If you have not read The Federalist’s publisher, Ben Domenech, on “The Persistence Of Washington Delusion,” you really should. Ben concisely refutes the notion Jonathan Rausch recently put forth that the reforms of political parties and machines, such as eliminating earmarks, have paved the way for political insanity in America. Ben also eloquently indicts “a generation of [Washington] elites who didn’t do their jobs well, or pretended things weren’t their job for too long.”
The underlying problem in America, however, extends far beyond the Beltway. At one point, Ben observes that the distrust of elites “is not about ideology.” This is true in a narrow sense, but incorrect in a broader and more important sense.
The decades-long decline of trust in American institutions coincides with a decades-long increase in the progressivism of our institutions. To be sure, correlation is not always causation. But progressivism is the philosophy built on the premise of rule by elites. The larger and more intrusive government becomes, the more people will care about how well elites are doing their jobs.
Americans Support Big Government by Default
Moreover, as much as it may pain my fellow conservatarians to hear, this progressivism is nevertheless broadly accepted by the American public, inculcated through generations of progressive dominance of education and the media (whether that media is journalism or entertainment). Certainly Democrats embrace it. Now the political success of Donald J. Trump has opened the eyes of the Right to the fact that Republicans largely accept it.
Trump should not have been necessary for this. Decades of public opinion polling and policy outcomes demonstrated it far more than the platforms and op-eds a relative few penned.
Republicans have occasionally succeeded in slowing the rate at which America has become more progressive. President Reagan was able to cut income tax rates and increase defense spending, but accepted tax increases to kick the can on entitlements and could not convince a Democratic Congress to reduce spending generally. Subsequent administrations generally have been worse. A Republican Congress pressured Bill Clinton into keeping his promise on welfare reform after two vetoes. He did so during a period when the end of the Cold War and the revenues from the tech bubble allowed Washington to balance budgets on the Pentagon’s back. Unsurprisingly, welfare reform has eroded in the ensuing decades.
Accordingly, the big picture remains largely unchanged. Entitlements are not reformed, let alone privatized. To the contrary, Medicare was expanded during a GOP administration, if less so than it would have been under a Democratic regime. The world Rausch posits, in which a congressman trades an airport for entitlement cuts, contains more pure imagination than Willy Wonka’s chocolate room. Programs are almost never eliminated, let alone departments.
The Culture Is Sliding Left, Just Like the Budgets
The Right also loses most cultural battles, excepting abortion and gun rights. Notably, the inroads on abortion may be due as much to the invention and deployment of the sonogram as the steadfastness of the pro-life movement. Otherwise, political and cultural progressivism has been successful in their march through the institutions, including education, religion, and the family.
Curricula increasingly conform to the progressive fashions of the moment, producing generations of precious snowflakes unequipped even to engage in the critical thinking public schools claim to prioritize over an understanding of the ages of wisdom that made us a free and prosperous people. Church membership and attendance continues their long-term decline. A country that seriously debated school prayer 30 years ago now debates whether Christians must be forced to serve same-sex weddings.
Marriage rates continue their long-term decline. Divorce rates have declined from the highs reached during the generation following the sexual revolution, but has generally increased over the course of the century during which progressivism has taken hold (despite the declining marriage rate). Those advocating reform of the nation’s various no-fault divorce laws are few and generally considered fringe. Some conservatarians may even welcome or accept some of the social changes of the past few decades, as I do, but this underscores the point rather than contradicting it.
The Elites Are Doing What the People Demand
Meanwhile, America has voted for decade after decade of tax-and-spend, borrow-and-spend, or some hybrid of the two. If the white working class is now discontented with the government’s failure to redress their grievances, this is in no small part due to the ingrained American expectation that government will do so, based on the observation that government typically hungers to increase government dependency (not that the white working class would use these terms).
Developed nations’ embrace of the welfare state generally contributes to lower fertility rates and increasing reliance on immigrants to support government programs. This has gone generally unobserved by America’s current crop of populists, but not by America’s elites. This pattern may or may not work better than it has in Europe. In either event, the current elites will have moved on to more lucrative work (or retirement or death) by the time we discover the answer. The populists and pensioners will also have received their benefits, passing the bill along to the younger generations whom they have educated to accept it (or so they hope).
In sum, while it is correct to note that elites are not doing their jobs well, it is more difficult to conclude that elites have not been responding to the political demands of the American public as much as they have driven them. Ironically, Rausch once understood the problem of demosclerosis, even if he did not understand it as the inevitable product of progressivism, rather than a mere side-effect thereof.
The presidential nominees our two major parties have chosen are largely viewed as awful. But Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump offer two slightly different versions of the same delusion: that progressivism works, if only the elites were not so stupid. This delusion is what most Americans currently want to believe.