Category Archives: Governance

The Unfortunate Heart of Politics

Thomas Jefferson supposedly once said that the “American experiment would prove that men can be governed by reason and reason alone.”* Well, Tommy-boy, the evidence is in and that hypothesis holds less water than beef jerky.

If the Republic has proven anything it is that people are mostly governed by their passions. Oh, they are happy to tell you that their politics are cogent and reasoned. And, in the vast majority of cases, they are absolutely wrong. Political attitudes are driven by impulse and intuition, debated with fervor and feeling. Our political choices are driven less by rational heads than by peevish hearts. Politically speaking we are less Mr. Spock and more Dr. McCoy. Rational analysis is not our bag, we’re more damnit-Jim-let’s-set-phasers-to-kill types.

Jefferson had this idea—noble, but completely nutty—that the American system of government could foster an informed and judicious citizenry. Ensconced within the nurturing folds of their democratic blanket, the electorate would do its part by deliberating carefully before making its political choices. This collective act of popular prudence would accrue into governance by and for the greater social good. Many Americans still tend to favor Jefferson’s idea as a not wholly fallacious description of the Republic’s reality. And, like Jefferson, they’re self-deludingly bonkers.

It’s hard to govern by reason and reason alone because, well, reason is never alone. Its constant companion is emotion. And while emotion often doesn’t make much sense and leads us to do some pretty silly stuff, it sure feels good. Reason proposes cutting down on the carbs and taking up jogging. Emotion proposes sitting down on the couch and taking up a cold one. Reason might know what’s best for us, but chances are we’re guzzling beer and chips and not powering up on minimally processed, gluten free protein pucks before a five mile run.

Believe it or not, the same general principal works in politics. Especially contemporary politics, which is increasingly tribal. People are not voting on the basis of a knowledgeable and dispassionate weighing of pros and cons on what’s best for themselves, their community, or their country. At best, they’re just voting their team. Political scientists have known for decades that you can predict someone’s vote with 80-90 percent accuracy in pretty much any election, from city dog catcher to president of the United States, just by knowing their party identification. At worst they’re mad as hell, haven’t a clue, and making their political choices more or less at random.

Now, there are some in my profession who argue that being pig-ignorant and voting purely on the basis of who has an “R” or a “D” on the ballot is both rational and reasonable. If the parties represent competing baskets of policy positions and a voter has a minimal notion that one is more conservative and the other is more liberal, then there’s no need to dive too deep into the details. As long as the “R” or the “D” more or less connects with the genuine preferences of the voter it’ll all come out in the Jeffersonian wash.

Except it doesn’t. The lack of information for many voters is so gobsmackingly complete they are largely incapable of connecting what they want out of government to their vote. In other words, they are perfectly capable of repeatedly voting against their own interests. There have been a number of academic studies suggesting this is a widespread phenomenon and even entire books devoted to the subject (the best known is probably still Thomas Frank’s, What’s The Matter With Kansas?). Representative surveys administering basic tests of political knowledge show most Americans flunking even the most basic civics test.

If there’s plenty of evidence that people are not voting on the basis of reason, there’s overwhelming evidence they are voting on the basis of emotion. Anger, hope, frustration, trust, disgust – this is what gets people ginned up and out to the polls, not their extensive consumption of C-SPAN and policy white papers. Most elections—certainly the last one—are less Jeffersonian rites of reason than cries of passion. Politics for most people is less sober meditation on how to improve the public administration than an irksome let’s-just-get-this-over-with civic obligation or, even worse, a yee-haw moment of catharsis.

Unlike Jefferson, Founding Dudes with more skeptical takes on human nature—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton—never thought reason intruded too far into the politics of the vast majority of people. The idea of a Republic bobbing along on a warm bath of populace-supplied rationality probably struck them as loony. They were just hoping to get a jigger of the stuff into government while tamping the popular passions down to the smallest minimum possible.

And the institutions they established have done, mostly, a decent job of this. But human institutions are no match for human nature. The institutions increase the probability that actual grownups will run the government, but they offer no guarantees. They give reason a decent shot at making it into the running of the commonweal, but offer no warranty. They leave open the possibility that those elected to powerful office will reflect the troubling political traits that huge swaths of voters display in spades: A mind-blowing lack of information about government and a disconcerting reliance on emotion in making important decisions. Given the behavior of a certain bitter Twitter critter, you might say we are already there.

And what’s a reasonable person to do when that happens? Beam me up Scotty.

*I say “supposedly” because while I could track down plenty of examples of people quoting this quote, I couldn’t actually locate an original source or something that cited an original sauce.


Kansas Comes to its Senses

There’s a general consensus among professional observers of politics that the federal government is, to use the correct technical term, ate up with dumb ass. POTUS is potty, Congress is cuckoo, and partisanship has gone postal. Maybe so, but there are some hopeful signs down at the state level that all the insane-in-the-membrane political fever is breaking.

Case in point is Kansas. Five years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback led a mostly successful charge to fully implement the low tax, small government political agenda long lusted after by Milton Friedman fanboys, Laffer Curve libertarians, and Koch brothers conservatives. The basic plan was to free Kansas entrepreneurs from the shackles of onerous (or even any) taxation, and they’d use the extra dough to unleash innovation, create jobs and usher in a new era of prosperity and plenty for the Sunflower State.  It didn’t happen. They just stopped paying taxes. And the government went broke. Go figure.

What was truly looney about Kansas’ whole hog embrace of right-wing economic policy was not that they tried it. What the heck, you never know unless you try. Well, they tried. And tried. And tried. And the same thing happened every stinkin’ year—the government sank one level deeper into the budgetary doo-doo. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then the Kansas government was clinically deranged.

For years, Brownback and his troops insisted things were going to get better. Any day now, the low tax economic miracle would arrive and, hoo-boy, wouldn’t those smug so-and-sos in the states surrounding Kansas be sorry they hadn’t followed suit. While Kansas government sank a full fathoms five into the financial ooze, those other states were foolishly taxing their citizens and throwing away that money on functioning public education systems, decent roads, and a modicum of fiduciary responsibility. Like any of that’s going to underpin economic growth. Suckers.

Unfortunately for Brownback the electorate got tired of waiting for his fiscal Godot to show up. After half-a-decade of watching its government madly clicking its Ruby Red supply-side slippers and leaving them all down at the heels, Kansans had finally had enough. Last election they bounced the Brownback/Tea Party wing of the GOP out on its behind and elected just enough moderate Republicans and Democrats to give common sense a fighting chance in the state legislature. And fight it did. The Kansas legislature passed legislation that, more or less, said, “the nut jobbery stops now.” Brownback vetoed it. The legislature—just—overrode the veto a couple of weeks ago.

The return of common sense was greeted glumly in some quarters. Some could of this could be chalked up to supply side true believers like Brownback, who kept begging everyone to keep chugging the Kool Aid because, seriously guys, just two more swallows we’ll all be piddling rainbows. It was celebrated by others, and not always in a sporting way. The schadenfreude squad was out in full force, and a lot of tut-tutting and told-you-sos could be heard coming from the neighborhood Keynesians. The lesson they are drawing is that you don’t boost an economy by destroying the state’s ability to provide the public goods and services that make it possible.

That’s a perfectly reasonable inference, but I seriously doubt Kansas’ experience will impart any universally agreed upon economic wisdom to the left or right. Conservatives will insist the underlying logic was sound, it was just the execution that was off. Maybe it would’ve worked if Kansas had not just cut taxes, but also stopped squandering the few dollars it did have on frou-frou like roads and teachers, and then cut all corporate regulation down to a single, voluntary “try not to kill anyone” rule of thumb. Liberals will likely infer the conservatives had the causal logic backwards. Clearly, if you cut taxes the economy tanks, ergo the best way to boost economic fortunes is to tax the snot out of everything. Thus we should start a vigorous program of taxing and spending and beggar government in the usual way. It’s tradition for chrissakes.

While it’s not likely to resolve partisan differences on economic policy, there is a political lesson that will—or at least should—be crystal clear from the Kansas experience. To wit: If you’ve got the chutzpah you can get away with promising the electorate caviar while feeding them horse shit. But you better be careful. By the third or fourth course, even some of the ideological faithful are going to start noticing those sturgeon’s eggs smack of horse flop. That tends to take the shine off a policy agenda and leave the voters with a very bad taste in their mouths.

And that, funnily enough, is about as hopeful a message as you’ll find in American politics these days. The big news from Kansas is not the epic failure of its self-proclaimed, “real live experiment” on the Republican Party’s most cherished economic prescription, though fail it did. The big news is that the electorate took note of the failure. Alternative-facts didn’t muscle out the actual evidence, and voters not only called BS they actually backed candidates for office—mostly moderate Republicans—whose prudence-to-piffle ratio promised a more centrist, reality-based notion of governance. This is not an occasion to get too misty eyed about the innate wisdom of the people. Let’s not forget this is the same group who for years happily noshed on Brownback’s equine butt pucks and trotted off to the polls to vote for seconds.

But there’s still some glimmer of hope there. Voters did, eventually, notice that their government was inept on a colossal scale and, just, did something about it before their chief executive carted them all the way to crazy town. Hopefully that’s a lesson from Kansas the rest of the country can learn from.

 

Anarchy in the UK

In 1962 Dean Acheson famously stuck a fork into the battered carcass of the United Kingdom by saying, “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” Fast forward about fifty years and it’s more accurate to say Great Britain has lost its marbles and not yet found a poll, or at least any yardstick of public opinion that is (a) accurate, and (b) makes any damn sense.

A couple of years ago the Brits confounded survey predictions and stunned the experts by voting to leave the European Union. Last week they did it again, only this time rather than voting to leave the EU they voted to kneecap their own government just as it starts haggling over the divorce settlement. Rather than strengthening the Tory government’s majority and its negotiating position—the long-predicted and expected outcome—the voters not only embraced “none of the above”, they actually got the bugger elected. The UK now has a sort of zombie government. It’s ambulatory, but struggling to achieve political sentience.

In this looking glass British political world, the big winner of the election was the loser. This is Labour Party leader and seventies space cadet Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s politics, basically a mish-mash of socialist tripe and Hugo Chavez bumper stickers, were thought to be too loony even for an electorate long known for its tolerance of eccentricity. But by promising free everything, lunch included, he locked up the youth vote which—and this almost never, ever happens—actually showed up and voted. The fact that Corbyn’s sums didn’t add up didn’t seem to matter. Apparently a super-rich oligarch living in Chelsea was going to be forced to pay for everything. Or something like that.

The big loser was the winner Prime Minister Theresa May. She not only ran a gobsmackingly tone-deaf campaign, she just couldn’t connect with voters. She tried adopting a Margaret Thatcher iron lady sort of image. It didn’t work, mostly because the composition of her character seems to be roughly nine parts gelatin to one part of any sort of ferrous material. She flopped and flipped (nickname: Theresa May, Maybe Not), and a song titled “Liar, Liar” was not only dedicated to her, it hit the top of the charts. Given a chance to inject some much-needed color into her monochrome effort on the hustings, she opted for a nice shade of beige. Lobbed a softball by an interviewer asking what was “the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?” she replied by saying she’d run through a wheat field when she was younger. Not run through nekkid, or with her hair on fire, or carrying her favorite bong because the bobbies were raiding the rave. Nope, nothing like that.  Just an impish trot through a patch of maturing cereals. What a rascal.

Well, the Thatcher in the Rye ran her party right into the political weeds. The Tory disaster was all optional, the product of a snap election called deliberately to give British government a more powerful majority to deal with the EU in the Brexit negotiations. And it would be good for Britain to have a strong united front at that table, because the EU definitely wants a kilo (2.2 pounds) of flesh as the price for the UK regaining its sovereignty and the right to deregulate the curvature of its bananas (don’t ask, EU regulations are a pig’s breakfast of illogic*). Well, not only do the Tories not have a strengthened majority, they now have no majority at all. To govern they’ve had to cobble together a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, possibly the last functioning political organization non-ironically advocating Imperial rule (up yours Dean Acheson). Good luck with that chaps.

Does any of this really matter to those of staring agog from this side of the pond? Who really cares if the British government’s own voters sent them to the negotiating table with their credibility knackered and their trousers around their ankles? I mean, what with the controversial transition of the White House into Kremlin West, the GOP’s attempt to remove its own vertebral column, and nut jobs spraying lead at congressional charity baseball teams, we’ve got enough on our political plate.

Well, yes, that’s the point. The United Kingdom is important to the United States because it’d be nice if someone kept an eye on the global store while we go wackadoodle, and from an American point of view the UK is the assistant manager of choice. Not because the UK is subservient or a suck-up (well, not all the time), but because it shares with the United States a highly similar set of liberal democratic and market values. True, the British Lion doesn’t quite have the roar that it used to. Okay, it can’t roar at all. But it still has a pretty fierce meow.

The UK has the fifth largest economy in the world, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, a set of respected and professional military/intelligence capabilities, and is one of only five nations with a true deep water navy (that means if it says to another country we’re going to come over there and kick your ass, they could actually give it a go). The only other nation on the planet with similar stature, capabilities and US-friendly values is France. And being as France is, um, full of the French, the UK is pretty much it as the practical option for an international bestest buddy, or at least the option more likely to help cover America’s back as opposed to piddle up it.

As the Brits seem to be taking a powder from rationality at the very same time as the United States, however, there’s nobody really minding the store at all. Right now there’s a deafening sucking sound in geopolitics. That’s the vacuum being created as America and the United Kingdom announce they’re going to their rooms for some alone time (translation: to engage in  spirited sessions of ideological self-abuse punctuated by lots of noisy navel gazing).  Filling that vacuum—whether they like it or not–are China, Russia and assorted lesser opportunistic types hoping to bite off a chunk of US butt. Caught up in these centrifugal forces are some reasonably sane nations, notably the Germans. And the Germans probably can—just—keep things from going completely tits up in Europe, though the French will want the credit, of course.  But the Germans are unlikely going to do more than that because they are still apologizing for that whole evil-genius-global-domination World War II thing.

We’ll all be better off if the British could, you know, elect an actual government and  get back to being an engaged and reasonable participant in global politics. And just as a coda to that Acheson quote, as a loud and proud Brit let me offer a rebuttal to any similar snarky condescension still remaining among our American cousins. The Empire had to go, of course. It was patriarchal, racist, and infused with outrageous snobbery and hubris. Plus, having a quarter of the planet ruled from a smallish island in the North Atlantic is just a dodgy proposition from a liberal democratic perspective. But it’s not like the Empire went missing because we couldn’t remember if we put it on the shelf or in our pants pockets. We did not so much lose an Empire as sacrifice it in order that the Nazis and Imperial Japan would not have theirs. That was, hands down, the best trade ever made in the history of geopolitics. Even if it did mean that for decades afterwards the entire population of the United Kingdom had to live on warm beer and snot butties while condescending Yanks diagnosed their ills and made fun of their teeth.

Absent Empire the Brits did find another global role for themselves. It was being a buttinski, but a very British buttinski.  Routinely insufferable and occasionally barmy, but at the core decent and level headed, and mostly willing to do the right thing without too much chest beating or fuss and bother. And, god knows, we could use more of that in the world, especially now America has come unglued.

So, UK, if you could see your way to getting back your stiff upper lip old self, and do it toot suite, we’d all appreciate it.

*OK you asked: EU Commission regulation 2257/94 stipulates that bananas must be free of “abnormal curvature.”

Whatever Happened to Conservatism?

William F. Buckley is rightly remembered for his witty prolixity, a certain ability to enliven political discourse by unzipping the Oxford English Dictionary’s big boy pants and letting fly an epic stream of loquacity. Buckley often spritzed this legendary lexical incontinence over various angry sparks of right-wing nut jobbery, a deliberate effort to dampen the influence of dogma drones and conspiracy whackos threatening to hijack conservatism and spirit it off to cuckoo-ville.

While the primary target of his verbal strafing undoubtedly was the political left, he remains an instructive character for contemporary politics exactly because of his consistent willingness to take on his own side.  Buckley arguably did more than any other single individual to shape the modern conservative movement, to supply its cerebral ballast, to trial balloon its more popular tenets, and he certainly provided the campaign’s most influential megaphone (he founded the National Review). The ascension of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent mainstreaming of conservatism as a political force was built in no small part on the decades of preparatory work undertaken by Buckley.

Part of that labor was a conscious and ongoing effort to save conservatism from the worst instincts of its own allies. The National Review for decades was the outlet of conservative thought. As editor Buckley was the pilot in conservatism’s cockpit and he had definite ideas about approving the passenger manifest. He excommunicated Ayn Rand, arguing that her “hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism” was not just intrinsically objectionable, but incompatible with conservatism. He chased out the John Birch Society crowd by publicly pointing out they were all at least two beers short of a six-pack. Buckley’s basic case against the Birchers was that trafficking in nutty conspiracy theories and interpreting your own subjective wannabes as objective fact is no basis for a sustainable political movement. He described Robert Welch, co-founder of the John Birch Society, as having “a very special set of views which reality rejects.”*

As a conservative, Buckley instinctively sought to defend the status quo rather than advocate change, but he was curious about the world, had a healthy respect for facts and intellectual inquiry, and was willing to change his mind if persuaded of the case to do so. He once faced down a group of moral majority flap and doodle mongers (Rev. Jerry Falwell among them) incensed at his forceful advocacy for drug legalization. He justified himself thus to his skeptical conservative audience:  “It is a sovereign responsibility of rational people to take empirical data into the general reckoning. I was against the position I am now taking until I became convinced by the data that it was a futile position” (you can see a video clip here). Buckley never lost an abiding conviction that a “conservative seeks to be grounded in reality.

Yeah, I wonder what happened to that. I’m not sure when conservatism decided to stop questioning itself, became so quick to get the wobbles in the face of data and facts, and got so willing to abandon not just intellectual honesty but intellectual curiosity. But it has. Don’t take my word for it, plenty of conservatives are saying more or less the same thing. David Brooks. Charlie Sykes. George Will. Bill Kristol. The conservative movement and the Republican Party, the political vessel which has carried its water for five decades or more, is shot through with phonies, Pharisees, and fib merchants, it is bedeviled by shallow thinking and deep delusions. And the heirs of Buckley know it.

Right now there is a case to be made that Buckley did not really make conservatism safe for mainstream politics, he just helped create a Trojan horse for the distasteful extremes he tried to shoo away. The characters he spent decades trying to fence out of the conservative political project are now in charge of it, their most unsavory tendencies fueled by populism’s oxygen and glowing fire-furnace hot.  At the core of this seems to a lot of angry white guys who define conservatism as little more than me-first nationalism.  I think that it is  more something Buckley would mourn than support.

For example, questioning the cause these days is not considered a healthy exercise in intellectual self-examination, it is apostasy. Inconvenient facts, be they significant (climate change) or trivial (crowd size), are simply substituted with more convenient alternative-facts. Deep thinking on policy has been reduced to a repetitive chant of “tax cuts good, government bad, Democrats evil.” Violence against journalists questioning the party line is trivialized or openly celebrated. Entire swaths of elected conservatives sell out their creed for fealty to a president trafficking in tweet cheats. The national voice of the movement now belongs to bumper sticker bully-boys like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, people whose framework for intellectual debate is insult, incite, indict, then yell, grunt, and repeat. There’s not a lot of characters in that crew that could be described as possessing traits of genuine curiosity, of intellectual seriousness and flexibility, of respectful garrulity, wit, and humor. In other words, it’s hard to see a space where a Bill Buckley type would fit in contemporary conservatism.

And that’s a shame. I say this without an atom of sarcasm or mockery: Having a movement centered on a principled (emphasis: principled) case for the limits of government is a good thing for the Republic. Not because I agree with it—on many issues I just don’t buy the arguments. But because it keeps the other side intellectually honest, because it forces the case for government action to be clearly articulated and justified, and might even prevent unwarranted or harmful statist over-reach. And given the rumblings over in the Bernie Bro and Liz Warren bloc of pie-eyed lefties, the complete hash Trump is making of his presidency, and the GOP’s embrace of much that reality rejects, we’re likely to need it sooner rather than later.

There still exist plenty of principled elected conservatives (Ben Sasse), conservatives with bags of intellectual candle power willing to ask tough questions of their own side (Brooks, David Frum), and platforms where serious long-form policy analysis rather than sound-bite point scoring is still a hallmark of conservative intellectual endeavor (the lads over at the National Review are still chugging along, if not necessarily all in the same direction). So the chances for a revival of Buckley-type conservatism are far from zero, even if they are not particularly good. It’s a matter of numbers, and the Buckley-ites currently do not have them.

