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The Persistence Of Washington Delusion


Jonathan Rauch has a cover story in The Atlantic – “How American Politics Went Insane” – which is getting positive links from a lot of otherwise intelligent people. In it, he claims American political system was reformed to death, and that the effects of transparency and openness in government has undermined the elites who prevent political insanity.

“Parties, machines, and hacks may not have been pretty, but at their best they did their job so well that the country forgot why it needed them. Politics seemed almost to organize itself, but only because the middlemen recruited and nurtured political talent, vetted candidates for competence and loyalty, gathered and dispensed money, built bases of donors and supporters, forged coalitions, bought off antagonists, mediated disputes, brokered compromises, and greased the skids to turn those compromises into law. Though sometimes arrogant, middlemen were not generally elitist. They excelled at organizing and representing unsophisticated voters, as Tammany Hall famously did for the working-class Irish of New York, to the horror of many Progressives who viewed the Irish working class as unfit to govern or even to vote.”

Rauch’s solution to the rise of Trumpism comes down to bringing back earmarks. Really.

“I don’t have a quick solution to the current mess, but I do think it would be easy, in principle, to start moving in a better direction. Although returning parties and middlemen to anything like their 19th-century glory is not conceivable—or, in today’s America, even desirable—strengthening parties and middlemen is very doable. Restrictions inhibiting the parties from coordinating with their own candidates serve to encourage political wildcatting, so repeal them. Limits on donations to the parties drive money to unaccountable outsiders, so lift them. Restoring the earmarks that help grease legislative success requires nothing more than a change in congressional rules. And there are all kinds of ways the parties could move insiders back to the center of the nomination process.”

Jon Ward has a followup with him.

Rauch’s claims flatter the establishment with sweet nothings. But there is one thing very notable about his piece, which is too lengthy given the vacuity of his explanation: it is bereft of data and thoroughly at odds with the data we have. If you agree with Rauch, understand the basis of your agreement is sentiment. It’s all you have. He is mounting an emotional and tribal argument in defense of the Washington elite that has no basis in measurable statistics and polling. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it does mean his argument is very uphill, at odds with a lot of data on the other side.

The core of Rauch’s argument is that the Washington establishment on right and left was previously good at its job prior to a period of agitation and reforms which denied them the tools they had used to bring populists to heel. But the truth is that the elites were only good at their jobs according to their own assessment, not according to the electorate. The stability the elites maintained was a stability that accrued to the benefit of Washington and its attendant Versailles on the Potomac hangers-on. For roughly the past two decades, it did not accrue to the benefit of the electorate.

Rauch’s piece is a whitewashing paean to a leadership class in both parties that once had the power to manage and mitigate the disruptive tendencies of populist movements. But how did they lose that power? It didn’t happen overnight. It happened after incident after incident where they proved themselves feckless and incapable of responding to the interests of the people.

The steady decline of confidence in institutions that began with Watergate and Vietnam is due to real failures of the elite leadership class. These failures undermined confidence not just in capacity to do good but in capability to represent interests. The list is familiar to you by now: Impeachment. 9/11. Iraq. Katrina. Congressional corruption. Financial meltdown. Failed stimulus. Obamacare. Stagnant wages. Diminished hopes. But oh, the party establishment was doing good? These middlemen Rauch puts on a pedestal – they were responding and managing and running things well? No. They were looking out for the interests of people other than those they were elected to serve. They were responding to the donor class and to the party leadership – the very people Rauch views as responsible balances against the populist tendencies of the electorate.

Let’s be clear: Rauch’s argument requires you to believe elites were doing just fine running the country until about 2010. Rauch’s darkest day comes in 2011, when earmarking was banned. But there’s no data to support the contention that removing earmarking contributed to any level of American political insanity. He has nothing in his corner at all – it is an argument based in a mawkish nostalgia for kinder days, not fact.

Square Rauch’s frame with the Benjy Sarlin report this week on the people who elected Trump, which is also quoted below. You can’t, because the latter offers actual data to show why people supported Trump, and I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because they’re angry about the lack of earmarks. It’s not that people believe their leadership class is corrupt – it’s that they know they’re stupid. It’s not that people are angry because a parking garage didn’t get built, it’s that they’re angry because the FBI can’t keep track of a terrorist’s wife. 

Sarlin’s piece illustrates, in clear data-driven reporting, the real basis for the breakdown of our Cold War era political reality: an utter collapse in the belief that our elites, elected or otherwise, have the capacity to represent. They no longer believe our elites will ever look out for the interests of an anxious people. The “he can’t be bought” frame for Trump’s rise is best understood as code for “he’ll look out for me, not [pick your group]”.

This is not about ideology. If people trusted elites and institutions they defend to look out for them, in a non-ideological sense, the breakdown of our systems would have been mitigated or confined. The fact that it is so sweeping is due to a generation of elites who didn’t do their jobs well, or pretended things weren’t their job for too long.

We have breakdown, chaos, and upheaval in our politics today not because the people are “insane”, as Rauch writes, but because they are sane. They know the leadership class which held power for the past generation has not looked out for them. Don’t blame a people for turning on elites who thought they knew better but proved over and over that they didn’t. It is thoroughly rational to want something else instead. Even if that something else turns out not to deliver either, at least you know it’s not the same as what’s failed.

If you disagree with Rauch, there is a mountain of evidence on your side. If you agree with Rauch, you’re left arguing that what Washington really needed was more Eric Cantors. And that, my friends, is truly insane – the sort of desperate argument one only advances if you can’t make sense of what you’re seeing in America’s politics. It’s an emotional argument, an argument from fear.

Calm down, Jonathan. Now’s not the time for fear. That comes later.