January 14, 2013
Why pork-barrel spending is a good thing …

"Pork," of course, is a slur term in American politics. It evokes money wasted on ten lane interstates in unpopulated areas, bridges to nowhere, and endless government "waste" on research into things like sex habits of snail darters. (They’re a type of fish. Look something up, won’t you?)

Well, as this post from The Monkey Cage suggests, there’s a problem with eliminating pork, as the tea party demanded we do after 2010.  Pork, you see, is the grease that makes the gears of government work. No grease, no grind.

Here’s why. In some ways, the contemporary era of governmental stasis reflects politics as people claim they wish it would be. Two opposing ideologies are engaged in a life or death struggle for political dominance. Great ideas are in contest. Who is going to win?

The thing is, of course, is that while this great ideological contest is going on, no side has sufficient power to impose its will on the political system. Notably, the framers would be all for this: they didn’t want it to be easy for any group to impose their will on the political system. That’s why they created the system of checks and balances. But in any case, as long as the ideologues are fighting in all or nothing terms, no one has the power to do anything until one side or the other takes total control of American politics. Which is really hard to do. So we do a lot of nothing.

In an era of divided politics, like ours, compromise is necessary to get things done. However, in an era of ideological politics (like ours) compromise is a dirty word, a sign one has lost faith in the Faith that is one’s political ideology. So what to do? How can you get things done when the ideological demands of the moment seem to make it impossible to make the compromises needed to take important actions?

As it happens, this is not the first time in American history when the nation has faced this ideological divide. Once, of course, we entered a civil war when we could not compromise, but more often than not we figured out how to make things work despite the great tension among various political actors. 

What did they do that we didn’t?

Historically, the answer to that question is: they distributed pork. Government spending on plans and projects was used to bring coalitions together. One might not like all the details of a particular bill, but you got enough out of it that you voted for it. Like most things in life, you weighed the pros and the cons and if the pros outweighed the cons you supported a bill and lived with the smell. 

Now, of course, any deal making like that is seen as corrupt, dirty and wrong. Perhaps it is. As a practical matter, however, when you take away the grease that made the gears work (pork) without replacing it with something else (a parliamentary model that gives ideological voter groups a better chance to dominate politics) you end up with ideological screaming matches that have little to no prospect of being resolved.

Sound familiar?

January 7, 2013
How (American) parties (usually) die

So people are always asking me if I think the time is ripe for a third party, and why can’t we have lots of parties, etc. 

Ignoring the fact that we actually do have lots of parties—Idaho Republicans are different than Illinois Republicans, and South Carolina Democrats don’t look much like California Democrats whatever party label they use—the short answer to the first question—are we ripe for a third party?—is: no.

Here’s why.

Historically, major American political parties have faded away only when one of two things happened: the constituents they represented declined in number to such an extent the party was no longer viable, or the political positions the party represented boxed the party into a position from which it could no longer remain effective.

The first explanation largely accounts for the decline of the Federalists in American political life in the 1810s and 20s. The Federalists were a relatively elite, relatively aristocratic party (at least in the American sense of that word), and as the nation grew in population, geographical size and electoral participants, the Federalists faded away. Eventually the Whig Party arose to represent some of the ideas the Federalists had fought for, but Whigs were not Federalists. The Federalists lacked the numbers they needed to succeed in a growing America.

The second explanation largely accounts for the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s. Whigs were relatively a pro-business, pro-government sponsored economic development party, but they were agnostic on the question of slavery. Whigs tried to elide the problem of slavery by not taking a clear position on the issue—an issue that grew in importance in the US as the country expanded into new territories and people wanted to take their slaves with them into the new territories. Democrats favored the expansion of slavery, while Whigs tried to avoid the controversy.

So where were the people who opposed slavery to turn for a party to represent their views? Eventually, they formed a new party—the Republican Party—in 1854, ran their first presidential candidate (in 1856), and won their first presidential election (in 1860). The Whig Party disappeared, overwhelmed by a political issue it could not address—slavery.

