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After the Wave

The Republicans, we are told, have capitalized on the country's anger and frustration in the face of a crippled economy. No doubt this is true. But it's also true that Republicans have always been better at appealing to voters' pride, both collective pride (patriotism or nationalism or national exceptionalism) and personal pride, whose ideological expression is individualism. The two dovetail nicely. Americans don't need the government to take care of them; they can take care of themselves, as long as the government doesn't get in their way. And it's the self-sufficiency of individual Americansthat makes ours the greatest country in the world, a country so great that it can have nothing to learn from other countries, or indeed from its own mistakes. We Americans teach the lessons of history; we don't learn them.

The more threatened and insecure we feel -- the more humiliated by job losses and foreclosures -- the more there is to be gained by politicians who know how to stroke our pride. If you're unemployed and could use some help from the government, pride might keep you from accepting it. It might even get you to resent a governing party that offers it, especially if someone can persuade you that the government's efforts to help are precisely what makes it so hard for you to find work. And if you're not hurting at a time when many others are, pride could convince you it's because of your superior thrift and industry. Thus has the GOP managed to exploit both the wounded pride of the unemployed and the impervious vanity of rich conservatives.

Despite all that's happened in the last five years, Tea Party politicians insist that regulation is for sissies. America doesn't have to lash itself to the mast like Ulysses. If private, unenforced virtue can't save us (and it can, it can!), then bring on the ruin -- as long as we can say we did it our way. Does the evidence suggest that people in countries with socialized medicine enjoy better health at less expense? Then to hell with the evidence. This debate isn't about public policy or medicine or even health; it's about freedom, damn it -- in this case, the freedom to have one's medical expenses paid for by entrepreneurial corporate bureaucrats rather than by that great alien monster, the federal government.

Last night I heard a newly elected Tea Party Republican explain that this election was about "philosophy," not politics. This impressive-sounding distinction is becoming popular on the Right. The Tea Party's ideals are so lofty, so pure, that they're above not only partisanship but politics itself. In truth, the only topic that seems to arouse the philosophical interest of Tea Party politicians is the intrinsic evil of big government and the intrinsic nobility of anything done in the name of individual liberty. (Their favorite philosopher -- maybe their only philosopher -- is Thomas Jefferson, because of his famous equation of good government with minimal government and because he gave us "self-evident truths," theTea Party's favorite kind. ) Details of policy aren't important. Details are for politicians, not philosophers. Asked how they plan to offset the $700 billion cost of renewing the Bush administration's tax cuts on annual income above $200,000-- or whether those cuts are so important that they justify adding to the national debt --Tea Party politicians talk vaguely about across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending, confident that most Americans think"discretionary spending" is just a fancy term for pork. On election night, no one could get the Republican victors to say how much they plan to cut and which particular programs will be affected. Their Olympian generality was invincible. Let the wonks shuffle their charts and scratch their heads nervously as they puzzle over the math. The philosophers have speeches to give and elections to win.

Another Tea Party term of art is "uncertainty" -- as in John Boehner's assurance last night that the GOP agenda "means ending the uncertainty in our economy and helping small businesses get people back to work." As Jonathan Chait pointed out before the election, there is nothing especially "uncertain" about the Democrats' agenda:

The parties do not differ over uncertainty. On taxes, Republicans want to keep the low Bush rates forever. Democrats want to phase out low rates on income over $250,000. The uncertainty is that the original Bush tax cuts had a phase-out date and we can't be sure which party will win. But Republicans winning does not reduce uncertainty any more than Democrats winning would....But just saying you think low taxes and low regulation is the key to economic recovery is both transparently self-serving and almost self-refuting -- after all, the economic crisis was precipitated by an administration that, for all its spending, was resolutely opposed to taxation of the rich and regulation of business. So expressing a desire to restore "certainty" is simply a way of presenting the pro-business agenda as a specific analysis of the current environment as opposed to straightforward special pleading.

The promise to end uncertainty is not only reassuring but also flattering. These may be uncertain times, but the American people are never uncertain. They are philosophers, holding fast to their certain, self-evident truths.


Commenting Guidelines

Wish I'd written that, Matt. The conventional wisdom (clear throat here) is that the next two years will really be about political positioning for 2012, which will essentially mean Republicans blocking things and both sides maneuvering to blame the other. This backfired on Republicans in the Gingrich revolution of the 90s, and maybe they'll do better this time.But I wonder if the winner-take-all nature of our polarized politics -- not even strong majorities in both houses and the presidency could unblock much of the Dems' agenda over the last two years -- makes this sort of struggle inevitable. The Republican victory yesterday was huge but is only a first step in a longer campaign that can only end with total victory -- the White House and congressional supermajorities. That is a fantasy too, of course. It's as if we are a parliamentary system trapped in a quadrennial body.

I've been hearing this "uncertainty" thing for a while -- The economy can't recover because businesses are so 'uncertain' about what will happen under Obama. I love it because, for all its pseudo-sophistication, it's just a way of saying "We were right not to like or trust that Obama character, because just look how the fact that we don't like or trust him is destroying the country." It's ultimately just a version of the tautology about how "the American people don't want X, except of course the ones who voted for X, who don't really count, because how could they when they voted for something the American people don't want?"

