party that has controlled the Senate only half the time and the House of Representatives less than half the time in this period.
Edsall bolsters his case for the Republicans’ upper hand by noting a new advantage, one with particular relevance to the politics of austerity. Drawing on recent work by psychologists on “fundamental differences in values and mindsets between conservatives and liberals,” he argues that “Republicans are willing to allocate losses in ways that harm their adversaries, if the outcomes favor their own interests and are consistent with conservative value systems.” Liberals, on the other hand, “often flinch in warfare over resources. Scarcity seems to play to the psychological and competitive strengths of conservatives, reinforcing their hierarchical and authoritarian preferences, while increasing the likelihood that those on the left will compromise and concede on matters large and small.” In the contemporary political jungle, it seems, nice guys finish last—and Republicans are not nice guys.
While Republicans clearly have the upper hand in Edsall’s account, he acknowledges that “the GOP has often proved to be an inconsistent risk manager, overreaching when victory is at hand, and overestimating ideological support from the general public.” This may be an apt description of Newt Gingrich’s GOP, which clearly overreached in shutting down the government and impeaching the president; but it hardly seems apt as a description of George W. Bush’s GOP or, for that matter, John Boehner’s. Bush presided over a reckless, ideological fiscal policy and a reckless, ideological war, but the eventual erosion of his public support had much less to do with ideological overreach than with perceived incompetence. As for Boehner, the remarkable intransigence of his Republican congressional caucus, even in the face of a national economic crisis, was rewarded with a midterm election triumph. And while Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of congressional Republicans’ performance, that will probably be no more decisive in 2012 than it was in 2010; American elections are referenda on the president, not on Congress.
Edsall’s assumption that “overestimating ideological support from the general public” should lead to failure reflects his more general tendency to overestimate the significance of ideology in electoral politics and policy-making. He attributes that Republican midterm triumph to “a huge shift” in ideology, “as millions of white, self-identified moderate voters, struggling to survive the economic meltdown, fearful of ballooning government deficits, uncertain of their relationship to the nation’s first black president, swung to the right.”
This account overlooks a much simpler and more powerful factor in the 2010 election outcome: Electoral support for the president’s party routinely rises and falls with the state of the economy. In 2010, after two years of high-profile government action, the economy remained mired in high unemployment and slow growth—and as a result, Democrats lost support across the board, among whites and non-whites, affluent and poor, men and women, every age group, and every region of the country. Incumbent governments throughout the developed world have been swept under by similar economic tides in the past few years, with little regard for their ideologies or platforms or the external forces that dropped austerity on their doorsteps.
In the meantime, Democrats scored an impressive series of legislative victories, most notably in passing a landmark health-care reform bill. Edsall has surprisingly little to say about the Affordable Care Act. He notes in passing that, if successful, this “one-trillion-dollar program expanding health coverage to millions of the poor and near poor” will “vastly enlarge the universe of voters benefitting directly from government support, a constituency Republicans characterize as ‘government-dependent.’” Is this not a momentous victory in the partisan “death struggle” between haves and have-nots—and a dramatic exception to Edsall’s thesis that “the politics of scarcity favor the right”? One would hardly guess from his account that Obamacare was anything more than a source of electoral trouble in the 2010 midterm, with white seniors rebelling at the prospect of transferring funds from Medicare to the uninsured.
In a perceptive recent essay in New York magazine, heterodox Republican David Frum sketched a political landscape much like the one portrayed by Edsall. “We have entered an era in which politics increasingly revolves around the ugly question of who will bear how much pain,” Frum wrote. “Conservative constituencies already see themselves as aggrieved victims of American government: They are the people who pay the taxes even as their ‘earned’ benefits are siphoned off to provide welfare for the undeserving.”
However, Frum went on to pinpoint the fundamental contradiction in this conservative worldview. “The reality,” he wrote, is that “the big winners in the American fiscal system are the rich, the old, the rural, and veterans—typically conservative constituencies.” Squeezing the programs conservatives hate won’t bring in much revenue, so balancing the budget would require chopping into programs most conservatives support—including defense, Medicare, Social Security, and middle-class tax breaks.
In Chain Reaction, Edsall recognized that “the anti-tax, anti-government view of the electorate…was directed at programs serving heavily minority and poor populations,” while spending on education, health, Social Security, crime control, and environmental protection “retained unstinting, and in some cases growing, majority support.” That remains true 20 years later; even most conservatives oppose cuts in most major government programs, and they do so even when they are reminded of the perils of deficit spending.
