We offer a guest post focusing on GOP reasons for choking government at all costs, preceded by Heather Cox Richardson contrasting the differences between GOP privatization and 1930s style Democratic Activist Government. We close with Roxanne’s and my legislative wrap up.
Before we get to Heather Cox Richardson and the guest post from Adam Wasserman, we briefly describe how their work aligns with our plans for Rethink Our Democracy and the role of government.
Rethinking The Role of Government:
Unfettered Private Sector Profit
Or FDR-Style Activist Government
We seem to have forgotten that by 1960, we had built the finest public education system and the best highway and transportation system in the world. Goods and services could move across the country effortlessly and young Americans could graduate college without debt. We achieved these ends by taxing the wealthy and our corporations and investing in national priorities. We have ceased doing this for the past 50 years.
Since Ronald Reagan famously commented that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from Government and I am here to help,” we have seen the sustained erosion of the role of government, with tax cuts benefiting the rich and a significantly reduced social safety net no longer protecting the poor or vulnerable. We now see a concentration of wealth among the upper class and tens of millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck.
Operating within a bipartisan political framework that has refused to raise taxes, we have failed to invest sufficiently in early childhood, public education, infrastructure, medical research, renewable energy, and virtually every other human and environmental concern. With an assumption that only through private sector innovation can we advance as a society and the best thing government can do is remove regulations and get out of the way, government ceded to the private sector the responsibility for determining what we need, how those needs would be addressed, and what we must pay for them.
Heather Cox Richardson’s piece below makes clear how fatally wrong those decisions have been in the fight against COVID. And Adam Wasserman follows HCR’s analysis by outlining the GOP rationale for preferring gridlock and government stagnation and how the GOP fears at all costs evidence that an active government can deliver desperately needed resources and solutions for the American people.
One the highest priorities for Rethink Our Democracy is to examine our historic assumptions about how America organizes an array of industries, services, and supports, and the role of government in that process. We will think critically about how the neoliberal assumptions embraced by both parties over the past 50 have led to the privatization of so many industries critical to government, allowing the private sector to address the needs of America, whether healthcare, prisons, energy, finance, agriculture, infrastructure, education or other core services upon which we all rely. Today, is an initial exploration of what reorganizing our approach to government could look like and the forces aligned in opposition to that future. Read on!
If you want to be part of the Rethink work, please write to us at RetakeResponse@gmail.com and consider joining our Zoom discussion at 6pm on April 21. Click here to RSVP for this conversation
News In Brief
Heather Cox Richardson: “Letters from an American: April 9.” HCR does it again, offering a perfect appetizer to the main dish served up by guest blogger, Adam Wasserman, a member of our Transformation Study Group. The focus of both pieces is on the proper role of government in a democratic society. HCR feels that the US is at a crossroad where, in the face of COVID, collapsing infrastructure, systemic racism, gross wealth disparity, and a climate crisis, we can choose for government to be an active participant in addressing those challenges or we leave that work to the private sector. HCR points to the failure of the GOP and its mega-corporate sector to address the COVID pandemic and how, without government leading the way, we have lost hundreds of thousands of lives unnecessarily. She then points to the first 100 days of the Biden administration and his initial COVID package and now his infrastructure bill as a return to an FDR-style government. Republicans resist all of this but offer no vision whatsoever as to what they propose. HCR recalls how the Republicans didn’t even bother to prepare a platform for the 2020 campaign, describing their goals, priorities and strategies, essentially making their vision “whatever Trump wants.”
“Remembering the nation’s suffering under the pandemic matters because the contrast between the disastrous last year and our hope this spring is a snapshot of what is at stake in the fight over control of the nation’s government.
Ever since President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Republicans have argued that the best way to run the country has been to dismantle the federal government and turn the fundamental operations of the country over to private enterprise. They have argued that the government is inefficient and wasteful, while businesses can pivot rapidly and are far more efficient than their government counterparts.
