This book is about America’s broken political system: how it got that way, who benefits, and who loses. It is about the growing domination of the legislative process by corporate money and the corresponding decline of the idea of a broad public interest. It is about how politicians use intensely polarized ideological issues as bait to energize their political base – and to divert that base away from the one overriding political issue in our society: who gets what.
As America’s political dysfunction has grown worse, the economic stagnation of the middle class has deepened. This is not a result of blind economic forces, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, globalization, or some other nebulous cause. Specific committees of Congress, inevitably assisted by specific K Street lobbyists, wrote legislation that achieved that result.]
Why am I so sure of what I say? I worked in Congress for 28 years, most of the time as a professional staff member analyzing legislation for the House and Senate Budget Committees. For the first twelve years I worked for John Kasich, a Republican Member of the House Armed Services Committee, and my fiefdom was national security. Then I switched over to Senator Judd Gregg’s office and moved to the budget committee. My duties gave me an invaluable perspective on government budgeting, and particularly on budgeting for national security. And they allowed me to understand that when politicians claim they will cut taxes, wage war around the planet, and balance the budget at the same time they are spouting rank falsehoods. I was in the privileged position to see how Congress works on the inside, when the C-Span cameras are turned off. What I saw was not Civics 101 or Jefferson’s Manual, but an auction where political services are offered up to the highest bidder
I was impelled to write this book because I became alarmed by the trends I was seeing. In particular, my own party, the Republican Party, began to scare me. After the 2008 election, Republican politicians became more and more intransigently dogmatic. They doubled down on advancing policies that transparently favored the top one percent of earners in this country, while obstructing measures like the extension of unemployment insurance. They seemed to want to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted in the middle of the worst economic meltdown in 80 years.
And there was worse to come. Whether it was Rep. Joe Wilson boorishly yelling “you lie!”– unprecedented behavior during a joint meeting of Congress assembled to hear a presidential address – or the obscene carnival of Birtherism, Obama-the-secret-Muslim, death panels, and all the rest of it, the party took on a nasty, bullying, crazy edge. From my perch on the budget committee I watched with a mixture of fascination and foreboding as my party was hijacked by a new crop of opportunists and true believers hell-bent on dragging the country into their jerry-built New Jerusalem: an upside-down utopia where corporations rule, the Constitution, like science, is faith-based, and war is the first, not the last, resort in foreign policy.
I suspect many of these politicians never believed what they were saying, but were cynically playing to an increasingly deranged political base that does believe it. Television viewers could observe the outcome of this strategy in September 2011, when the partisan audience invited to view the Republican Presidential debate at the Reagan library in California cheered and clapped at the mention of executions and the prospect of letting the uninsured die.
Do Democrats offer a sane alternative? The explanation is more complicated, but the answer is finally no. They have not become an extremist party like the GOP – their politicians do not match the current crop of zanies who infest the Republican Party – but their problem lies in the opposite direction. It is not that they are fanatics or zealots, it is that most do not appear to believe in anything very strongly. Democrats who expect this book to be a diatribe against Republicans alone will be disappointed. The GOP has gone off the rails; they are the party I know best, and which I will describe in greater detail. But their sorry situation is a symptom of a deeper dysfunction in American politics and society for which Democrats own a considerable share of responsibility.
The Democratic Party coasted far too long on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy. It became complacent and began to feel entitled to its near-hegemonic position in politics, culture and the media. When the New Right increasingly began to displace them in all three of those arenas, some liberals merely turned into ineffectual whiners and crybabies, or ivory tower escapists. The bulk of Democratic politicians and operatives, however, moved in a different direction. After three straight losses in presidential elections between 1980 and 1988, they abandoned their old beliefs in practice while continuing to espouse them in theory. These new Democrats will say anything to win an election – an objective which, in their minds, generally requires them to emulate Republicans, particularly with respect to money-grubbing on the fund raising circuit. Many of them only last a term or two, because if people want a Republican, they will vote for the real thing. What has evolved in America over the last three decades is a one-and-a-half party system as Democrats opportunistically cleave to the “center,” which, in the relativistic universe of American politics, keeps moving further to the right.
The current political dynamic is beginning to defeat the optimistic expectations of James Madison. As one of the chief architects of the structure of our Federal system, Madison believed that competing factional interests would balance each other out and that the government, like Newtonian clockwork, would keep on ticking. In times of general social harmony and tolerably shared prosperity, this theory worked well enough: big business and big labor roughly balanced each other. But in the last 30 years, this balance has fallen terribly askew. Some ten years into my time on the Hill, unions ceased to be the political power and source of campaign funding they once were. As the cost of elections kept rising, Democrats increasingly turned to Wall Street and corporate America for handouts. The legacy of this Faustian bargain is an ambivalent, hesitant, and split-minded party: still half-heartedly regarding itself as the party of the New Deal, the common man, the working stiff, but at the same time advancing the agenda of corporate donors who call the shots. Money has overtaken politics so completely that factional interests are now simply competing to buy votes.
