Leveling the Playing Field of American Politics

Anyone who’s watched the GOP meltdown cannot fail to be impressed by the lack of underlying public sympathy for the party that’s successfully held Congress for the past twelve years. That’s no surprise: Republicans have governed substantially to the right of the center of public opinion. Instead of appealing to the moderate middle — which, incidentally, clearly wants health reform, retirement security, and jobs that aren’t constantly at risk — they’ve relied on what Paul Pierson and I call “backlash insurance” (ways of obscuring their unpopular agenda or lessening the degree to which voters can call them to account at the polls) to reduce the chance they’ll suffer electorally while strong-arming their agenda through Congress. But now, backlash insurance seems to have lost a good deal of its power, and although the GOP structural advantages Paul and I emphasized in Off Center are still in play, they increasingly look insufficient to hold back the electoral tide.

But make no mistake: The playing field of American politics still remains heavily tilted in the GOP’s favor — and nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the overall tenor of political debate about economic policy.

As I show in The Great Risk Shift, there’s been a major increase in economic insecurity for most Americans — even those once well insulated from the winds of economic uncertainty. Americans are as pessimistic about the economy and their economic futures as they’ve been in years, and they’re hungry for change. “The political mystery,” as Bob Kuttner nicely puts it, “is why everyone else is not kicking up a fuss.” Why isn’t rising economic insecurity Topic #1 in American politics?

Now, it may not be the popular position on this blog (so far as I can tell from the comments), but I think there’s no way to avoid the conclusion that part of the reason is the failure of the Democrats to recognize and seize on the new economic climate. Bill Galston, one of Bill Clinton’s former advisers and a well-known Democratic centrist, expressed the point well in a forum on Democrats and the middle class that I recently participated in:

“I believe that the economy and Americans’ perception of it have changed since the 1990s in ways that require corresponding changes in our [i.e., Democrats’] economic agenda and in the ways we talk about it. An understandable nostalgia for the Clinton years must not fool us into believing that we can succeed just by dusting off and updating Putting People First. Selective benefits for the middle class are at best a small piece of the answer. We must be prepared to take on the larger structural challenges that have emerged since the end of the Clinton administration. ”

What does this mean in practice? That’s the subject of my next post.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation