Amid the perennial lament about partisan “gridlock” and “dysfunction” in Washington, a casual observer might conclude that the postures of the Democrats and Republicans are permanent fixtures. Year in and year out, the two sides, it is easy to infer, look hopelessly set in their ways. But the inference is shortsighted. Repeatedly in American history, the leading political parties have changed their policy positions, sometimes startlingly.
The lesson? Never underestimate the force of public opinion in American party politics. In the end, it usually rules. All but the most obstinate partisan ideologues understand this fundamental fact of political life.
Finally, there is the role of ideas. Some of the stories of partisan repositioning, as we have seen, had much to do with the introduction of new policy conceptions that reshaped party agendas, or even the broad terms of national debate on central issues. These paradigm shifts are not necessarily mere exercises in political opportunism—though they often can be that in part. Rather, the powerful new ideas tend to be ones that represent plausible policy innovations (at least at their inception) and that also happen to have political appeal.
The ascent of supply-side economics in the GOP was illustrative. It precipitated a series of mutations in Republican thinking about fiscal management—a revolution that is still playing out. Indeed, the debate about rates of taxation that was joined in 1980, and that has gone on ever since, has moved well beyond Republican ranks; the Democrats as well have moved to effectively rule out higher rates, at least for the vast majority of taxpayers (98 percent of them, to be precise). Clearly the Republicans had stumbled onto an invention that was more than a fleeting fancy. Aspects are anchored in popular consensus. How long this will last is a question for another day.At RealClearPolitics, political scientist David Brady asks whether the "broken government" argument even asks the right questions. In the 19th century, he says, industrialization was the first great transformation of the world economy. The second, he says, is under way. Globalization (in part a result of technology) has led to dislocations in developed countries.
Maybe the proposed solutions would work, but it is not likely that the government could either pass 10-year, zero-based budgets or begin a massive jobs program. Thus, the place to begin is to ask what’s wrong with the U.S. government, and claims that it is the Republican Party, the filibuster, long campaigns, divided government, etc., seem to me to be, in the simple sense, factually wrong. Britain, France, Japan and Italy don’t have divided government, a Tea Party, filibuster rules, “Hastert Rules,” or any number of other American problems, such as too much money in politics.
Why, then, are they not doing better than the U.S. economically? The answer surely will not be simple, but if the U.S. had put into place, a la Ezra Klein, a U.K.-style government in 2008, would our economic recovery have been even better than those of Britain, France, Italy and so on? It’s possible, but I strongly doubt it.
The broken, dysfunctional, gridlocked U.S. government has generated better results than the unbroken, less dysfunctional governments in almost all the rest of the developed world. If pundits, columnists, bloggers and others could recognize that the economic problems generated by the second great transformation are complex and profound and thus hard to solve, our national debate might be more civilized and relevant.