Since 1860, both the Democratic and Republican parties have survived, at least as names and labels, by coopting popular issues and bringing various new constituencies into their party orbit. In the 1890s Republicans became the party of federal regulation, seeking to use the power of the state to limit the power of abusive monopolies and predatory corporations during the Progressive Era. (Democrats remained a largely marginalized Southern party defending states’ rights and Jim Crow.) In the 1930s Democrats became the party of labor rights and economic stimulus in the New Deal. Democrats expanded their political base in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society; starting in the 1970s Republicans captured “old” Southern Democrats offended by civil rights. Republicans also started to win the votes of northern union Democrats who felt the Great Society gave too many benefits to people — usually minorities — who hadn’t earned them.

In any case, whatever the coalition of the moment, the “Democratic” and “Republican” parties have survived by evolving to adapt to the political realities of the moment.

So, then, is this process of adaptation likely to stop? Are both (or one) of the Democratic and Republican parties likely to stop evolving to adapt to contemporary political realities?

Clearly, if either party is likely to freeze in place today it’s the Republican Party. Republicans seem to be struggling to figure out how to offer a program that will appeal to today’s voters and today’s problems. But there’s nothing particularly new about parties struggling to make such changes. It’s a process, and always has been. 

So if  a third party rises, it seems to me that it will have to be a party that builds off Republican voters but offers some new take on an issue that the Republicans AND the Democrats haven’t offered. And I don’t really see an issue that can serve this end. 

So will we have a meaningful third party in the near future?

Don’t bet on it.

July 29, 2011
Of Factions, Framers and the Tea Party

As anyone who studies the American constitution knows, at least part of the reason for the Constitution’s elaborate system of divided institutions and checks and balances is to limit the power of faction in political life.

The notion was that in separating powers, staggering elections, building in the representation of different constituencies, insulating the Senate, the Presidency, and the Courts from direct democratic, electoral pressure, and shaping the interests of one branch of government to delimit the powers of the others, a system of governance would emerge with enough power to govern, but without so much power that it could abuse its citizens’ rights and liberties. The Framers thus sought to balance their sense of the good things government could do and was needed for—just read the Preamble for a list—against their fear of the kinds of abuses of government that led them to declare independence in the first place. (Really read the whole Declaration of Independence if you want to get a sense of what I mean: it is mostly a list of complaints about how terrible the King is.)

Among other things, the Framers sought to avoid the kind of “elected dictatorships” that they saw dominating European parliaments—particularly the English one. In the parliamentary model, at least in theory, whatever party has a majority of seats in the legislature can run the government on its own terms. A majority can be a democratic dictatorship.

The thing is, this hope was always misbegotten. As Madison noted, “the latent seeds of faction are sewn in the nature of man” (Federalist #10). There is no way to either prevent factions from forming or from expressing their preferences in social and political life. It is certainly true that the US constitutional system makes it hard for factions to dominate political life. But it does not make it impossible. (It’s also worth noting that the Framers knew this: there were factions at the Constitutional Convention, and Federalist and Anti-Federalist sentiments were rife in 1788.)

Since the Framers believed factions couldn’t dominate the system they designed, they built a Constitution in which political parties are absent and unconsidered. After all, what is a party if not a broad faction?  Consequently, unlike the constitutions of most other democracies, the term “political party” does not appear in the US Constitution.

The Constitution’s silence about parties means that they are “extra-constitutional.” They’re not unconstitutional, but rather than being an integrated, intentional part of the system of checks and balances, they exist in the space “around” the Constitution.

This matters because American political parties formed to cheat the system to checks and balances, not serve it. Parties formed on the principle that if one party, sharing a relatively common political program, could capture all three branches of government (and those of the states as well), the American system could be made quasi-parliamentary: that party could get its legislative and other agendas through a political system designed to make it hard to get such agendas passed.

