Commentary: American Politics Gone Insane

by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington. He is himself a bona fide liberal, or at least, what passed for a thinking liberal a decade ago. He is a sharp commentator on American politics, and has given us a brilliant and timely essay in the July-August issue of The Atlantic entitled “How American Politics Went Insane”.

Young Americans may not think politics has become insane, because they have never known what it used to be like. The leading political science text of fifty years ago (originally published in 1942, 5th edition in 1964) was Harvard Prof. V.O. Key Jr.’s authoritative Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups.

Note that it appeared before the Viet Nam War, the civil rights era, LBJ’s Great Society, the Carter inflation surge, the rise of Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and Trump, the end of the Cold War, two Gulf Wars, globalization, the transfer payment dependency explosion, the environmental movement, and the dramatic appearance of new communication technologies. These were game-changing developments.

Somewhere while all this was happening, Rauch argues, Americans began to arrive at some radically different views of the political process. He summarizes them as components of a Chaos Syndrome.

By that he means “a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization…that begins with the weakening of institutions and brokers – political parties, career politicians and congressional leaders and committees – that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.”

Congress is increasingly unable to actually deal with pressing issues. It hasn’t been able to pass its appropriations bills for twenty years. The central reason, Rauch says, is that the middlemen of American politics have been disfavored and disempowered. They are the many public and private actors within the system “who bring order out of chaos by encouraging coordination, interdependency and mutual accountability.”

These middlemen “recruited and nurtured political talent, vetted candidates for competence and loyalty, gathered and dispensed money, built bases of donors and supporters, forged coalitions, bought off antagonists, mediated disputes, brokered compromises, and greased the skids to turn compromises into law.”

What undid this? Reformers calumniated “professional politicians, closed door negotiations, personal favors, party ties, financial ties, all of it.” The techniques included open primary challenges by non-party hopefuls and  movements (think Trump and Sanders), seniority reform in Congress, forcing transparency on delicate negotiations, barring the “pork” spending that often helped to close a deal, and  diverting political money away from candidates and parties to issue groups, super PACs, 527s, and the like.

Rauch recognizes that the old system worked by sometimes unsavory middlemen had its shortcomings. They were often “undemocratic, high-handed, devious, secretive” (and he might have added, greedy.) But they did serve an important purpose, and we may well not be better off for their reduced influence.

Rauch reports a “shocking” study by University of Nebraska political scientists, who found that 25 to 40% of voters see the give and take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Those largely non-ideological respondents believe that policy should be made not by messy political conflict and negotiations but by “empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers.” These imaginary beings will “step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long-overdue solutions.”

These voters primed themselves to follow the three leading “sociopaths” of 2016: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who engineered the costly government shutdown of 2013 to serve his own purposes.

Rauch’s solution is to restore influence to political parties and middlemen. That means putting parties more in charge of their own candidates, favoring contributions to parties and candidates instead of wild card interest groups, and allowing pork to grease Washington deals. Above all, many Americans have to be persuaded to give up their neurotic rejection of the process of politics, and come to the realization that their detested “establishment” may offer a more promising future than the chaos produced by its disappearance.

Vermonters can take some comfort in knowing that here things aren’t so bad, because we have a higher sense of cooperation, and our bipartisan political class has been far more civil and responsible than the national counterpart.

Rauch’s article (at theatlantic.com/magazine) is at once disturbing, incisive and entertaining. It will well reward the reader concerned about “How American Politics Went Insane”.

- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org)

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