I read an essay a while ago and I really believe it to be true. In it the author asserted the last real major debate of our era–the role of the federal government, started with the New Deal era reforms, was finally settled in the 1990’s. The consensus was that we need the EPA and the FDA and other federal regulatory agencies. But those agencies needed to be finite in their power–and the federal government cannot solve all of our problems. In fact, the federal government often fucks things up even worse.
And we can see echoes of that consensus in some of our debates today: no Republican who wants to keep elected office for more than one term has called for shutting down the EPA; at best Republicans have asked for the EPA’s role to be more limited–or at least to be confined to a narrow reading of legislative intent.
Likewise, no Democrat who wants to keep elected office for more than one term fails to acknowledge the excesses of government control–the dangers of “crony capitalism” and of regulatory capture of governmental regulatory agencies by big business.
(In an earlier era, at the start of this debate, the question if big business was the proper overseer of governmental agencies was in fact floated–and for a while it was assumed he who paid the most taxes gets to call the shots. That’s why it was federal armies putting down strikers: not because the strikers were committing an insurrection against the federal government, but because big business were major taxpayers who were thought to deserve governmental help in the form of the military.)
Thus far we’ve been through (by some estimates) six party systems.
And note each party system was driven by a major debate: a major question of the time around which the parties organized.
The first party system was organized around the fundamental question of a strong government verses a weak government: a major point of debate revolved around if the federal government should even keep a standing army and navy.
The second party system was organized around the question of which should have primacy: the executive branch or the legislative. Should we be run like an elected monarchy or with a more parliamentary approach with the President answerable to Congress? A major point of debate was over the need for a central bank.
The third party system was organized around the question of slavery. One could say the third party system’s central debate replaced the second’s without the major questions brought about in the second party system being resolved.
The fourth party system was organized around the question of reconstruction, and the role of citizens in government: should the government be involved in guaranteeing rights (such as voting rights and labor rights), and should the government be involved in the banking sector?
The fifth and sixth party systems revolve around the role of the federal government in the economy: how strong a hand should it have? Should we even have an administrative state–and if so, what role should it play? The separation between the fifth and sixth party systems (it seems to me) was over the question of civil rights–which led to a realignment of the parties in the 1960’s.
But we’ve settled these debates.
Yes, we’re going to have a standing military. The fact that we even had this debate early on in our history may strike some people as somewhat foreign.
We’ve decided the legislative and executive branches are co-equal–and power waxes and wanes as necessity requires. Yes, the executive branch is now in charge of the largest governmental bureaucracy overseeing the largest economy ever seen on Planet Earth–but congress constrains the bureaucracy, and in practical terms the President’s power over the bureaucracy he is nominally in complete control over is actually quite limited.
(By extension, it implies strongly that we’ve in fact created a de-facto fourth branch of government: the administrative state, with its own power and its own inertia. If you think otherwise–consider: who writes the actual rules regulating remote-controlled drones in the national airspace? Congress? The President? Or technical bureaucrats with deep knowledge of air-traffic issues working within the FAA bureaucracy? And keep in mind those rules have the force of federal law–complete with appropriate civil and criminal penalties.)
Yes, we’re going to have government involvement in banking through a Federal Reserve. Few serious candidates have called for the abolition of the Federal Reserve, and fewer for the US to be put on a gold standard.
Yes, we’re going to have an EPA, an FDA, a Department of Housing and Urban Development. Few serious candidates have called for their abolition–but fewer candidates believe these agencies should control the horizontal and the vertical. (No serious Democrat I know–who generally favor expanded regulatory oversight–has asked for HUD to take over the entire housing sector and provide socialized housing to the population, for example.)
No, we’re not going to turn over the government to the biggest taxpayers–though it seems like that’s in fact what we’ve done. (Just look back to the strike breaking activities of our military a hundred years ago to see what that actually looks like.)
And now, we’re out of debates.
Oh, sure, it’s not like there aren’t other debates to be had. And some of them have gotten quite loud, thanks to the magnifying effect of social media.
But consider the nature of our current debates. For example, recently there was a lot of complaining about President Trump “gutting” the EPA’s protection of water. But if you dive into the actual debate (rather than the fear-mongering that serves as “memes” on social media) what you find is a technical debate over the interpretation of the EPA’s power over navigable waterways and if they should apply to non-navigable surface streams.
A similar debate over the supposed gutting of the EPA’s protection of the environment with coal miners (and the subsequent fear mongering how we’re going to strip the lands clean and turn large parts of this country into filthy coal mines) turned out to be a technical debate over the nature of EPA licensing of certain businesses: the current Administration favored a strict reading of existing law while their opponents wanted a more expansive reading. And given the economic pressures on coal, it was a debate that will probably have zero effect one way or the other.
Consider even the debates over the PPACA–so called “Obamacare”, which was framed by its supporters and opponents as “socializing” health care in the United States to provide universal access. Well, as it turns out, the PPACA didn’t really move the needle on access (as it was promised), and instead involved itself in a technical rearrangement of the players–a sort of musical chairs–while the ship continued to sink due to economic pressures that the current system (or the pre-PPACA system) was ill-equipped to resolve.
Meaning the PPACA’s supposed “socializing” of the health care industry–an attack its supporters hoped would destroy the insurance companies and thus force a single-payer system–basically turned into thousands of additional pages of regulations that really didn’t amount to much, beyond the creation of a governmental portal for shopping for health care which essentially competed with privately-provided health care comparison sites.
In all of these cases, we have not been engaged in a fundamental debate over the role of the Federal Government. Instead, we’ve been exploring the limits of that control–nudging a little here, pushing back a little there.
