Back in the 1970s Lowell George of the band Little Feat penned a tune he called “Apolitical Blues,” which inspired the title of this post. If anything has changed politically since the Seventies, it’s that most Americans have become even more jaded with party politics and governing dysfunction. Blame who you will.
I’ll make a case here why our politics has become dysfunctional. First, I’ll argue this is a non-partisan issue (though I do have my ideological biases). If one is intellectually committed to one party or the other, I doubt I can do much to change your mind, but I will caution that partisan explanations are incomplete and largely inaccurate.
Before I begin, let’s get a temperature reading on the mood of the electorate. In a (very) recent Gallup poll, only 29% of those polled expressed any confidence in our current executive branch and only a piddling 7% have confidence in Congress (that would be both Houses of Congress – the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate controlled by Democrats). The Supreme Court only garners confidence from 30%.
As for party identification among voters, only 24% identify as Republicans, 28% as Democrats and 46% as Independents. So roughly half the country is not impressed with either party or their candidates. Ideology is different than partisanship, but are mostly coterminous for this exposition. Frankly, I can identify with the anti-party Independents, but will explain here why I mostly favor the Republican/conservative side.
My general contention is that the Republicans are a bit lost in the more recent past of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the right man at the right time, but his legacy is probably due as much to Nixon’s and Carter’s failures than to the efficacy of his policies. If government destroys growth incentives long enough, any policy that reverses that is going to yield positive results. In this light, instead of blaming Bush, Obama should probably be thanking him for delivering the presidency to the Left. However, Republicans are not as lost as their opposition.
Democrats are trapped in a postwar world that no longer exists, exemplified by FDR’s New Deal and JFK’s unrealized promise. Not only are they lost, they are convinced they are found and filled with certitude regarding their policy preferences. But they are wrong, and being certain of their follies makes them dangerous.
Now, let’s explain.
Both parties are rooted in the past and are failing because the economic landscape has changed. Republicans (and Reaganomics) are wedded to an economic truth that wealth is created by productive investment and hard work, with resources allocated by accurate market price signals. With these conditions, one can expect positive economic growth. But again, the economic landscape has changed and the most significant changes are technology, globalization, and demographics. These changes have tilted the playing field so that most of the gains to economic growth accrue to those who own productive assets or for some other reason have landed in the winners’ circle in a winner-take-all economy. (Say, like Michael Jordan or Cher – this is not to say they don’t deserve their lucrative fame.)
It also means that those whose incomes are dependent on their labor have lost ground. This is reflected in the unequal distributions of income and wealth. The growth mantra is meant to drown out the politics of inequality, but it never will. In our present policy configuration, we have widened the inequality gaps. For example, in seeking to reignite real growth, Fed policy has greatly enriched the “haves” vs. the “have-nots,” and there is nothing in economic or moral theory that justifies this. It is a matter of power and influence over policy.
The redeeming factor of all this is that we can learn and compensate for these policies without abandoning the principles of free markets and free peoples. In fact, these policies violate these principles. At some point the Republican Party will learn that what matters as much as economic growth is managing creative destruction in a dynamic society.
Things are not so encouraging across the ideological divide. Democrats focus almost exclusively on the politics of inequality and state redistribution. Punished for ignoring the imperatives of economic growth, they have turned to the postwar European model of state corporatism, at a time when this model is failing in Europe. In order to tax and redistribute according to political “fairness” (there is no such thing), there must be something to tax. (Thankfully, it was the Soviets who taught us this – unfortunately for the Russians.) So Democrats have decided they must corral big business, big labor, and big government to support their policy agenda. Thus, Obama’s main partners in policy, besides national labor organizations, have been big healthcare, big insurance, and big financial/banking corporations. With fewer players at the negotiating table (and no messy democracy), the state can manage society and insure “fairness” (again, there is no such thing in politics). The result is a society that grows gradually poorer as regulations, government intervention, tax policy, and political redistribution hampers the real economy and leads to gross distortions in the allocation of resources. The changing landscape of technology, globalization, and demographics will turn this policy strategy into a disaster.
To summarize, Republican policies lead to start and stop growth cycles, while Democratic policies lead to gradual stagnation and arbitrariness of results. The first goes in the right direction, but needs better calibration; the latter goes in the wrong direction and needs to be reversed.
So, anti-political blues, yes. But insanity, please no.