24 Jul A Quarter-Century (at least) of Uniparty Rule
About 25 years or so ago, we wrote a piece about a secret Chinese spy document we had managed to obtain. The document, we wrote, contained the transcript of a conversation among various Congressional leaders: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, and a handful of others. The gist of the conversation was that the folks back in the home states and districts needed some drama. Everyone in the room agreed on everything – taxes, spending, budget deficits, “foreign policy as social work” (to borrow a phrase from Michael Mandelbaum), etc. – and they all needed to find some things to fight about so that the voters wouldn’t catch on to the fact that, on most policy issues, there wasn’t a hair’s breadth of difference between the two parties. They all promised to throw highly public fits about percentage points here and a few extra zeroes there, but mostly, they decided they’d scream and holler at each other about cultural issues, the stuff they couldn’t really do much about but which they could use to make their constituents believe they were “fighting” for their interests in Washington.
The piece was satire, but we had to add the bit about the Chinese spy document in order to make sure our readers knew that. Otherwise, the satire might have been too subtle, too close to what many observers presumed was the actual case in official Washington.
Now, we mention this because it appears that today – a quarter century late – some in the mainstream media have come to the conclusion that Republicans and Democrats just might actually agree on a great deal – at least on basic public policy issues. Consider, for example, the following, from the always-prescient folks at The Economist:
The diagnoses from the new right and new left of what ails America are strikingly similar. Both sides agree that the old order that prized expertise, free markets and free trade—“neoliberalism”, usually invoked as a pejorative—was a rotten deal for America. Corporations were too immoral; elites too feckless; globalisation too costly; inequality too unchecked; the invisible hand too prone to error.
These problems, both sides agree, must be rectified by the state, through the use of tariffs and industrial policy to boost favoured industries. That should be coupled with greater redistribution, to the detriment of corporations and to the benefit of left-behind workers. When Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, who is tasked with making something called “a foreign policy for the middle class” a reality, endorsed the idea that the administration’s domestic economic policies represented a “new Washington consensus” in April, he was speaking grandly but not incorrectly.
For wonks pushing in this direction, that is great news. “It is a sign of a healthy politics that you have people with their eyes open on both sides of the political spectrum saying, ‘This is really broken,’” says Oren Cass, a former policy adviser to Mitt Romney and now the executive director of American Compass, a think-tank leading the charge on the right.
In its usual hilariously ponderous way, The Economist concocts an ideological explanation for what has been practical common knowledge for more than a quarter century.
Equally hilarious, reflecting the bizarre consensus opinion of the day, The Economist gets this ideological explanation totally backward: “the old order that prized expertise, free markets and free trade…” What “old order” is that, exactly? Free trade is the only part of that list that has been even close to part of the political order for the last few decades, and its popularity has been waning for at least 15 years. As for an obsession with “expertise,” Anthony Fauci and his ilk may have made the final cut, but political opposition to it has been profoundly fruitful for at least half-a-century, since George Wallace rode his opposition to “pointy-headed bureaucrats riding to work on a bike in their three-piece suits with a peanut butter sandwich in their briefcase” to a shocking near-victory in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary contest. (Note, for the record, that Wallace – 51 years ago – also argued that there wasn’t “a dime’s-worth of difference” between Washington Republicans and Democrats). Finally, maybe we missed something, but outside of a handful of occasional endorsements by Libertarians or libertarian-leaning conservatives, we don’t recall anyone in Washington EVER supporting actual free markets. Republicans and Clinton-Democrats loved to talk about them, but then, talk is cheap.
Anyway, there are several important points to take away from this “newly discovered” left-right consensus.
First, and most important, anyone who suggests that “cultural issues” are secondary or extraneous to American politics has exactly zero idea what he or she is talking about. Cultural issues are the only issues that matter. (We would argue and, indeed, have argued that cultural and economic policy matters are intricately connected and that cultural matters can never be effectively addressed until we first resolve the issues derived from economic dependence on the state. But that’s a story for another day.) Today, all issues are culture issues.
Consequently, any political strategy that ignores culture issues is doomed to fail. Last week, Douglas Schoen penned a piece for The Hill in which he argued that Republicans should abandon the culture war because that’s what is holding them back. If they could just get over their culture-war nonsense, they could govern, but since they can’t, they’re in deep trouble. “In addition to lacking popular support,” Schoen wrote, “the Republican Party’s extreme moral crusades come at the expense of focusing on the core issues Americans care most about, and undermine the GOP’s ability to draw a legitimate and compelling contrast with Democratic policies at a time when Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo.”
It is worth noting here that Douglas Schoen is “a political consultant who served as an advisor to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg.” In other words, Schoen has been making this same argument for as long as we’ve been making the counter-argument. “If Republicans would just abandon their stupid crusade against abortion and ‘sensible’ climate change policies, then we could fix the world!” In more than a quarter-century, Schoen hasn’t been right yet, and there’s no reason to suppose he will ever be. Culture issues matter.
A second takeaway here is that there is room for someone to make economic and governance issues important again, but it will take truly bold thinking, in addition to careful integration of those issues into the cultural milieu. (To reiterate, the two are connected.)
We’ll be honest with you. We have been surprised at how well our friendquaintance Vivek Ramaswamy has been doing in the pre-debate primary campaign. We think he stumbled early and got some bad advice, but he has recovered nicely. And he has done so by talking about things that most American voters are unaccustomed to hearing politicians talk about. For example, Vivek has suggested that the government can help “put people back to work,” not through economic planning or industrial policy, but by reducing the incentives to avoid working. What he means by this is that he wants to reduce the generosity and longevity of unemployment benefits. But because he is clever and understands that Americans long for cultural justification for such outside-of-the-box economic thinking, he has connected this to the broader resuscitation of the “American spirit,” the historic American desire to work, build, create, and enrich oneself.
We’re not sure that this strategy can get Vivek elected, but it is clearly working at getting him attention from the media and voters and putting him where he always said he wanted to be at this point: qualifying to be on the debate stage.
The bottom line here is that “the great Washington uniparty” is hardly a recent phenomenon. Its existence predates the current century. One might argue, in fact, that its existence is more or less inevitable under the leadership of the current ruling class, which not only comprises the uniparty, but benefits inordinately from it as well. Culture issues are all that remain – almost by design. And they will remain so until someone can break the soft-statist consensus that employs this condition to its benefit.