2016 election, American politics, Ben Domenech, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, Donald Trump, establishment, Im-Politic, Jonathan Rauch, Populism, special interests, The Atlantic, The Federalist, think tanks, United Kingdom
Brexit underscores the belief that I have expressed throughout this presidential campaign cycle that opponents of the populist wave breaking all over the high income world have two basic choices: They can demonize the populists and their champions, or they can propose policies capable of addressing constructively the legitimate grievances of these voters. A lengthy article just posted on The Atlantic‘s website adds to the evidence that the American political establishment has overwhelmingly opted for choice number one.
Author Jonathan Rauch makes clear in his title how he interprets the rise of anti-establishment candidates like presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and unexpectedly strong Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders: “How American Politics Went Insane.” His explanation: Well-intentioned reformers across the nation’s ideological spectrum went way overboard in removing the flaws in the formal and informal political systems that on balance served the United States well for decades, and wound up proverbially throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Rauch is certainly correct in pointing out that various recent changes mandated in U.S. politics have backfired, or at the least had damaging unintended consequences. He’s also correct in noting that the results have too often strengthened extremist impulses and weakened their moderate counterparts.
But the author is completely off-base in claiming that all would be set right if the nation only recognized the dangers of the transparency and openness in government it’s insisted on, and resolved to return to the days when “institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees…historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.”
As these intermediaries’ influence fades,” Rauch continues, “politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.”
Ben Domenech of The Federalist has written a wonderful takedown of Rauch’s establishmentarian bias. Especially devastating is his observation that the practitioners of “insider politics” – including “influence peddlers,” other types of “middle men,” and particularly the wealthy, entrenched special interests they served – used the system to enrich and empower themselves even further. In the process, of course, they left more and more of their compatriots on the outs.
Domenech could have gone even further, however, and pointed out that the author’s establishmentarian bias is actually self-serving. After all, Rauch is not only a regular contributor to establishment publications The Atlantic and National Journal. He’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a mainstay of a Washington, D.C. think tank world that, as I’ve written, has turned into a dedicated “idea laundering” machine – advancing the policy preferences of its corporate and other one-percent-er funders by cloaking them in quasi-academic, objective-looking garb.
But Domenech’s dispositive argument entails Rauch’s almost complete neglect of substance. Domenech calls Rauch’s thesis “bereft of data and thoroughly at odds with the data we have.” I’d emphasize the converse: Rauch is almost completely process-oriented – which of course reflects the establishment worldview that the major, strategic issues are all being handled just splendidly, and that the only remaining questions concern some mechanics.
Domenech does a nice job of listing the substantive establishment failures Rauch glosses over: in addition to Vietnam and Watergate, “Impeachment. 9/11. Iraq. Katrina. Congressional corruption. Financial meltdown….Stagnant wages.” (Domenech also includes Obamacare and the president’s “failed stimulus,” but in my view, those cases are far from screamingly obvious.)
It’s true that Rauch, and his defenders, can point out that for all those troubles and even crises, the United States is still chugging along, and that the vast majority of its citizens enjoy living standards that remain the envy of most of the rest of humanity. At the same time, it’s crucial to remember how many immense built-in advantages the United States has always enjoyed, including generally friendly and, more important, weak, neighbors; abundant natural resources; and a national creed that has encouraged wealth creation and equal opportunity (however often the latter has been absent for major groups).
That is, the United States remains immensely difficult to damage fatally both geopolitically and economically. In fact, given the record cited above – and the crucial policy mistakes were supported by mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike – the most important question raised by this year’s American political tumult arguably isn’t it’s reached such proportions. It’s what took so long.