Response to “Gridlock and Gloom: The New Normal in Politics”

Sawhill’s summary of Amitai Etzioni’s provocative discussion of “Is There a Gridlock” in his new book, The New Normal, ends with the Pogo Principle: “we have met the enemy, and it is us.” There is much to be said for that argument. The electorate produces the governments that it subsequently distrusts, denounces, and finds unresponsive. Etzioni’s version of this chestnut is built around the ideological congruence between voters and policies. The American citizenry has long been and continues to be more conservative than liberal. The American government, including the 2008-2012 period under review, produces conservative policies. Ergo: the American political system successfully produces democratic responsiveness. Yet the public shows every sign of being unhappy getting what they want. Is the problem the public, our political system, or our theory of democracy?

Interesting questions, thoughtfully addressed. But the disconnect between policy congruence and public dissatisfaction with government may not be as mysterious as it first appears. Etzioni himself provides some of the most important clues. First, many have noted that Americans are both ideological conservatives and operational liberals. They are skeptical of government in general but supportive, even demanding, of concrete government programs. Popular majorities favoring minimum wage increases, higher taxes on the wealthy, infrastructure spending, comprehensive immigration reform, and protection of the environment are not being well served by conservative opposition to these policies.

Second, public assessments of government are based less on policies enacted or defeated than on outcomes that materially affect their well-being, such as good jobs with livable wages. The latter are often shaped by powerful forces beyond the reach of policies. The economy shapes presidential success more than the president shapes the economy.

Third, the 111th Congress, Obama’s first, was disputatious and produced no liberal utopia, but by contemporary American standards it was unusually productive – one that enacted policies long on the moderate and liberal wish list. The divided party government that followed was dramatically different, one featuring levels of brinksmanship, hostage-taking and nullification not seen in many decades. The public had much to be unhappy with.

Following the global financial crisis and Great Recession, America is doing better than most other countries. Since late 2009, the economy has been growing, unemployment declining, deficits dropping, stock markets climbing, and corporate profits out of sight. Stagnant wages, growing inequality and limited social mobility have limited the gains from this economic renaissance to the upper crust. That is the big disconnect in our politics, one that is substantively real and a major source of public discontent.