Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Escaping Dysfunction


For the symposium on Sanford Levinson and Jack M. Balkin, Democracy and Dysfunction (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

The essays in our online symposium on Democracy and Dysfunction raise so many interesting and important questions that it is not possible to do justice to them all. But many of the essays, and especially the essays that respond to my arguments in the book, revolve around one central question: What will the coming structure of American politics look like?

Corey Robin points out that if—as he and I both believe—Trump represents the end of the Reagan era, conditions don't seem right for a new regime that promises genuine change. There is no powerful social movement pushing things forward, as there was in 1860, 1932, or 1980.  Mark Graber notes that in my description of the emerging Democratic coalition, organized labor doesn't seem to be all that important. That is worrisome because without a powerful labor movement, the interests of working people will likely be under-protected, and politics will not effectively reverse economic inequality.

Robin has a further concern: How can we say that Trump's is a disjunctive presidency that leads to a new regime, when politics is so polarized? Disjunction usually means that the dominant coalition is breaking down in disagreements. But how can that be if the two parties are becoming ever more polarized? Indeed, because our polarization is asymmetric, the Republicans are far more united ideologically than the Democrats, who still have many moderates and conservatives in their party (and perhaps even more after the 2018 mid-term elections). Isn’t a polarized party the very opposite of a party that is breaking down? Hasn't Trump effectively unified his once squabbling party by giving it almost everything conservative Republicans have asked for—lower taxes for the wealthy, deregulation, and very conservative judges? Hasn’t conservative media kept the faithful singing out of the same ideological hymnal? Haven't Republicans banded ever more tightly together in their opposition to the Democratic Party?

Julia Azari points out that the coming years don't seem to fit Stephen Skowronek's model of regime change. In other work with Scott Lemieux, Azari has suggested that we are in for a “long disjunction”—a period of intense competition between the two parties in which neither one dominates.

In that sort of politics, we may finally face what Skowronek calls the "waning of political time," the end of the cycle of presidential regimes in the American system. In that event, Skowronek has suggested that new presidents will face a "politics of perpetual preemption." It will be impossible for a new leader, no matter how skilled, to break apart the accumulated institutions and blockages created by past political developments, and reconstruct politics afresh. Instead, each new leader will rail against the system, and will be elected on a promise to break it apart, but will wind up being unable to do very much. We will have, in other words, a series of Trump-like and Obama-like candidates, each of which promises revolutionary change but ends up delivering something far less significant.

In a series of blog posts, I want to take up each of these challenges and explain where I think the future of politics lies.  Here is a summary of my argument:

First, I will argue that the cycle of regimes has not ended, or even stalled, but that the model of presidential leadership has changed. We are indeed moving toward a new constitutional regime, but it may be one without a reconstructive leader on the order of Jackson, Lincoln, or FDR.

Put another way, I am pushing Skowronek’s “waning of political time” thesis to its logical conclusion. Skowronek's theory connects the phenomenon of successive constitutional regimes in American history to a cycle of distinct forms of presidential leadership. He posits that the latter (presidential leadership) in some way causes the former (the succession of constitutional regimes). But the “waning of political time” thesis is really a claim about presidential leadership styles, and not a claim about the succession of constitutional regimes. That is, the two ideas may be coming apart. What we are witnessing is the waning of presidential time, not political time.

Second, I will argue that strong polarization can be consistent with a disjunctive presidency when former members of the dominant party exit and the party can no longer reproduce itself in the next generation of younger voters. If the party's ideological brand becomes toxic to younger voters, there simply won't be enough new members of the party to replace the ones that are dying off. The result is a party that is strongly unified ideologically but can no longer command a national majority. This is what is happening to the Republican Party. As Max Planck once said of scientific change, much political change occurs not through convincing large numbers of people to change their minds but through the replacement of one generation by the next one. Planck said that progress in science proceeds one funeral at a time; in politics there are many many more funerals.

Third, I will argue that the 2016 election gives us a good clue as to what the structure of the party system is likely to look like in the new regime. We have had fifty years of evolution from the end of the New Deal coalition. In that arrangement, the two parties faced off over class issues; but each was internally divided over social issues and issues of identity (especially race). Today, the two parties face off over social issues and issues of identity, while each party is internally divided on questions of class and economic policy.

Fourth, the Democratic Party is likely to be the dominant party in the next regime, and it will continue to be the more economically egalitarian of the two parties for some time to come. Nevertheless, the nature of the Democratic Party has changed so much in the past fifty years that this may limit the kinds of reforms that will benefit working people. The root problem is that the Democratic Party is no longer the party of the New Deal coalition united on issues of class: rather, it is a coalition of working class people with socially liberal college graduates, professionals and progressive neo-liberals. (Despite the way that the media generally describes things, the Democrats still have a large working class base, but whereas the Republican working-class base is almost all white, the Democratic working-class base is multiracial.)

Working people will probably do better in the new regime than in the current Reagan regime because the Democratic Party's brand is more egalitarian than the Republican brand. But the left wing of the party—Bernie Sanders and younger figures like AOC—will probably not be running the show, at least in the short run. Instead, the economically liberal wing of the party will be only one element in the Democratic coalition, and it will have to apply continual political pressure on the more business-friendly neo-liberal wing in order to achieve genuine economic reform. Because the Democratic Party is now unified on issues of identity, but not class, the disagreements between the two wings of the party will eventually undermine the coalition. But that, I predict, is years in the future.

Fifth, the incoherence and internal divisions within the two emerging party coalitions allow us to see how our current toxic political polarization will end. It shows how new forms of cross-party alliances will become possible, and suggests some of the issues that will drive depolarization.  Whoever figures out how to create cross-party coalitions will drive the direction of reform. Put another way, if the populist/working-class wings of the two parties do not find common ground,  the neo-liberal wings of the two parties probably will. In the latter case, reforms will be far more limited.

Sixth, and finally, I argue that the coming regime is not going to be sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Real change that breaks the stranglehold of economic inequality will only come from difficult times that still lay ahead. To paraphrase Bette Davis, fasten your seat belts, we are in for a bumpy ride.

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