Unfortunately for Republicans—and for Edsall’s analysis of the politics of austerity—“programs serving heavily minority and poor populations” are not where the money is. According to the Census Bureau’s Consolidated Federal Funds Report, less than 8 percent of federal spending in 2010 was for unemployment benefits, food stamps, housing assistance, student aid, and the earned-income tax credit. Almost half was for salaries and wages, grants, and procurement; most of the rest consisted of Social Security and Medicare payments. Large-scale reductions in government spending would require significant cuts in big-ticket programs that mostly benefit the middle class. The political challenge facing budget-cutting Republicans is exacerbated by the fact that beneficiaries of government spending are disproportionately concentrated in red states. Federal expenditures made up almost 30 percent of total personal income in the 22 states that voted for John McCain, a significantly higher dependency level than in the states that voted for Barack Obama. “The rank and file of the GOP,” Frum concluded, are “caught between their interests and their ideology.”
This clash of interests and ideology is left largely unexplored in Edsall’s analysis. While he acknowledges that “substantial numbers of Republican voters have no appetite for cuts in the two programs that virtually every economist and budget analyst says must be chopped down to size: Medicare and Social Security,” he never really comes to grips with the question of how Republican politicians will finesse that fact. It is one thing to carp about the futility and injustice of government programs in the abstract, but something else to deprive voters of their concrete benefits.
How would a Republican Party saddled with the responsibility of power actually govern in an age of austerity? The answer, of course, remains to be seen; at least so far, the politics of austerity have involved much more talk than action on both sides. Emboldened by their success in the 2010 election, House Republicans passed a 2012 budget that would have cut federal spending by an astounding $5.8 trillion—but no one supposed for a moment that the bill would make headway in the Democratic-controlled Senate. A bipartisan deal to raise the federal debt ceiling called for almost $1 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, but only a $21 billion reduction in discretionary spending in 2012 and $42 billion in 2013. The subsequent failure of a congressional “supercommittee” to reach a further deficit reduction deal is supposed to trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts, equally divided between defense and domestic programs; but within hours of the collapse of the supercommittee effort, Republicans in Congress were exploring ways to renege on that commitment, or at least their half of it.
Edsall notes that “early polling showed widespread opposition” to some elements of the radical budget bill authored by Republican Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and passed by the House on a party line vote. But he adds that Gallup respondents were “evenly split when asked to choose between the Ryan Committee budget, 43 percent, and the Obama budget, 44 percent.” It is hard to tell what, if anything, this is supposed to mean for the future course of politics and public policy. Since much of the mainstream press seemed to have little idea of even the basic contours of Ryan’s plan, it seems highly unlikely that Gallup respondents did. For their part, Democrats appear eager to tie the Ryan budget around the necks of congressional Republicans in the upcoming campaign, confident that the more voters know about it the less they will like it. If that calculation is correct, Republicans will indeed have been guilty of just the sort of ideological overreach diagnosed by Edsall, and their elusive chance to dismantle the welfare state will once again be postponed.
Edsall’s view of contemporary American politics is heavily colored by the shadow of a future in which increasing demographic diversity will inevitably tilt the balance of power from Republicans to Democrats. Noting that “Democratic voting blocs—Hispanics, African Americans, other minorities, and single women—are expanding as a share of the electorate,” he infers that “Republican leaders see the window closing on the opportunity to dismantle the liberal state. Given the demographic upheaval unsettling the ground on which it stands, the Republican Party sees the election of 2012 as a last-ditch chance for an overwhelmingly white conservative movement.”
This sort of demographic determinism is obviously appealing to liberals—we are the future!—but it is much too simplistic to bear the weight Edsall wants to give it. For one thing, demographic change operates on a much slower time scale than electoral politics. Census Bureau projections suggest that non-Hispanic whites will remain a majority of the U.S. population for the next 30 years. Allowing for differences in age profiles, citizenship status, and turnout, they will remain a majority of the electorate long after that.
In any case, the political impact of increasing diversity cannot be reliably inferred simply from numerical shifts. On one hand, as Edsall notes, “the white electorate is highly elastic,” with turnout levels and partisan vote margins “acutely responsive to external stimuli.” On the other hand, building and maintaining a diverse coalition requires considerable political skill, especially in a climate of austerity.
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