So unless there’s some as yet unknown Buckley avatar waiting in the wings, conservatism—and, as long as conservatives are in charge, the rest of us—will just have to ride out its contemporary smoochie-poo embrace of its own distasteful underbelly. What a pisser.

 

*These quotes are pulled from a Buckley essay entitled “What Is Conservatism.” I couldn’t find an online link, but it’s included in The Jeweller’s Eye, a book of his collected speeches and columns that can probably be found under a layer of dust in most large-ish libraries. And before I get button-holed on this, I’m well aware Buckley had some pretty big political skeletons of his own—a big flirt with McCarthyism, for example, and, at least in his early days, some pretty wince-inducing views on civil rights. Still, his willingness to constructively engage with those he disagreed with and a genuine (if far from perfect) embrace of empiricism makes him, in my own humble opinion, a useful and enlightening foil to examine contemporary conservatism.

 

Upside Down Politics

We humans are a disagreeable bunch. Put two of us together and give us the job of making a decision that’s binding on both and sooner rather than later you’ve got an argument. What movie to watch, what pizza toppings to order, what color curtains to buy, whatever the issue at hand we’ll find a way to bang heads about it. And that’s just two of us. Imagine trying to split hairs among 320 million opinions on really important stuff like tax rates, social security, and access to healthcare.

Luckily for us we have a specialized set of institutions to handle these big collective conflicts. That’s basically all a representative democratic system is, just a big conflict management mechanism. That mechanism has worked pretty well in the United States, repeatedly showing itself strong enough to handle Defcon Level Three magnitudes of dissent without the wheels coming off.  Sure, there’s plenty of sturm and drang during election season, and ample rations of finger pointing and policy caterwauling by opposing political teams in between full-on ballot box clashes. In the normal course of things, no big deal. Democratic systems swallow  differences, masticate them into the bitter paste of compromise, and digest them into a painful legislative bowel movement. Everyone agrees that the end result stinks, but, boy, it sure makes everyone feel better.

That process works best, though, when disagreement takes a particular form. Take any given policy issue—gun control, taxes, education, welfare, whatever—and imagine different preferences on what the government should do about that issue. Take gun control as an exemplar. The range of opinions on gun control is massive. On one end is the firm belief that government should not regulate guns at all, that the only thing standing between us and jack- booted totalitarian dystopia is Uncle Fester and his private stash of military-grade weaponry. On the other end is the equally firm belief that Uncle Fester is a nut bag. He’s not making anyone safer, including himself. His concealed shooter will never bag the baddies of his fevered Chuck Norris delusions, but there’s a decent chance it’ll blow off his own butt cheek while he’s dropping trou in the Walmart crapper. For folks on this end of the spectrum, the government should control access to things that go bang very tightly, maybe even regulate them out of existence.

In between those two extremes there’s a lot of room for degrees of difference, a sort of gun regulation policy dial with multiple settings. I’m not suggesting that any one of those settings is better than the other, I’m just saying consider what that big range of opinions looks like.  Because the distribution of preferences on gun control, or any other issue, can take on very different shapes. And that shape helps determine how, or even if, our democratic institutions can handle our disagreements on that issue. What political scientists would consider a nicely behaved shape would look something like this:

This is a normal curve, and in reality a lot of policy preferences (and a lot else in the world) roughly approximate this distribution. If opinions on policy issues look like this in the general population and that distribution of preferences is actually represented in a legislature, then representative democracy is in business. If we take this shape as representing preferences on gun control, on one end of the distribution we’ve got libertarian firearm fetishists and on the other we’ve got fainting daisies who want trigger locks on Nerf guns. Most opinions, though, are piled up in the middle, i.e. most people think guns should be regulated, but not to the point that gun ownership is onerous to the average law abiding citizen. Because that center is where most opinions (and most votes) reside, representative legislatures will naturally gravitate to that as the law making sweet spot.

The problem is that on many issues, that particular distribution of preferences doesn’t exist, at least not as they are represented by legislators. These days most lawmakers are elected to office as tribunes of the right or left, and do not represent the beliefs of the moderate and less ideological center. Well, no worries, our democratic institutions can deal with that. Say we do not have one normal distribution of preferences, but two distinct distributions, one for conservatives/Republicans and another for liberals/Democrats. So the range of opinions we might actually see represented in a legislature look something like this:

 

Here there really isn’t one middle ground, but two. The average conservative lawmaker prefers something fairly distinct from the average liberal lawmaker. Things tend to get a lot more partisan and contentious in this situation, but as long as those two curves have a reasonable amount of overlap a legislature can still converge to a point in between the two sets of average preferences. True, getting there can involve a lot of nasty kicking and screaming. Both sides are more likely to describe the resulting law or policy as snatching bread from the mouths of babes and mothers than a reasonable half-a-loaf. But compromise is still possible. Friction on the democratic gears might be high, but the machine itself grinds on.

That friction gets higher the further those two distributions move apart. In the extreme case the two curves cease to overlap and there’s no middle ground at all. People standing on the extreme tails closest to each other might be able to talk to each other, but the rest of their tribe isn’t going to let their wacko moderates actually build bridges to the other side. In this sort of a situation the democratic machine tends to just lock up.

That’s bad enough, but what we’ve got today is something even worse. On a lot of issues we’ve got upside down politics. Take a look at the first figure and imagine it upside down, something like this:

This inverted normal curve would represent a situation where preferences are split in two and piled up at the extreme ends of the distribution. Not only is there no middle ground between the two sets of preferences, there’s no middle ground on either side. The distribution of preferences now falls into a dichotomy—you’re either with us or against us. Here compromise isn’t the normal price of dealing in democratic politics, it’s surrender. Any attempt to accommodate the other side’s interests represents unforgivable apostasy.

Disagreements characterized by an inverted preference curve are intensely resistant to compromise. This is the politics of first principles, where the other side doesn’t simply have a different point of view, the position they hold is morally repugnant and they must be defeated, not bargained with. Democratic institutions aren’t designed to deal with this, they basically just lock up. The only way to unfreeze the machine is for one side to get a big enough majority to ram its preferences through without any input from the other side. Of course if the other team wins come next election, they’ll ram through exactly the opposite. This can be even worse than a complete lock up because the system is redlining as it lurches from one extreme to the other. At some point the engine will burst a gasket or throw a rod and the whole thing will blow up like my extended mechanical metaphor.

Does this mean there’s no hope for a more civil polity? Hardly. That upside down curve is an uncomfortably accurate description of contemporary policy legislative preferences in Congress and an increasing number of state legislatures. What it doesn’t describe – at least not yet – is the shape of public opinion among the actual electorate. On most issues, peoples’ beliefs still look pretty normally distributed (picture 1), or at most as two reasonably distributed sets of preferences with plenty of overlap (picture 2). So why do we have legislators practicing upside down politics (picture 3)? The simple answer is we let the people on the far end of the distribution pick our legislators. It’s those guys who actually bother to show up in primaries and determine our choices in a general election.