And then the coronavirus came.”HCR Letters from an American: “April 9”
HCR goes on to outline how the private sector, unchecked by the Trump administration, consistently sought profit over the well-being of Americans, citing as one example how the PPE industry with administration encouragement took advantage of the global demand and soaring prices for PPE to expand exports. HCR cites a Congressional report that found that, for example, in March of 2020 exports of masks to China soared by 1000% over 2019 exports, while American healthcare workers used plastic garbage bags and hand-sewn masks. She goes on to describe how the president and his cronies crowed that the private sector would solve the COVID crisis and that the federal government would not lead, a policy that left states bidding against each other for desperately needed PPE and test kits, greatly profiting the private sector. She goes on to describe how in the fall of 2020 with a vaccine on the horizon, the federal government again did nothing to prepare for distribution of the vaccine or gearing up for a nationwide campaign to get the vaccine into the arms of Americans. It was up to the private sector and states to figure it out.
HCR concludes by framing how we could not possibly have been afforded a starker contrast in the role of government in our lives.
“In America, the two very different responses to the pandemic have given us a powerful education in government activism. ‘For the past year, we couldn’t rely on the federal government to act with the urgency and focus and coordination we needed,’ Biden said, “And we have seen the tragic cost of that failure….’ “
Adam Wasserman takes the ball from here and offers a deep analysis of how these competing approaches to government have evolved and what is at stake. Take it away, Adam!
Our Only Hope for a Path Forward:
End the Filibuster, Expand Government Services & Supports
& Win the Fight for the American Vote
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on March 16 fired a shot across the bow of the Democratic Party. If Democrats get rid of the filibuster, Mitch blustered, it would be ‘scorched-earth’ politics. Republicans would go to the mattresses and stop at nothing to bring the business of the Senate to a halt.
What this tells us, of course, is that nothing frightens Mitch more than losing the filibuster. Without it, Republicans would be unable to stop a tidal wave of progressive legislation that would threaten to reshape electoral politics for a generation. “Government bad, private sector good” has been the Republican mantra for decades. What if government starting giving Americans the things they want? For Republicans, this is an existential threat.
Today’s politics are dominated by the fierce populist and anti-liberal reaction now unfolding in the US, Europe, Israel, Brazil and elsewhere. Popular anger is a result of the many insults and indignities inflicted at the hands of an unchecked private sector, which has been lionized and coddled by conservatives since the Reagan era. The economic and technological forces let loose have, in America, devastated thousands of communities and destroyed millions of jobs. Deaths of despair are ravaging the working class. Inequality grows in good times and bad. Monstrous media empires shape our public discourse in ways that no one wants but no one can control.
Despite agreement on the problems, little has been done in response. Underneath the anger at political elites is a terrible fear that democracy has been corrupted and is not up to the task of managing the market.
Mitch’s conservatives remain wedded to weak government and an unchained private sector. Every problem is solved with the same all-purpose patent medicine of lower taxes and less government. This nostrum long ago lost its efficacy, but the liberals in the Democratic Party have allowed themselves to be stymied by rules and processes that favor a determined minority. When one side favors weak government, structural features that make it hard to act automatically favor conservatism.
Over the years I have spent a good amount of time studying how democracies fail. One clear lesson is that impotence is fatal. Key groups become dissatisfied and demand change. Often this change is in the direction of a strongman who promises to cut through roadblocks and get things done. Democracies in Latin America, for instance, have regularly disintegrated when the executive and legislative branches gridlock, leading to military coups or auto-golpes by elected leaders.
The classic analysis by Juan Linz thirty years ago argued that presidential systems, popular in Latin America (often because they copied the North Americans), are especially prone to breakdown. Parliamentary democracies are less likely to fall apart because they have built-in mechanisms to overcome deadlocks and get rid of toxic leaders.
Linz cited the United States as the most prominent exception to this process. The US was the most stable democratic system in existence. Linz pointed out, however, that this was due to “the uniquely diffuse character of American political Parties—which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties.”
Today, however, no one is exasperated by the diffusiveness of our two parties. They have become more and more distinct to the point that studies show the most liberal Republican barely overlaps in voting behavior with the most conservative Democrat.
As another distinguished political scientist, Scott Mainwaring, observed about two party systems, they are preferable to multi-party systems largely because “ideological polarization is unlikely.” For much of our post Civil War history our two parties did indeed tack to the center and avoid sharp ideological differences. But now that polarization has taken hold, having only two parties is a source of instability.
The American presidential system is dangerously brittle if the two major parties are in rigid opposition. Under these conditions the executive and legislative branches are often at odds. Control of one of the two legislative branches is enough to prevent most major legislative initiatives. Gridlock becomes the norm. We have moved into Latin American territory.
There have been two inevitable results. One is greater executive authority, and neglect or weakening of legislative prerogatives, in order to carry out normal government functions and implement a coherent program. This dangerously concentrates power in the executive and leads to populism as voters and powerful elites look to the President to bypass the legislature to get things done. The 2020 Republican Party platform famously had no goals or legislative initiatives; it was just “whatever Trump wants.”
The other is a move towards performative and symbolic politics. The harder it gets to actually pass legislation and take action, the greater the temptation to posture and turn every issue into a zero-sum war of identities and cultures. This is where we now find ourselves.
Today’s fight over the filibuster brings these systemic problems to the fore. Even when one party controls the Presidency and both houses of Congress, the minority can thwart it. Procedural shenanigans like “reconciliation” have limited scope and throw the law-making process into disrepute.
The good news is that the filibuster is a Senate rule that can be changed by a simple majority. This would unleash a wave of potentially transformative legislation: political reforms to restore trust in democracy, infrastructure programs that build the working class and incorporate serious measures against global warming, a tax system that works against inequality, healthcare for all, and more.
If Democrats blink and refuse to use their power while they have it, it will reinforce the view that gridlock is the system default. Since one of our two parties is averse to government action, it benefits more from this perception. It is wrong to argue that the filibuster serves both parties equally. The party that prefers an active government has much more to gain by ending it. This is why Republicans did not move against it when they controlled the government in 2017-18 (except to ram through Supreme Court appointments).
In the short run the best hope for reducing polarization is that Democrats will use their temporary power to quickly implement large-scale government action that benefits the American people. A party that simply says ‘no’ to every initiative will be punished at the polls if voters see that its opponent will use its power to help them. As long as the ‘party of No’ can be prevented from controlling the Presidency and both houses, the many other checks in the system will limit the damage it can do.
The most urgent step is to prevent the ‘party of No’ from tilting the political playing field even more in its favor. Republicans already have systemic advantages built into the Senate and the electoral college. They control the Supreme Court and much of the federal judiciary. They are now moving against democracy in the states via voter suppression, redistricting, and control of the courts.
HR 1, the “For the People Act,” is therefore the most important first step. It will stop Republicans from implementing their anti-democratic agenda at the state level—which, since it is states who control election law, even for national office, means an advantage at every level of politics. HR 1 has no chance of passage under the current filibuster.
Passing HR 1 would give American democracy a breathing spell and the time to consider further necessary changes. Our presidential system in its current form almost guarantees further dysfunction and the erosion of liberal democracy. We need to contemplate systemic political reforms; if not a switch to a parliamentary system, then major fixes such as ending the electoral college, expanding the size of the House, multi-district elections, ranked-choice voting, public-financing for campaigns, and more. All these would help move parties towards the middle while widening voter participation.
From the 1930s to the 1970s the United States moved, fitfully but surely, in the direction of social democracy. Our anti-government tendencies were moderated by programs that helped the middle class, provided a universal safety net, and laid the basis for broad prosperity. But a determined effort by corporate interests—who discredited government programs largely by inciting a backlash against racial equality—ended this trend. The Reagan Revolution led to deepening distrust of government and a systematic effort to counter any popular new social programs, like universal healthcare. Republicans went all-out against Obamacare not because it wouldn’t work, but because they feared it would.
Since Reagan we have been at best treading water. It is time to resume forward progress. Call Mitch’s bluff and change the country for the better.
 “The Perils of Presidentialism,” Juan Linz, Journal of Democracy, 1990; https://scholar.harvard.edu/levitsky/files/1.1linz.pdf.
 “Presidentialism, Multipartism, and Democracy: The Difficult Combination,” Scott Mainwaring, Comparative Political Studies, 1993.
Click here to read more work from Adam Wasserman.
We will continue examining this issue as part of Rethink Our Democracy’s deep-dive into the systemic challenges we face and the political dysfunction that undermines our efforts. If you want to be part of the Rethink work, please write to us at RetakeResponse@gmail.com and consider joining our Zoom discussion at 6pm on April 21. Click here to RSVP for this conversation
Legislative Wrap Up: What Got Done, What Didn’t & Why
Roxanne and I take 30 minutes to break down what happened in the 2021 legislative session, a preview of what will be analyzed in more depth in the Report Card. Watch on!
In solidarity, hope and gratitude,
Paul & Roxanne