Gridlock and Gloom: The New Normal in Politics?

Can we find the political will to tackle big issues like high inequality and low social mobility, inadequate growth, climate change, immigration, and rising health care costs? It is easy to be gloomy on this question. Amitai Etzioni’s new book, The New Normal, offers little comfort. It does, however, offer some new insights.

Conservative Voters = Conservative Policies

In politics, the “new normal” may well be something close to the gridlock we are witnessing today, according to Etzioni. One reason for this is that the electorate is more conservative than liberal. (Conservatives, he notes, include not just Republicans but many independents and some Democrats.) So it should be no surprise that during the 2008-12 period, conservatives in Congress succeeded in blocking attempts to move policy in a more liberal direction.

Most of the Bush tax cuts have now been made permanent. The minimum wage remains stuck at a level far below its earlier inflation-adjusted peak. The Affordable Care Act, modelled on a plan initially put forward by the Heritage Foundation, retains a major role for the private sector and the insurance industry rather than moving toward a single payer system. The estate tax has been greatly liberalized with an exemption of $5 million per person. Defeat of a cap and trade bill has left environmentalists dispirited. 

So – Etzioni argues – democracy worked. Mostly conservative voters got what they wanted: mostly conservative policies.

The Voter-Government Disconnect

Yet the electorate remains highly dissatisfied. There is a big disconnect between what the political system produced (presumably what the majority wanted) and how that majority feels about their government. The proportion of citizens who believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction has risen. Approval ratings of the both the President and especially the Congress have plummeted. Major issues with bipartisan support, from immigration to crumbling infrastructure, have not been addressed.

Why this disconnect? And why the conservative strength? Five explanations present themselves:

  1. Voters are misinformed and not entirely rational;
  2. Voters are “philosophically conservative” (in other words, dislike government in the abstract) but “operationally liberal” (in other words, like their Medicare);
  3. Voters are not representative of the broader public. About 60 percent of those eligible actually vote in Presidential elections, and just 40 percent in midterms;
  4. Conservatives have done a better job of honing and repeating their messages in recent years; and have been helped by some provocative and well-known radio and TV hosts. The fact that more people watch Fox than MSNBC suggests that the public likes what Fox has to offer.
  5. There is too much money in politics, dictating results. But there isn’t in fact much evidence that money plays a major role in electoral outcomes.

Etzioni can find no single smoking gun to explain our political dysfunction. But it seems that we have met the enemy, and it is us. Perhaps we are getting the government we deserve.