If we want the system to get back to working better then we in the big not-so-ideological middle need to vote in lawmakers who actually represent a reasonable distribution of preferences. Is that likely to happen? Right now I doubt it. But it’s high time the voters threw the system a normal curve.

Trumpcare Treats the Winner’s Curse

I’m a political centrist receptive to certain conservative arguments, but since big chunks of the Republican Party took the cuckoo train to looney town I’ve had a hard time finding common ground with the GOP. This past week, though, I’ve been surprised to find myself sharing certain attributes with the House Republican caucus on a critically important political issue. To be specific, like most Republicans in that chamber I have neither read the American Healthcare Act of 2017 (ACA) nor do I have an inkling of its real implications.

I’m not surprised I know jack about the ACA. My general impression is that it’s a tangle of bosh and baloney, the sort of legislative sneaky beaky undertaken by partisan bagmen and interest-group special ops. But who knows. It’s a heavy read (full text here) and it’d take days for me to parse out even its broad-stroke ramifications. I can’t be bothered because we professional observers of politics just have too much else on our plates these days. The Trump White House’s typical daily schedule of a morning Twitter calumny, a noon-time peccadillo, the three o’clock scandal, the five o’clock firing, all topped with a busy evening of minions competing for victory in the arch madness bracket, just doesn’t leave us much time for anything else.

So there, I admit I know diddly about ACA except what’s reported in the media, and I’m pretty skeptical about that because I guarantee most of the professional gum-flappers haven’t read the bill either. If you and I lack a full and nuanced understanding of a complicated piece of legislation, though, it’s not supposed to be a big deal. We have tribunes representing our collective interests and they get paid to pay attention to these details on our behalf. So it’s galling in the extreme to discover that scads of them just voted to re-order a sixth of the nation’s economy and adjust the probabilities of millions getting health care coverage without reading any of the fine print or, I’m pretty sure, even the large-print Cliff’s Notes cheater card.

And it really does seem to be the case that many cast votes for this bill while being unburdened by any real understanding of its potential consequences. There was no independent analysis of its costs, no hearings, and it was being heavily amended the night before it was frog marched out onto the House floor for a vote. The ACA was the legislative equivalent of a 300 pound churro and there’s no way anyone choked that down in a few hours. This was never going to end well and it didn’t. Republicans initially took a victory lap, crowing that the ACA was the dog’s bollocks plus a bag of chips. Then reporters started asking all the high-fiving gloaters what was actually in the bill and what did it all mean and the umming, and ahhing began. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that whatever was in the bill, it was at best a half-baked dogs breakfast and almost certainly political kryptonite for the GOP.

Late-night comedians pounced, and the sheer ineptitude of some of the spluttering gas passers who yayed the proposal nearer to law would be funny if the issue wasn’t so serious (here’s John Oliver making the point). A dawning recognition that they’d just dropped themselves into five fathoms of poo sent the Gang that Couldn’t Toot Straight slinking home for recess and hoping voters didn’t notice the stink. The few Republicans brave enough to face their constituents this week got the rotten tomatoes treatment, egged on by Democrats who were busily organizing schadenfreude squads. Most GOP House members just laid low, only mingling with constituents whose sycophancy qualified as a pre-existing condition. As for the rest of the voters, the GOP crew mostly seemed to be hoping they’d suffer a mass attack of convenience amnesia and forget what a colossal cock-up the House just made of things.

Well, good luck with all that. The real question is why did the House Republicans do this? Forget all the bumpf and babble about how the bill is going to be a huge improvement on what we currently have. Outside the House, even most Republicans don’t buy that. Plenty of GOP Senators, for example, are treating the bill the House just handed them like it was the towel used to clean up after an epic case of the bad-churro squits.

Any way you cut it, the ACA is bad press, bad politics, and almost certainly bad policy. Yes, the jury is still out on exactly what the bill costs and how it will shape health care access and delivery, but the uncertainty is mostly about whether it’s merely awful or catastrophically dire. Voters are ticked at House Republicans, pretty much the entire swath of healthcare-related interest groups are ticked at House Republicans, and even Senate Republicans are ticked at House Republicans. It seems puzzling that the majority of an elected legislative chamber would load both barrels, pull the trigger and perforate their lower extremity with such deliberate gusto.

I think the primary reason for the eagerness to commit this self-inflicted wound boils down to a variant of the winner’s curse. To social scientists, the winner’s curse technically describes the tendency of people to overpay in auctions of common value. Roughly translated into actual English, that basically says that people who aren’t fully aware of the value of something (or its cost), tend to bid up its price. This leads to buyer’s regret, the feeling you get after blowing a hole in your wallet on something that turns out not to be the dog’s bollocks and a bag of chips. That’s the winner’s curse.

And that’s what I think House Republicans have on healthcare. Over the past eight or nine years they have ridiculously bid up what they can fork out for a healthcare plan. They’ve argued Obamacare is a disaster that’s failing and that only they can fix the problem and win the nation a shiny new, super-duper most-definitely-not-Obamacare health plan. Complicating their bid was the spreading realization among voters how much they liked at least bits of Obamacare, especially stuff like preventing insurers from denying coverage, requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions, and keeping children on parental coverage into their mid-20s. And the millions who got healthcare thanks to Medicaid expansion definitely want to keep that.

Well, no worries said the Republicans, you can have all that, plus you won’t have to pay for it. That’s a pretty damn high bid and as long as Obama was in the White House the GOP didn’t have to worry about having it called. Then they won. Everything. And having so fervently promised their frothing base how Obamacare was all death panels and socialist overreach, they had to make good on their bid or look like pikers of the highest order. Problem was, all they had to back their bid was the political equivalent of wooden nickels and monopoly money. They had to lay their currency down, of course, burning through pretty much all their political capital to purchase the bill they so desperately wanted. And finally having closed the sale on an Obamacare repeal they now own it. Indeed, as Nancy Pelosi said, they positively “glow in the dark” with it. They are also belatedly starting to realize their shiny new phosphorescent purchase isn’t worth what they paid. In precise political terms its value is diddly and squat.

Carrying that into the next election really is likely to be a curse, one Republicans cast upon themselves by winning.

Swill Me Some Bumbo James Madison

James Madison was a bit of a wuss. He topped out at 5-foot 4-inches and needed the weight of the republic on his shoulders to tip the scales past a hundred pounds. He spoke in a high pitched whisper, had scads of (often imagined) health problems, and could at times be a goody-goody priss.  He once lost an election to the Virginia House of Delegates because he refused to “swill the planters with bumbo,” which in the modern vernacular roughly translates as declining to pick up the tab so the voters can get shitfaced.

Today these sorts of traits probably would preclude a political career. An altitude-challenged cream puff sniffling sotto voce sussurations on democratic theory? That’s not exactly a combination calculated to get the hearts of contemporary voters thumping. And more fool us, because whatever else he lacked Madison incontrovertibly had brains in copious abundance. Buckets of the stuff, great stonking piles of fizzing synapses that through some astonishing act of mental electrolysis kept precipitating republican gold from the feculent solution of politics.