Notably, parliamentary systems usually have an option to deal with periods in which no party dominates the system: new elections. If the governing party or coalition falls apart, voters can have a chance to elect new people to office, reinforcing the current majority or replacing it. In either case—hopefully—the paralysis is broken and action can be taken.

The United States lacks this mechanism. Our elections are fixed in time, and if one part of government refuses to cooperate with others on ideological grounds, there is no mechanism by which the nation at large can choose to either support the rebels or the establishment. Instead, one or more branches of government dominated by one party that is in opposition to the political preferences of the other branches of government can cause political paralysis across the system. Paralysis, even in the face of impending crisis, is the default choice. (Think of the years before the Civil War, even after Southern states started to secede, or of US inaction on the Depression, as examples of such systemic paralysis.)

The tea party’s defiant dominance of the House of Representatives is, in part, the consequence of the Framers’ 224 year old decision to assume that no party could form and control American politics, and thus that there was no need to build mechanisms into the US Constitution by which the government could hold new elections in times of political paralysis. Maybe the tea party would win these new elections, and maybe it wouldn’t. But for now, the tea party is a faction the Framers didn’t prepare for.

The US stands on the edge of a cliff the Framers simply refused to see.

July 26, 2011
Why Does Europe Have Explicitly Racist Parties, and the US Doesn’t?

In the aftermath of the horrors of the Norway murders—and the rush to judgment of so many to the conclusion that it “must have” been the act of an Islamic terrorist—I am struck by a point that I have yet to see addressed: why Europe has numerous, electorally-represented, explicitly racist political parties, while the United States doesn’t.

As is so often the case, this observation led me to ask: why?

I think that there are at least two answers to this question: the structure of the American party system versus the European party system, and the differences in US and European racial history.

As to the comparative differences between US and European parties, it is roughly correct to say that whereas the United States has been dominated by a two party system, most European countries have multiparty systems.

The reasons for this difference are complex, and are not in fact at all important here. Rather, what matters is the way this difference allows different factions of society to express their preferences.

In the US model, factions end up linking themselves together in one master party. The “party” shares a name, and some values, but lacks a true ideological core. Thus, for example, the Democrats have both conservative and liberal wings. (So, once, did the Republicans … and not all that long ago, either.)

In the European model, each faction can form its own party and, if the system has a sufficiently accessible electoral process, can win seats in the legislature. Thus, rather than create a master party of only limited ideological coherence, parties can proliferate in line with society’s ideological schisms. It’s akin to the sectarian-ness of Protestantism: new religions—or parties—can be formed over almost any difference.

The structural difference between the US and European party models has profound consequences for the way racist policies and programs play out in electoral politics. In Europe, racist parties can form and have a credible chance to win seats in the legislature all on their own. They do not need to join with mainstream parties to have a chance at electoral success—and, importantly, no mainstream party needs to compete for racist votes to enhance their chances in the larger system. In the US, by contrast, racists seeking to influence the system need to link themselves to a major political party—and major parties need racially-tinged voters to enhance their electoral coalitions … whether they admit it or not.

Thus, there is nothing like the National Front (France) in the US, but the Democrats were a racist party for 100+ years, and now some Republicans use racialized language and imagery in their contemporary politics.

As for history (point two), this is one I think the US has the better side of. The simple fact is that most European nations have never gone through anything like the civil rights movement—much less a racially-embedded civil war in which dominant cultural groups ended up fighting and dying in large numbers for members of an oppressed, indeed enslaved, racial minority. In fact, quite the opposite is true: more often than not, dominant groups in Europe have engaged in racial and ethnic oppression—even genocide—in asserting and maintaining their cultural and political dominance. Imperialism and colonialism, for example, rest on assumptions of racial and ethnic superiority on the part of the colonizer over the colonized.  (If anyone needs to get seriously depressed about the savageness Europeans can enact on one another on religious, ethnic, racial and ideological grounds, I can commend Timothy Snyder’s staggering book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin to their attention.)

