To my constricted mind, elections are like meteorological events. They happen, at more or less regular intervals. People can’t stop talking about them. If I had a desire to participate actively in either, it wouldn’t make a difference; and so I never have and never will. I’d be grateful if electoral politics and the weather could stay in the background, where they belong; but if they intrude all too much I’ll move, uncomplainingly, to a place where they don’t . In short, I don’t have any actual opinion on Tuesday’s election or its outcome, only a few rain-drenched musings:
The thing to behold is the breathtaking professionalization of our politics. Political parties and operatives can micro-target and mobilize every last voter, focus-group and finesse every ad in every precinct and medium. Because the pros are not going to leave anything on the table, every election will be basically 50:50. Thus, small events—a purloined campaign video, an indifferent debate performance, a storm—assume outsized significance, because the margins are so small.
As each side has to compete for the marginal voter while keeping partisans on board, political campaigns elevate trivial policy differences into points of principle. Moreover, government itself becomes a permanent campaign, because you have to buy or at least rent the decisive voting blocs as soon as you can. (This style of government according to Rove and Plouffe works, by the standards of their trade.) No government will be able to claim a mandate—because the election wasn’t about any serious differences in the first place, and because razor-thin margins (and, as now, divided government) don’t enable the winner to do much of anything. These results will obtain even if the country’s status quo is truly miserable and if absolutely everyone is convinced that this is so.
The miserable condition, I argued here, is an unsustainable, let’s-have-it-and-not-pay-for-it transfer state that both parties promised to maintain. We are stuck with that condition, as we would have been under President Romney. What now?
For advanced democracies in the transfer state predicament, there are only two ways out. One is a responsible Social-Democratic party that is (1) cognizant of the fact that a wrecked economy would also wreck its constituencies and (2) capable of holding labor unions in line. Successful reform countries—Canada, Germany, Sweden, and (more arguably) Brazil—all have that dynamic in common. America had but forfeited that chance in 2008, with Mr. Obama’s victory over Mrs. Clinton. The moment is gone for good, and Mrs. Clinton (should she enter the 2016 sweepstakes that started yesterday) will go nowhere. The new face of the party is Elizabeth Warren et al—brutal, ruthless hacks from Harvard.
The only other way out is a political force that offers a competing social model. That force, and that model, does not now exist—largely, I suspect, on account of our grimly professional politics. Conservatives felt compelled, for eight long years, to defend the Bush administration, an exercise that left them exhausted and compromised. After 2008, they should have done what opposition parties normally do—rethink, and regenerate. Alas, there was never any time for that: all the energy went into a fight against Obamacare, stimulus bills, etc.
The natural temptations is to keep it up: the people voted for “the people’s House” to keep taxes low. Maybe. But they also voted to keep benefits high, and so there’s the problem. A responsible opposition, it seems to me, would have to start at the opposite end—not with some clever promise to move crucial voting blocs (Hispanics, blue-collar Catholics), but with the truth: the country is broke. Our institutions are broken. Our economy is on the ropes. To fix the mess, you must give up something; but we have a plan that makes it worth your while.
That pretty much sums up The Federalist. The difference between Publius and us is the willingness to tell the truth, and the plan.