And thank goodness he did, because right now pretty much the only thing standing between us and some of the more dire consequences of unchecked populism are the products of Madison’s fertile IQ factory. Let’s hope the institutional dike that brainiac put up can still hold its water because there’s some serious waves starting to hit the levee. Just this week the president of the United States bashed Congress and/or the Constitution–his splintered syntax left the precise target open to interpretation–as “an archaic system” that is “really bad for the country.” He also declared the government needed “a good shut down.” Gulp.

He also took time out from deprecating the institutions of government to launch another salvo of smoochies at his positional role model, President Andrew Jackson. This isn’t that surprising as, at least in some ways, Jackson was a man after the current president’s own heart. He ran for president as a champion of the average Joe and promising to deal with the “corrupt aristocracy” in Washington, D.C. He mistrusted pretty much all federal agencies and put the lot of them under investigation. He also is remembered for instituting the spoils system, a management method notable for staffing the executive branch with fanboys, toadies and suck-ups rather than people who actually know what the hell they are doing. Anything there sound familiar?

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America author and not a bad sort for a Frenchman, summed up Jackson by saying he craved popularity, leveraged popularity into power, having got power wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it, and ended up doing stuff no one else would dare, including pursuing sulfurous relations with most of the grownups in government and seeking to trample “on his personal enemies, whenever they cross his path, with a facility without example.” Anything there sound familiar?

That brand of politics, the sort practiced by Jackson and Trump, is exactly what Madison was trying to constrain as he labored to blueprint a system of government that, with due revisions and compromises, emerged from a 1787 mega-committee meeting as the Constitution of the United States of America. Believe it or not, the Constitution was specifically designed to create an institutional shield against populism and populist movements. Yep, the idea was to create a government that could take an incoming wave of populism and prevent it from drowning the republic.

Ever wondered why we have no direct election for president? Every wondered why the Senate has such long terms of office? Why such a massive population is represented by only 435 tribunes in the “people’s” House of Representatives? Ever wondered why the Constitution had to be amended to allow direct election of the Senate? Okay, probably not. Luckily for you, though, somebody was thinking about all this stuff before any of those parts of government existed. That dude was (mostly) James Madison.

He knew all too well that populism was a bad idea because in the late eighteenth-century state governments were giving it an enthusiastic try. The result was an economy in the crapper, an armed uprising (Shay’s rebellion) in Massachusetts, and an erosion of competence and comity in the public sphere so severe it threatened to bloom into an existential threat to the nation. Madison knew the likes of Jackson and Trump would come along because voters being voters–read the motto at the top of the page—it was inevitable that mountebanks long on we-the-people canards and short on competence were going to get elected. If you can’t rely on people–and let’s face it, you can’t–government institutions and processes needed to be sound enough to make sure things periodically don’t go smash.

The basic system he came up with was kinda complicated. It has no main spring, and to actually get the ship of state moving requires different people in different parts of the government to be cranking numerous institutional gears in synchronized harmony. That makes it damnably hard for the government to do anything. The upside is that it also makes it hard for one person or party to do anything damnably stupid with government. Madison considered that a fair trade if it gave the populist peacocks plenty of room to flash their tail feathers while preventing them from doing anything too featherbrained.

And for the most part Madison’s system has worked. Yes, all those complicated institutions and processes, and especially the people capable of mastering them, really get the goat of the Jackumps (Trumpsons?) who think running a government is sort of like getting the star turn in The Godfather. Lucky for us, though, those institutions have held. At least, they have so far. The waves coming in these days, though, look kinda scary.

I’m pretty sure the product of Jimmy boy’s nuclear noggin will continue to keep us reasonably safe from both Jackumps and ourselves. Just in case the levee falls, though, I want to go on record now as supporting a revival of swilling the planters with bumbo. I pay attention to government and voters for a living and, goddam, I could really use a drink.


It Ain’t That Simple

After chasing all those tea-swilling Red Coats out of America’s beeswax, the Founding Fathers took a good look at the country they’d just created and immediately got a serious case of the fantods. The economy was in the toilet, the states were at each other’s throats, and three European powers (the Spanish, French and Brits) were industriously conniving to swindle the Yanks out of their inheritance if not their independence. Trail bossing the new nation through these shoals was Congress, a dog’s breakfast of parochialism and pusillanimity held together by silk breeches, bad wigs, and dodgy IOUs. To put it mildly, things were complicated.

One of things driving the deep thinkers batty was the insistence by a large number of their fellow Americans that, all evidence to the contrary, democracy had simple answers to these complex problems. In some quarters, the universal salve proposed for any vexation of state was a populist poultice moistened with gallons of rhetorical incontinence. Just do what the majority wanted and, yada, yada, yada, problem solved. Some saw this faith in democracy as touchingly guileless. Big time Founding Parental Units like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton viewed it as base political quackery that needed to be squashed before it led to a serious migraine. They understood that politics is complex and convoluted, that democratic politics is tougher than acing the SAT, and that majorities frequently not only have no superior claim on wisdom but are often dumber than dirt. Making sure the grownups got to handle the complex problems with due diligence and rational thought while making good on the guarantee of popular sovereignty clearly required some delicate institutional finessing.

That sort of deft touch wasn’t much in evidence from state governments, who at the time were busy duking it out for the hotly contested title of Best Populist Suck Up of 1786 (Rhode Island won). After the Brits skulked off to Canada and took the royal prerogative with them, states had enthusiastically begun drafting constitutions. In practice this meant a lot of power-to-the-people fan boys putting quill to parchment and designing governments that made pretty much any serious thinking republican feel like soiling their breeches. Charles Carroll—best remembered as the last signatory of the Declaration of Independence to pop his clogs—examined a good deal of this fluff and flummery and concluded some lawmakers clearly were wearing their wigs too tight. In his judgement states were building “simple democracies,” governments set up more to function as the bowels of a republic rather than its heart or its brain. In other words, governments dominated by legislatures that would do little more than noisily masticate and pass through whatever crap the populace had just swallowed. Carroll concluded the only logical end to that sort of process was a big stink. Simple democracies, he declared, are, “of all governments the worst, and will end as other democracies have, in despotism.”

Luckily for us, in 1787 a group of know-it-all bluestockings managed to do something about all this at the national level, pulling off a remarkable feat of political engineering called the United States Constitution. This has served as a pretty reliable institutional prophylactic against the virulence of “simple democracy.”  It does this by making it infuriatingly complicated for the government to actually do anything. It is so complicated that even if populist piffle pushers manage to get elected they’ll find themselves unable translate their vacuous brain farts into legislation without first going through a serious learning curve. Chances are that while going through that process they’ll wise up and realize they should back off of following through on the moonshine they promised voters before it does any lasting harm. These institutional training wheels are far from infallible, though. And there still exists in the American populace a deeply held conviction that if government could just get out of the way, we could fix problems sans muss and sans fuss. This is at least partly how we ended up with Donald Trump in office, who ran on a promise that most problems had simple fixes. Build a wall, drop a bomb, cut a deal, and yada, yada, yada, America is great again.