As a consequence, the United States has developed a cultural ethos such that even while one might BE a racist, you know you’re not supposed to ADMIT you’re a racist. Americans are generally ashamed, at least in their public rhetoric, by slavery, racism, and the abuse of Native Americans across the scope of American history. In Europe, no such cultural ethos is as deeply established. There are certainly lots of European progressives, but the culture is not as instinctively anti-racist.

Together, the limited cultural strictures on the expression of racist attitudes, mixed with the electoral opportunities available to European racists to form their own parties, has created conditions that promote racial parties in many European nations. By contrast, American racists (and racialists) have to link themselves to established political parties—a link that both constrains their ability to express their views, and which allows them a real chance at affecting policy should their party come to power.

Put another way, the US political system compels racists to integrate with mainstream parties to have any influence in the system, whereas the political systems in most European systems allow racists to form parties and seek to influence the political system directly. In the end, today, I think the US way is more likely to mitigate against a rise of  racist parties than is the European way.

It’s not that we don’t have racists. It’s that we force the racists we have to integrate (and yes, I chose that word deliberately) with the rest of us, where maybe they might learn something about how to be a decent human being.

We can at least hope.

August 30, 2010
The Republican Party is in trouble

I realize that the notion that the Republican Party is in trouble runs somewhat against the logic of the political moment: with Republican candidates surging, the Democrats in apparent trouble, and at least the limited possibility of Republicans taking the House, the Senate, or both, it is hard to imagine how it is the Republicans who are in trouble. But they are.

The truth of this claim is to be found in a statistic cited in today’s New York Times: registered Republicans only make up 43% of voters in Orange County, CA.

The thing is, Orange County is where the modern, conservative Republican Party was founded. Orange County is the epicenter. It’s ground zero for the money and the ideas and the organization that first brought Barry Goldwater to prominence in 1964—and then formed the core of Ronald Reagan’s runs for Governor and eventually President. It is an area of suburban LA filled with tract homes and Disneyland and Robert Schiller’s Crystal Cathedral and defense plants (and their wealthy owners and managers). It has been the beating heart of conservative Republicanism for 50 years.

And it’s not Republican any more. At least not monolithically so. What is it? Well, the mayor of its biggest city, Santa Ana, is Korean born. It has a large Vietnamese population, refugees and the children of refugees from our war there. It is, in other words, quite diverse. Which is why the Republicans are in trouble.

The simple fact is that the United States is growing more racially, ethnically, socially and yes, religiously diverse every day. One can bemoan it; one can resist it; what one cannot credibly do is change it. Immigrants and others will change America even as America changes them.

But the current leadership of the Republican Party has chosen to link the party to the most troglodytic instincts of American life and culture. The real problem of illegal immigration has gotten turned into “them” bringing drugs and crime and even—as former CNN host Lou Dobbs repeatedly claimed—LEPROSY to the US. (As if we didn’t have drugs and crime all on our own. The leprosy thing is apparently twaddle.) Build a wall! Legitimate concern (that I don’t share) that the so-called “Ground Zero” mosque is located too close to Ground Zero has morphed, for some, into aggressive anti-Islam sentiments. And the idiot Rand Paul has decided that one of the greatest accomplishments in American history, the Civil Rights Act, an act passed 46 years ago, might have gone too far in seeking to redress 300 years of racial segregation and cruelty in the United States.

Like it or not, much of the Republican Party leadership today is sending a collective message to anyone and any group that does not think or look like they do: screw you. It is very hard to imagine many immigrants or what today we call “people of color” looking to the Republican Party for a home.

As an aside, it in no way follows that the Democrats will benefit from all this. They have their foibles and their troglodytes, and frustration with their ineffectiveness may well drive many people away. But ideologically it seems fair to say that they Democratic Party of the last 40 years has been a far more hospitable place to issues of diversity than has the Republican Party.