Since American exceptionalism is just about to run out (if it hasn't already), what will those Republicans you describe offer to a credulous American electorate?

Gridlock, and a loss of any concept of the common good. We lack the will to fix what needs to be fixed, and have fallen captive to the special interests Madison saw could capture our institutions.

Folks, I don't think there's a finer analysis of last night's fiasco than that of Alex Cockburn, at Counterpunch:, last night I cast my last vote for the Democratic Party. I'm tired of paying protection to them. And please, no tiresome twaddle about "What's the alternative"? As the sorry-ass Democrats have demonstrated, they have no alternative. They're the Other Business Party. It's time to start another party of the left.

My guess is that the American people are less interested in competing philosophies than political commentators and philosophers are.The conventional wisdom is that the GOP did nothing but obstruct Democratic policy for the last two years, without offering any alternative ideas. The voters punished them for that lack of compelling vision with a stunning electoral victory that gave them control of the House, substantial gains in the Senate, and a slew of state-level offices.We have the health care bill we do because Democrats were absolutely certain, based on the history of "Hillarycare", that the only thing worse politically than passing a flawed bill would be passing no bill at all. And so Democrats in the House held their noses and passed the Senate version. House Democrats were rewarded for that act of statesmanship by being relegated to minority status.Polls have been telling us for many months that the American people like neither the Democrats nor (even more so) the Republicans. The rational response to that situation is to arrange for legislative gridlock, such that neither party can execute its vision. Last night's election results would seem to be perfectly consistent with that observation.It may be that the worst thing a party can do these days is get anything done.

"Its as if we are a parliamentary system trapped in a quadrennial body."David G. --Or maybe we're just too big, too complex to be manageable. Maybe the Alaskan and Texan successionists have a point.

Mollie - -It seems that there is something that all economists agree about -- that all businessmen hate uncertainty and do not invest until it is cleared up. Are they right? Who knows.

Ann,The reason businesses aren't investing isn't because they're uncertain about taxes, regulation, and health-care costs under the Obama administration. The reason is that there isn't enough consumer demand for their products. See this very good column by Surowiecki:"If businesses arent hiring or investing, its because they dont need to: they have enough workers and factories to meet the demand for their products. And there are few signs that this is going to change any time soon: consumer demand remains weak, economic indicatorsinflation rates, consumer confidence, the stock market, bond ratesarent forecasting a quick return to boom times, and, just last week, the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, told Congress that the state of the U.S. economy was 'unusually uncertain.' So its no wonder that companies are feeling cautious. The uncertainty thats keeping businesses from spending or hiring isnt uncertainty about what Barack Obama is doing or saying. Its uncertainty about whether the economic recovery is going to stick."

If we have a double dip recession in the next two/three months who do we blame? Will the lame duck House pass a tax on the upper 2%.. I say yes .. there are no downsides to that. Of course the Senate will 'talk' to Jan. 20 2011

Ann, I thought this James Surowiecki column from the New Yorker (in August) was very good (if not uplifting) -- he offers some explanations more concrete than the "uncertainty" for why businesses aren't hiring and spending.Update: ...What Matt said!

Oops -- "successionists" should have been "secessionists".

"The uncertainty thats keeping businesses from spending or hiring isnt uncertainty about what Barack Obama is doing or saying. Its uncertainty about whether the economic recovery is going to stick."Matthew, and Mollie --Right. And this is why only massive hiring for public works is so important. Businesses won't invest unless there are more people who can buy their products. Massive public works on the infrastructure would put money into people's pockets very quickly all over the country (unlike R&D on alternative fuels which will take years, probably, to make a big dent and would affect relatively few states probably). I think that Obama's biggest error was in first pursuing health care reform rather than public works to provide jobs. When he took office the biggest problem at the kitchen table was jobs, not health care. In other words, he counted the wrong noses. Sigh.

As a Canadian, I think it is all summed up by "keep your guvmint hands of my medicare", especially as it seems it was we seniors who came out in record numbers.

"The reason [businesses are not investing] is that there isnt enough consumer demand for their products."While that statement is literally true, it is not terribly insightful. Consumer demand would increase if more consumers were employed or, for those already employed, more certain of their continued employment. That's not going to happen until employers are more optimistic about the return on any investment they are considering, so that they will hire more workers and/or lay off less. And that's not going to happen until employers/entrepreneurs have larger returns (for example, because of lower tax rates) or can be more certain about their future returns (for example, removing the uncertainty around healthcare costs brought on by the legislative changes recently enacted). It's a principle of economics, in fact of the human condition, that the more uncertain a future return, the more it will be discounted.

Matthew, David and Margaret in other posts are on target.Philosophical spin will not move us forward!I think the big money onslaught endangers us garvely, in the Middle East, with Iran and also (see today's NPR) Pakistan.The battle over the economy fix will get the headlines, but we continue to roll down to second rate in world matters and as a democray moving to oligarchy.

Matthew, unfortunately, I believe that you're right.

Mark --The employers want greater returns? Everything I've read this year says that business is wallowing in cash, but are uncertain of the future. So it's not lack of cash that's holding them back -- the Fed practically gave money away at interest below 1 percent. Sheesh They don't want to risk their precious capital, as true entrepreneurs will do. These guys are greedy gluts.By the way, good news. I just saw an ad on the net that says that Target is hiring right now :-)

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