Of late, though, he seems to be revising upward the estimated difficulty of, you know, actually governing. Just to mention a few examples, in the last few weeks the president has said “nobody knew health care could be this complicated,” admitted he just “learned about some very arcane rules in … both the Senate and the House,” shifted gears on North Korea because after a 10-minute chat with the Chinese president “I realized it’s not so easy,” decided that staying out of Syria really wasn’t an option, that NATO wasn’t all mooching excess baggage, and that forcing China to stop manipulating its currency wasn’t going to work because he just found out they stopped doing that years ago. Oh yeah, and the sweeping tax reform plan set to be unveiled months ago is nowhere to be seen because apparently writing a sweeping tax reform plan is harder than saying you have a sweeping tax reform plan.

The Trump game plan is flipping quicker than pancakes at a waffle house and flopping faster than an Italian soccer team. There’s a couple of ways to look at this. A lot of Trump supporters are not happy. And no wonder. The reality of governing makes all presidents deviate from the path promised on the campaign trail, but Trump is off-roading so far from his plotted course it’s starting to look like he lost his GPS (if had one to begin with). He was elected to end Obamacare, drain the swamp, cock the snoot at irksome furriners – from North Korean tin-pot tyrants to European NATO deadbeats to Mexican bad hombres— and put America first. His bellyaching that this is all harder than he thought isn’t cutting the mustard with his base. And that’s understandable. Trumpinistas haven’t got much choice but to double down on the bet that these problems still have simple fixes that do not require political experience, political knowledge, or, heck, even basic political sentience.  If stuff really is that complicated, then they just elected someone gobsmackingly unqualified to deal with the issues besetting the republic and have put the national interest at serious risk. Madison, Hamilton and Carroll spoke to exactly this sort of situation in their famous “No shit, Sherlock” joint declaration on pinhead populism. Okay, I can’t back that up, but I’m pretty sure I got the sentiment right.

The president seems to be going through a dawning realization that his easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy promises are just piffle and prattle of the lowest order. The learning curve has begun. At least, let’s hope that’s what’s happening. I say let the Trumpkins mutter of establishment illuminati plotting to remove their beautiful comb-over Rapunzel from his alt-right tower of alternative-facts and re-accommodate him in the real world. The rest of us should welcome these developments. Things are complicated—very complicated—and the farther we can get from the simple democracy thinking that put Trump in office the more distance we put between us and despotism.

 

The False Options of School Choice

 

School choice is basically the idea that Walmart shoppers know more about public education than teachers do. Put parents in a big box of buyer options, the argument goes, and they’ll follow the fluorescent light of consumer desire right to the Tickle-Me Elmo score of educational excellence. Or something like that. It’s hard to keep track because the justifications for ditching traditional public schools flit around a bit. There’s the untie-the-market’s-invisible-hand idea, the parents-know-best idea, and, of course, the giving-teachers-unions-the-middle-finger-would-feel-so-good idea.

Regardless of the digits and dabs manipulating the choice argument, it’s all premised on the dubious notion of systemic public school failure. To listen to some people, public schools stink on ice. Period. If that’s the premise then there’s nothing to be lost by blowing up these failure factories. If all public schools do is suck up property taxes and turn out illiterates who get owned by the Latvians on international test comparisons, let’s just tear ‘em down and start over. Among the most vociferous of these sort of critics is Betsey Devos, secretary of the Department of Education, who thinks public schools are a “dead end.”

Not to worry, though. Public schools may be spinning ever faster around the scholarly sink hole, but the Fed-Ed poo-bah has the solution: School choice. Now, school choice can actually mean a lot of things. The mild version is public charters. These are boutique public schools within public schools, distinguishable from the standard article primarily by greater regulatory freedom and a lot of Teach for America, Thousand-Points-of-Light, let’s-really-teach-these-kids-something earnestness.

On the other end of the spectrum, the full Monty version of choice is a voucher system. This really does mean blowing up public education as we know it and it’s the option that Devos seems likely to champion as the nation’s top education official. In a pure voucher system there is no such thing as a public school. Parents get a coupon—a voucher—that they can cash in at any vendor doing business in the big mall of educational service provision. Competition for the cash those coupons represent will be fierce, and as everybody knows the only way to win in the Darwinian world of an unregulated market is by providing a better product with superior customer service. I mean, just look at what it did for air travel.

There’s really only two problems with Devos’ diagnosis of public education’s ills and her favored policy fix. First, she appears to know shockingly little about public schools and how they are run and evaluated. If you think that’s harsh, take a gander at her ignominious Senate hearing performance for yourself.  Second, she seems to know even less about the iffy results from the clinical trials of schools that have swallowed the magic market medicine she’s prescribing.

Here’s a news flash: the nation’s public education system isn’t failing, at least not any more than usual. Chicken Littles have been yipping and yowling about the deficiencies of schools at least since the Rooskies launched Sputnik. Way back in the fifties the Reds put an aluminum beach ball in orbit that could say “bing,”  a big technological accomplishment for the time. More to the point, public schools were faulted for not producing boffins with enough of the right stuff to make American satellites that said “bing.” Rather than buckling down and putting Ivan in his place, the coddled capitalist teens populating sub-par junior highs were apparently using their slide rules to flick boogers at each other. Don’t try to follow the logic here, it was a weird time.

Public schools have been routinely bashed pretty much ever since. They got flogged for the ills of the hippy-dippy sixties and the druggy seventies, with everything from forced busing and desegregation to whole language learning and the new math denounced for undermining the Republic. In the eighties the Reagan administration got the fantods and issued a scary tome called A Nation At Risk, whose basic precis was that 7th graders had cashed in their slide rules for calculators but only to employ them as technologically superior booger flickers. The cry of public school failure went on into the nineties and the aughties as school choice became a real thing and places like Milwaukee started implementing honest-to-god voucher systems.

Now, there’s no doubt that bad public schools exist—as a journalist and as an academic I’ve witnessed some firsthand. But there is also a ton of pretty decent to truly outstanding public schools, and by my accounting these make up the strong majority of the public education system. Somehow that gets lost. Someone sees pictures of a struggling inner-city school or reads that Finnish high schoolers kicked Yankee ass in the latest International Nerd Olympiad and all the good stuff falls out of view. We’ve got to upend the system to save our future.

People of Devos’ ilk have spent decades saying public schools are so bad we need to institute a system of choice to make things better. Yet in doing so they not only are conveniently ignoring the fact that the big majority of public schools are doing just fine, they are even more conveniently blind-eyeing a very long list of studies showing that school choice variants at best are no better than public schools, and not uncommonly are actually worse.