Which is why the Republicans are in trouble. It might well win this election, and perhaps a few more, in its current, nativist, configuration. But absent a change of heart, it is alienating itself from its own future. Orange County was the epicenter of one Republican Revolution. It may well be the epicenter of another one.

May 26, 2010
A brief thought on the Iraq war and party stability

Just a thought: with the fall of the Labour government in the UK, every democratically-elected party whose governing coalition supported the decision to go into Iraq has fallen.  Most have been replaced by parties explicitly opposed to the war.  Labour lasted longer than most, largely as an artifact of its election system, but most pro-Iraq war parties were thrown out of office by 2005. Shocking possibility: what seems to be advantageous in the short term may not always be in your long-term interest. I get that sometimes you have to do what you think is right no matter the consequences, but on this one, I bet a lot of world leaders would make very different choices if they had it all to do over again. 

February 16, 2010
Tea Parties

So I figured it was time to make a foray into the weird, wacky, wonderful world of the tea parties.  To coin a phrase, what’s up with that?

First, a shameless plug: in 2004 I published Rage on the Right, which examined the rise and relative decline of the 1990s militia movement.  One of the things I pointed out was that movements/groups like the militias were embedded in American political culture and so while the militias themselves had declined precipitously by 2001, they weren’t “gone.”  The values they express and the ideas they espouse “make sense” in the context of American political culture, and so long as that culture contains the unique stuff it does, groups like the militias, or other groups evoking similar themes, were sure to persist in the United States.  Boys howdy was I ever right.

Second, an admission: I absolutely misperceived the tea party movement when it started.  I saw it as filling the void in some fairly empty news cycles, largely astro-turfed by conservative think tanks and activists.  That may have been true at the time—although I am by no means sure that it was—but it is certainly not true now.  The tea partiers have captured some weltanschauung, and they are running with it, for better and for worse.

It seems to me that any foray into tea partydom needs to examine at least 2 things: what they want, and how they seek to act on their goals.  The first, so far, is much less clear than the second.

The name “tea party,” of course, is intended to evoke images of the Boston Tea Party, the American rebellion against taxation without representation, and the rejection of central political authority over our lives, among other things.  The name defines adherents as acting in the spirit of America’s original patriots against impending or active tyranny.  It is, in fact, a brilliant piece of political branding.

And yet when you look at exactly what it is tea partiers want, the picture becomes much more muddled.  Okay: lower/no new taxes.  No federal government health care. Less government regulation = freedom, especially for businesses.  Frankly, in the context of US political culture, these are fairly mundane and predictable.  They might be “real” American conservatives, given that Republicans in the GW Bush era fell as much or more in love with big government than Democrats supposedly are.  After all, if liberals are always “tax and spenders,” Republicans in the Bush era were “don’t tax but spend anyway.”  The tea party movement may have its proximate cause in healthcare reform, but the broader context spreads blame to both parties.

But of course you can’t get something for nothing, and if you want to reduce taxes and regulations in one area, there’s going to be a price to pay somewhere else.  So far, the tea partiers haven’t had to try to square the circle of their beliefs.  For example, something around 70% of the federal budget goes to precisely 5 programs: defense, Social Security (an income transfer program from working persons to retired persons), Medicaid (healthcare for non-veteran senior citizens),  interest on the national debt (which you have to pay if you expect lenders to keep loaning), and the bank bailouts—which are, at least hopefully, temporary.  Everything else—roads, schools, parks, veterans’ benefits, food and drug safety, and everything usually called “welfare”—is in the remaining 30%.  You could cut every program in those remaining 30% and the US would STILL have a deficit.  You can eliminate Social Security now, for all people for all time, and the deficit would go UP because right now Social Security collects more revenue than it expends, and while the federal government is supposed to be saving this money for future use, it in fact has transferred the surplus revenues to the general budget since the surplus was created in 1986.