James Fallows has pointed out the shortcomings of the “balance” theory in the modern context:“The major parts of our political establishment are both showing operational pathologies that each makes the other’s failings worse, rather than somehow buffering each other toward a harmonious best-of-both-worlds compromise result. From what I have seen in Congress, Fallows is right: whenever Democrats and Republicans achieve “bipartisan compromise” on issues like restrictions of constitutional rights and putting the next $100-billion installment for our endless wars on the national credit card, the public interest loses.
It has been little more than a decade since a Secretary of State in a Democratic administration smugly declared that the United States was “the indispensible nation.” Self-satisfied pundits extolled the U.S. not only as the sole remaining superpower, but as a hyperpower. A few years after that, operatives in a Republican administration pronounced the invasion of Iraq “a cakewalk,” and opined that the Greater Middle East was yearning for the healing touch of American liberators, armed to the teeth.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the American establishment’s bipartisan vaunting and hubris have turned to ashes. It is not by happenstance that America today looks more like a Third World country than an advanced industrial state in international comparisons of social health such as longevity at birth, infant mortality, income distribution, social mobility, labor protection, average number of vacation days, and many other metrics. Our tax policies have ensured that the rich got richer and the rest of us got stuck with the bill. Congressional obedience to corporatized medicine ensured that Americans pay an average of 50 percent more for their health care than citizens in Western Europe. Union-busting, leveraged buyouts, and offshoring of jobs guaranteed lower wages and fewer labor protections. According to the International Monetary Fund, China – Communist China! – is on track to have a gross domestic product greater than that of the United States by 2016.
In my early youth, when tail-finned Plymouths and porthole Buicks cruised the brick-paved streets of my Midwestern hometown, we were told to clean our plates and not let the food go to waste. Had we no appreciation? There were starving children in Europe! Europe, mind you – which now has an aggregate GDP greater than that of the United States. As for China, it barely registered at the time. Chinese peasants in 1959 were eating tree bark and grass and living in little better than Bronze Age conditions courtesy of Chairman Mao and his Great Leap Forward. Now, thanks to the money men, arbitrageurs, buyout artists, and the politicians they rent, much of the former American industrial base resides in China.
Charles de Gaulle once said the graveyards are full of indispensible men; and so it is with nations. As an historian by training, I have bad news for the political establishment in Washington: there is no divine plan guaranteeing America’s global preeminence. There is also no divine plan mandating that the American middle class shall forever remain in existence. If the politicians running this country continue to pursue ideological chimeras and cater to the narrow, short-run desires of moneyed elites and extremist pressure groups while neglecting the broader national interest, we might as well resign ourselves to taking a place among the former great powers of history.
Standard & Poor’s downgrading of U.S. sovereign debt during the summer of 2011 was an epochal event – the first credit downgrade of our nation since the ratings began in 1917. Read that credit report carefully. It was not a downgrade based on America’s technical inability to redeem its debt instruments; it was a downgrade primarily dictated by the political dysfunction in Washington, and the expectation that things will not get better anytime soon. The rating agency turned out to be right: the ineffectuality of the so-called Super Committee a few months later, the payroll tax farce over Christmas, and the prospect of more government shutdowns to come plainly show that partisan rancor is making the day-to-day process of orderly governance impossible.
This breakdown is not unique in the world. Regardless of what the apostles of American Exceptionalism may say, the United States cannot isolate itself from the tide of international events. Our malaise is part of a global crisis of governance and a breakdown of laissez-faire economics. Europe, once a nearly miraculous example of stability and prosperity after its Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of World War II, is experiencing an existential turning point that will decide whether peaceful and democratic integration continues or the continent regresses back to a cockpit of rivalry. Political change is sweeping North Africa and the Middle East – including some of the states which have been clients of our fading global hegemony. Even the Russian people, assumed to have been resigned to the arctic chill of authoritarian “guided” democracy, have grown restless.
A warning about decline should not be a counsel of despair. A look at basic material factors will show that the United States is not in nearly as bleak a position as our present predicament suggests. It is a continent-sized country lying mostly in the temperate zone, bounded on two sides by the largest moats in the world. It has 300 million inhabitants who can supply a tremendous pool of human capital. It has a greater quantity of productive arable land in a suitable climate than any other country and a staggering array of natural resources – both of which a wise government would use carefully as it stewards them for the benefit for generations unborn. Compared to Greece, a rocky southern outlier of the Balkan Mountains living on foreign tourism and controlling neither its currency nor its economic policy, the substantive difficulties of the United States are trivial. America’s problems are at root political problems of our own making, the result of destructive habits of mind, and these factors are amenable to solutions we can devise.
According to a CBS/New York Times poll, Congress’s favorability rating stands at 9 percent, the lowest since polling began. Even the prospect of “America going communist” has higher public favorability, at 11 percent, than our legislative branch. Some of this cynicism and disenchantment is the result of deliberate political engineering to make Americans lose faith in their government, as we shall see later in this book. But Americans are angry all the same, and they have cause to be angry.
Political anger can be a constructive thing. Not the blind, unthinking anger of those who have been carefully worked into a perpetual rage by the expertly trained pitchmen of political talk radio, or the anger of the single-issue zealot or culture warrior; but the steady, rational indignation of the fully informed citizen about the fact that his rights and privileges are being usurped, and that his heritage is being squandered.
This is that story as I saw it unfold: the story of the seizure of our political system by special interests, and what I believe must be done to reverse this process.