I know a little about the mountain of research done on the efficacy of school choice because I spent the better part of a decade hanging off its north face trying to belay down to the base camp of rational policymaking. I wrote a dissertation, two books, and a bunch of scholarly and popular articles, talked to teachers, students, parents, administrators, policy wonks and policymakers, I testified before state legislatures, talked to teachers unions and parents groups, crunched numbers and dissected data. If you’re really bored you can find the Cliff’s Notes summary of my years of work analyzing school choice here. It’s all pretty dated by now, but here’s a New York Times article on the three most recent big studies on school choice. They all conclude choice programs are pretty much a flop as a general policy tool to improve academic performance.

I predict the latest studies will have about as much impact on the choice debate as my humble contributions did, which is to say not much at all. School choice advocacy is remarkably resistant to empirical evidence of its shortcomings and to the many successes of public education. I’m pretty convinced that’s because this debate is not about the performance of schools at all. That’s just cover and justification. All the hoo-hah and debate is really about what schools are for. Many (not all) advocates of choice are anti-public schools not because of their supposed failure to get the literacy and numeracy of the nation’s youth up to snuff, but because of their inclusive e pluribus unum social mission. They want schools that exclusively transmit their particular religious, social and political values, and not just the values that are broadly agreed on by the collective. If they can get that and epic SAT scores, great. Educational performance, though, is just the gravy. The real meat of the choice argument is really about ideology, and that can be consumed raw and satisfy with or without the condiments.

I also predict that public schools will not be severely wounded by the choice brigade, even though one of their own now occupies the nation’s top educational office. The biggest problem advocates of choice have is that the vast majority of Americans went to a public school, live near a public school, know a public school teacher, and interact with public school students. And while some of them, or more accurately us, are indeed in trouble—sometimes big trouble—most of us and our public schools are doing at least fair to middling. And we’re probably not going to give that up for the dubious promise of getting the option to pick out our very own Tickle-Me Elmo education miracle. When push comes to shove, I’m betting that’s a choice we’re just not going to make.

 

Can Anyone Govern?

The Republican Party has spent much of the last two months demonstrating its Second Amendment cred by using its own feet for target practice. President Trump piddled away political capital on misdemeanor mendacities and twitter fritter. The fireworks planned for Obamacare repeal damp squibbed into embarrassing flunk and failure. Mounting evidence of Russian electoral meddling has done little to stem the GOP smoochie-grams to Putin. No wonder the polls are down and the electorate’s blood is up.

Given the mortifying early returns on GOP jefe-dom it’s not surprising that an increasing number of people are asking: Can the Republicans govern? And to be clear, this isn’t just me, or the Democrats, or the media, or that guy whispering secret sweet-nothings into Devin Nunes’ ear after midnight in the White House shadows. Nope, Republicans themselves are raising the issue. As Florida Congressman Tom Rooney put it this week, “I’ve been in this job eight years, and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s positive.” Yowza. If the cast admits they’re not ready for prime time, just imagine what the critics make of the show.

Given that their playbook so far seems to consist of the four Fs–flub, fluff, fib and fumble—questioning the GOP’s governing capabilities is reasonable enough. Reasonable, yes, but it also distracts from a deeper and more fundamental question: can anyone can govern the republic, given the hot mess in Washington, DC?

I fear there’s a reasonable chance that the answer is a negative. This is due in no small part to the current mismatch between the political system’s ground rules and the ground realities of how contemporary politics is conducted.  A lot of people in American politics, like certain presidents and Freedom Caucuses I could mention, act like they’re in a Westminster system. In other words in a classic parliamentary set up similar to the UK. That is government based on the philosophy that if anything is going to get done you have to give the windbags in the majority the unquestioned juice to do it. So you might have a legislative chamber with plenty of hurly and bags of burly, but it’s a domicile of democracy very different from the US House and Senate. Power is strongly concentrated, the executive leads the legislature, members of the majority party tend to be unified, and backbenchers toe the party line.

That’s a very different way of doing things compared to the system of divided government we have in the United States. The operating philosophy here is that no agglomeration of ballot box carpetbaggers should get their hands on enough power to do any serious damage, at least not without a lot of help. Rather than stuffing power into one big confection and letting the majority party gorge on it, the US system parcels out power in calorie-controlled portions. The US system scatters power across its elected institutions like sprinkles on a cupcake.

So getting anything done typically requires more than just a majority, but a peck of wheeling and a parcel of dealing. Old school legislators—the Tip O’Neills, the Bob Michels—made their political careers on helping to stitch together differing interests within an institutional context they thoroughly understood. This often meant not just managing a fractious party caucus, but a sensitivity to inter-chamber dynamics, and a working relationship with whatever ingrate was in the White House. More often than not this meant you had to work with the opposite party in some fashion to get anything worthwhile done. These guys understood that the system worked best, and maybe only worked at all, with some level of good-faith compromise. Don’t get too misty-eyed about bygone eras of party comity, there were still a lot of sharp partisan elbows being thrown about. The difference was that the grown-ups running the joint knew if they couldn’t scrape together enough of those sprinkles, the system simply wouldn’t chew the legislative pastry.

Current GOP poo-bahs don’t seem to get this. They seem to think, or at least did before their healthcare plans went pear shaped, that their majority gave them the power to unilaterally call the tune, Westminster-style.  That seems a dangerous assumption given that roughly half the Republican Party suspects the other half of collusion and apostasy, and what’s left over is being driven to Xanax and Zoloft by cack-handed muddle bums machine-gunning tootsies down at the White House. Seriously, the booed dude at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue seems to have only a dim idea of how the system works at all. Who knew about all those incredibly arcane legislative rules the president complained of? Well, if Team Trump ever wants to get anything done, somebody should find out (we have seats available in POL SCI 101, just sayin’). On the other end of the executive-legislative axis, the few dozen uber-conservatives in the Freedom Caucus seem to view any type of compromise as anathema, so within the context of the United States political system they are simply not serious about governing.  What they are deadly serious about, and extremely good at, is preventing anyone else from governing. Paul Ryan can’t fix this as Speaker of the House. He is not a mini-prime minister. He’s more like a hall monitor.

It might be easier to ignore all the bats flitting about the Republican belfry and actually get something done if GOP moderates could find a way to work across the aisle. Fat chance of that. For one thing, these days GOP moderates are rarer than truth in a Trump tweet. And even if they were available in plentiful numbers, willing Democratic partners are probably not. The Democrats were clearly paying close attention as Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party’s Senate equivalent of Emperor Palpatine, spent the Obama years turning the Republican Party into the Greatest No on Earth. The eight-year partisan blockade obviously paid big political dividends—bagged the Republicans a unified majority, successful shoplifting of a Supreme Court seat, and look at all the sprinkles we got! Thus shown the power of the dark side of the Force, the newly constituted Darth Dems seem committed to exploiting it for themselves. Which is why I wouldn’t expect the federal government to get much done at all, at least in the short term. The Republicans strategy of not playing ball until they controlled the whole game paid off. But now they are finding they can’t make the big score because the rules make it really, really hard to do that if no one else wants to play with you. And right now, no one does. Not even a lot of Republicans.