In practical terms, the debate over the role of the Federal Government: the question if the Federal Government bureaucracies should exist–that was settled during the Clinton Administration.
Now of course no new debate has arisen in part because we were distracted by 9/11. In late 2001, the largest terrorist attack on the United States succeeded in distracting us from the fact that we have no real fundamental philosophical debates left.
Fine tuning the authority granted to the EPA is not a fundamental philosophical debate.
But now we’ve reduced the “War on Terror” to quadrature: yes, we’re going to have troops abroad, no, they’re not going to fight everyone’s war. Yes, we’re going to take in refugees, no, we’re not going to take them all–and we’re now in a minor debate as to “how many.” Yes, we’re going to try to stabilize the region; no, we’re not going to engage in major nation-building a’la the British foreign service of the 1800’s, and frankly we’re not equipped to do that anyway.
And we’re turning back to domestic affairs, finally to fundamental philosophical issues of the time.
My prediction, by the way, is that the Democrats are going to lose the 2020 Presidential election cycle, and they will make historically weak gains (or even losses) in Congress.
Because a number of Democratic candidates are trying to re-open the fundamental debate over the role of the Federal Government by bringing up “Socialism.”
The problem is, however, that debate was settled during the Clinton Administration, as I noted above. We’ll vest power in the federal government for oversight–we won’t put power in the hands of government to control.
Various Democrats (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders) have raised the question of socialism in the name of fairness–they’ve raised the question in the context of a “Green New Deal” and in the name of environmentalism; they’ve raised the question in the context of “social justice” and basic economic fairness.
But even if they were to win power over the executive branch–I’m sorry, but the debate was settled. The best they will do is in the name of “Socialism” argue for a slightly more expansive reading of existing legislative mandates for existing regulatory bodies. They may have pushed the Overton Window to the left–but for all practical purposes it won’t go anywhere.
We’re certainly not returning to the 1970’s when the Nixon Administration imposed wage and price controls on the economy. We’re not going to see a “Pay Board” and a “Price Commission” setting “fair prices” and “fair wages.” We’re not going to see centralized control of the United States economy.
The Overton Window may have been pushed left: it may be acceptable nowadays to call yourself a Socialist. But the actual window of acceptable policies–call it the wonkish Overton Window–has slid to the right. It’s slid towards individual economic control, even if those individuals are in charge of very large corporations.
The Socialism Debate is, frankly, dead in the water.
And Democrats trying to re-arbitrate the argument may as well be asking if we need a standing army, a Federal Reserve, or re-open the argument over slavery.
And that is why, I believe, politics has turned to the personal: to the so-called “Politics of Personal Destruction.” That’s why people are angry over politics all the damned time, why we’re so concerned over if we impeach President Trump or if that represents an effective coup d’etat. That’s why we’re drawing caricatures of Trump or chanting “Orange Man Bad” or contemplating why Pelosi is a multi-millionaire on a congressional salary or taking to the streets in black masks and hoods and trying to “punch a NAZI.” That’s why people are hell bent on name calling.
Because we’ve run out of meaningful things to debate.
And to justify their existence, political parties have nothing left to say.
Worse, once people realize political parties have run out of major debates, and all that we’re doing now are minor technical course corrections on a status quo that was decided over two decades ago, the political parties run the risk of losing cohesion.
So long as people are angry over Trump, Democrats can hold their party together. As soon as people realize the major debates of our era boil down to things like the proper interpretation of 33 USC 1251, section 401 and 501(a)–well, that sort of wonkishness does not really make for great “get out the vote” material.
So all we have left are personal attacks.
Someday, perhaps a great debate will arise that grabs the imagination.
Right now a great debate has emerged in Europe over the role of internationalism verses nationalism–a continuation of a great debate Europe has been locked in since before the start of World War I. The debate has shifted towards nationalism–much to the concern of cosmopolitan internationalists who see echoes of NAZI fascism, conveniently forgetting their own side was originally backed by the brutality of the Soviet Communist Party.
Perhaps that may spread to the United States as a debate over our proper role in international affairs.
Perhaps a great debate will arise over computerization and Artificial Intelligence. Right now in our economy we’re seeing a major shift–as major as the original Industrial Revolution–that is pushing our economy into one that is increasingly computerized, where customer service is measured by how well your App ranks on Apple’s App Store, where customer satisfaction requires you show on a map where a customer’s package is today.
Today we’re seeing as every major sector is being systematically dismantled and rebuilt around software. Lyft and Uber has replaced taxis by providing an app which allows you to call a ride, specify a destination, see where your ride is, pay for your ride, and tip your driver all within an app. Today we’ve seen retail gutted by two-day delivery; while we’ve eliminated the pleasure of walking up and down aisles discovering new things in a box chain electronics store, we now have access to a wide variety of goods all with a single click of the mouse. Today we’re seeing retail banking under attack by on-line app makers: the latest in that attack is Apple’s credit card, which, while it does come with a physical credit card–that physical credit card is actually optional.
And today if you want to start your own company, the easiest thing to do is find an existing business–and build a competing business that uses an app or a web site as a major portal of interaction, and which provides complete transparency in scheduling. I can envision, for example, competing against “Mr Rooter” by creating a plumbing company which handles scheduling, payment, and even tells you where the service technician is, all on a web site.
But so far, none of these debates have grabbed the popular attention.
So all we have left is the politics of personal destruction.
And until we see another great debate arise–and “Socialism” isn’t it, that’s been settled–all we will have is the politics of personal destruction.
Because without that, our political parties really have nothing to hang their collective hats on.