And, of course, Social Security is popular.  So is Medicare—especially among retirees, some of whom inhabit the tea party movement.  (My favorite tea party sign opposing heath care reform this summer demanded, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”  Just amazing.)  “Welfare” runs to about 8% of the federal budget, which is nowhere near enough to get rid of the deficit—and of course people might find increased pressure on them to give at their churches, synagogues and mosques to handle to influx of charity cases once welfare programs are eliminated.

Moreover, while I was among those angered by the bank bailout, especially by the early decisions that essentially sent $350 billion into the system that cannot be accounted for, I get why it was done, at least from the perspective of Keynesian economics.  I get why the infusion of cash may well have staved off a depression.  What I have not heard from the tea partiers is: what was their preferred alternative?  In the moment of near-collapse, what would they have done and why would it have been better than the bailout?  Frankly, I don’t think they have an answer to these questions—which is a problem if you want to do more than criticize what others are doing, and go out and do something yourself.

And then things get a little stranger.  There is, after all, no such thing as the “Tea Party,” and there is no central party authority capable of vetting the many claims and demands of movement members.  And many evoke conspiracy themes long-embedded in the wacko right of the American political spectrum.  (Yes, there’s a wacko left, but it’s not relevant here.)  Themes like there are secret government internment facilities under construction to imprison true Americans—e.g., tea partiers.  Or that unknown forces—the ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government), or the Trilateral Commission, or what GHW Bush called the New World Order (which Glen Beck now cites in fear and trepidation)—seek to impose a universal government on Americans, thus voiding our national sovereignty.  The whole Obama-is-a-Muslim-Kenyan-Indonesian thing works in this context, too.  Most recently, notions of armed resistance have entered tea party activist rhetoric—in addition to carrying guns at rallies, some adherents claim the right to use force to prevent the federal government from destroying liberty.  (A further shameless plug: there’s lots of analysis of this stuff in Rage on the Right.)

It’s going to be hard to win much if such memes become the face of the movement, and if adherents can’t come up with coherent plans for government action that might actually square with their stated goals.

As for tactics, they seem a little clearer: either the creation of an effective third party, or the takeover of the Republican Party from below. Of these two, the second is actually more likely: conservatives purged moderates from the Republican Party by taking over state-level offices in the 1970s and 1980s. The means to do so still exist: elect your people to precinct offices that determine who county officers are who determine who state level officers are who determine who national level officers are.  Parties in the US work from the bottom-up, and since no one ever runs for precinct level offices, they’re not that hard to take over.

Meanwhile, it’s been since the Republican Party replaced the Whig Party in 1854-56 that a third party established a permanent presence on the American political stage.  Since then, major parties generally coopt the position of emergent third parties, thereby reducing the raison d’etre of the third party. Notably, the Republicans of 1854 had an issue that the Whigs couldn’t coopt: they were abolitionists, whereas the Whigs weren’t.  (The Democratic Party of the time was pro-slavery.)  Low taxes and reduced regulations are not issues like slavery, so cooptation is more likely than permanent party status.

But it seems to me the tea partiers have a bigger tactical problem: electoral math.  Ideological purity is emotionally satisfying, but usually isn’t a particularly effective electoral strategy in a system that elects people to office in single-member plurality districts. If 80% of Americans like Social Security (and the percentage is higher), then demands to cut taxes and cut programs runs into a simple problem: no meaningful cuts can take place unless Social Security and other popular entitlements are cut.  The same is true for defense and Medicare and other big ticket items. Whatever the tea partiers may hope is true, the evidence is clear: Americans like social programs,  They just don’t like paying for them.  Which is why they elect people who expand them while cutting taxes … and borrowing money … annoying the tea partiers.

I am going to have material forever!

So, groups like the tea partiers are always going to be with us, even if (as is likely) the particular movement of the moment changes.  We’ll see a few more cycles of their activism, and then it will decline as the circumstances that brought them to life change.  But don’t worry: they, or their posterity, will be back.  It’s America.