I’ve written about this dynamic before – as a nation we are collectively creating outcomes no one wants. The rise of Donald Trump has filled me with genuine horror. As political dysfunction deepens, the more “outsider” candidates like Trump attract support from a segment of population.
In a lengthy article at The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch calls it the “Chaos Syndrome.” Rauch’s thesis is an extended metaphor about the immune system; he argues that the traditional political structures of American government and politics were an immune response to irresponsible politicians. In recent decades, those structures have been eroded to the point that they no longer function to protect the body politic. A key weakness in our system is a lack of a means by which politicians can be held accountable by one another for unacceptable behavior – in the British parliamentary system, an MP who behaves badly can be removed from office by their party. Our system provides no such remedies so a politician who can win a majority in their state or district can hold office even if every word and action embarrasses the party itself.
The US developed a host of traditions which governed our politics. The House of Representatives, as for example, had a rigid seniority system which allowed longer term members to accrue power and influence and kept newer members in line through a combination of reward and punishment; committee chairs had almost unquestioned power over their committees. Local and state parties functioned as a vetting process but also as a means of managing campaign resources candidates who ran afoul of them could find themselves without resources and support to campaign. Local and start parties also served to recruit, train and support talent. Someone who strayed from party standards could be tossed out by the party.
Rauch makes an interesting point – the intermediaries who ran the parties, who were working their way up the ranks in Congress were careerists who had an investment in keeping the system working because they depended on it for their livelihood. In other words, they were good institutionalists because they benefited from it.
The various governmental reforms of the past half century (or more) have had the effect of weakening this political immune system and has created an environment for political opportunists and free-lancers who benefit from the chaos in the system.
I believe Rauch’s analysis goes awry is in his discussion of the reforms around political fundraising. He doesn’t discuss the Supreme Court’s misguided decisions that have repeatedly asserted that money equal free speech. The outcome of those decisions has created the fertile ground in which the independent groups he decries have flourished – and distorted the political process.
Rauch gets back on point when he discusses the Tea Partiers and their baleful influence on our politics – having created a nihilistic cohort of congressmembers who refuse to compromise, the Tea Party has vastly undermined the ability of the political system to function. Politics require compromise and negotiation and the tea party lunatics have rejected both of these things and have punished Republicans who tried to act like adults.
This has been a long summary of his argument but he got into something that has long bothered me, but which I’ve had a hard time wrapping my hands around – “politiphobes”:
Using polls and focus groups, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.
These politiphobes have cropped up on the right – they are the teabaggers. The result of politiphobes taking over the Republican party has been to vastly exacerbate the chaos syndrome.
At the end of his article, Rauch proposes a series of reforms which would have the effect of restoring influence and power to a class of knowledgeable and invested politicians. He concludes by saying:
You haven’t heard anyone say this, but it’s time someone did: Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.
I’ve written in the past about the impact of institutional breakdown. Rauch’s thesis suggests that the institutional breakdown is cumulative result of decades of decisions – any one of which was okay but which collectively have resulted in almost total paralysis of the political system. However, Rauch bends over backwards to say “both sides do it” even going so far as to argue that Bernie Sanders’ support is comparable to Trump’s.
In response to his essay, Jonathan Chait wrote:
The more serious problem with Rauch’s argument is this: Virtually every breakdown in governing he identifies is occurring primarily or exclusively within the Republican Party. Democrats have not been shutting down the government, holding the debt ceiling hostage, overthrowing their leaders in Congress, revolting against normal deal-making, or (for the most part) living in terror of primary challenges. Rauch is right that Sanders has encouraged unrealistic ideas about a revolution that would make compromise unnecessary, but the signal fact is that Sanders lost. And Sanders’s notion of a purifying revolution, while thrilling to a handful of left-wing activists, has no influence over Democrats in Congress — arguably not even with Sanders himself, who votes more pragmatically than his stump rhetoric would indicate. The disconnect implies a fatal flaw in Rauch’s analysis. Since he identifies causes of illness that afflict both parties equally, while the symptoms have manifested in only one of them, what reason is there to trust his diagnosis?
Trump (and his proto-fascist campaign) is entirely a product of the right. Despite Rauch’s attempt at balance, Bernie Sanders is not the left’s corollary to Trump. A Sanders presidency would be constrained by normal political processes because Sanders has been an elected official for many years; his voting record is pragmatic and in line with most Democratic congresspersons. Trump, however, demonstrates the same political ignorance as the politiphobes (and the same blunt, uninformed understanding of how American government works).
I don’t think there is anyone in the political establishment who actually wants Donald Trump to become President (even Chris Christie!). Certainly no one wanted him to the Republican party nominee but through a combination of baffling inaction and misguided action, the Republican establishment almost facilitated it. Certainly, Democrats are taking Trump far more seriously than his Republican rivals (and Democrats are not restrained by agreeing with Trump in kind if not degree).
The Chaos Syndrome explains Trump – but on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is not analogous to Trump. He’s a long time public official, his voting record was almost identical to Hillary Clinton’s, and he has long caucused with the Democrats. In other words, Sanders served the role as any insurgent candidate – he moved the debate to issues it would have otherwise ignored; while his proposals may have been further left than Hillary’s, he is well within the mainstream of progressive thought in the US.
As I was writing the above, Democrats in the House began their sit in.
I agree with David Nir at DKos that the sit-in has been effective.
Republicans clearly did not see it coming and reacted with flat footed gracelessness.
It has fixed the nation’s attention on gun control and shown a stark contrast between the parties.
And, perhaps most importantly, it has given Democrats the opportunity to repeatedly say “Enough moments of silence . . . it’s time to take action about gun violence.” It has forced Republicans into a corner on the issue – they’ll vote down any gun control measures. But with an increasingly angry American public wanting something done about gun violence, they don’t really want to do that. It also has the advantage of demonstrating that the Republicans cannot govern.
I’m guessing, just guessing, that the Republicans are twitching as they dread coming back from the July 4th holiday, wondering what the Dems are going to do next.