The Most Basic Fact About Politics is Slack
What’s the most important thing you should understand if you want to make sense of American politics? Ask most well-informed people, and then answer will be Polarization. The parties–both party-in-government and party-in-the-electorate–have gotten more ideological, less willing to compromise, leading to gridlock. Some will rightly note that this has been largely asymmetrical, a product of changes in the Republican Party not the Democrats. But the rest of the story remains the same. Less often it is noted that polarization isn’t really an issue among the public, only among the elites–especially members of Congress.
The polarization story often treats this as some sort of natural phenomena, or a tendency that was always there with fragile efforts to stop it failing to do so. Or it is chalked up to the power of money, or even of the Koch brothers themselves. Rarely is it treated as something about which something can be done.
A related explanation is Money-in-Politics. In its more nuanced version, this story tells us that the ever-increasing wealth of a small number of people at the top is the source of the problem. In the less nuanced version, things (implicitly) were fine until the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. In either one, the explanation is that big money wins, period. While occasionally, this leads to calls for more voting (turnout as the solution to big money) more often the solution is ending Citizens United, a rather tall task if one begins with the notion that big money necessary gets what it wants.
Regardless, both of these story are the sorts of explanations that don’t leave much room for ordinary people to do anything about the problem. The problem is either natural, overdetermined, or requires doing the most difficult things in American politics in order to change them. They lead to fatalism, unfocused anger or magical thinking. Or cycling between all three.
I think both of these leave out an even more important fact about American politics. That is, that there is enormous slack in the political system. Put differently, it is that most people are unmobilized.
Political scientists have long known this, although the lessons they drew from it were different from mine. In the post-World War II period, the rise of fascism abroad and the disorder of Depression-era politics (labor upheavals, movements of the unemployed and the elderly) led many to extol order and limited public involvement in politics. Added to this was the discovery that most Americans were fairly disengaged with politics, despite the requirements of then ascendant idealized democratic theory. Robert Dahl argued that most people were not homo politicus, inclined to be involved in politics. Most people must be happy, it was argued, or else they would engage at higher levels. (Engagement tended to mean traditional things like voting or following elite politics or writing to members of Congress or the editor.) Too much involvement would be a sign of a problem, could lead to system collapse, and was unnecessary.
These ideas were challenged not just by younger and / or more left scholars intellectually, but also by the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. It became much more difficult to argue that black people, women, the poor, people who cared about the environment (to name only a few of the important and overlapping groups that were newly mobilized) were being well served by the system.
What is clear is that many people are not politically engaged, that this has important consequences, and that differences in political action (understood broadly) often reinforce existing inequalities.
This too could lead to fatalism. If we think that engagement is pre-political, that it is a product of individual proclivities rather than politics, than it doesn’t do much to change the stories mentioned above. But that is not true.
We know that the power of incumbency depends in part on scaring challengers away and challengers inability to get word out about themselves to constituents. We know that personal contacts with people increases the likelihood that they will vote and engage in other sorts of political activity (including more active ones). We know that actively making demands that seem impossible in the present is how you make them possible in the near future. (Fight for 15, Social Security expansion) We know that far more people pay attention to campaigns, talk about politics and vote in presidential elections than in midterms, which is impossible to explain but the characteristics of the electorate.
There just isn’t any evidence to suggest that there is a political participation gene that you either have or lack. There’s no reason to think that people cannot be mobilized. But there is plenty of reason to believe that elites often prefer to act without such mobilization, or to ensure that it is deployed in very selective and circumscribed ways.
How does this relate to the two stories I mentioned above? First, polarization could be changed if you could get more people involved and more aggressively. I don’t mean simply more people voting. Republicans (and for that matter, conservative Democrats) look unmovable but it’s worth noting they are rarely pressured. The main Democratic Party strategy has been to make nice and cut deals and not to employ pressure. When some organizations on the Democratic side talked about pressuring conservative Democrats during the ACA fight, then White House Chief of Staff and current corrupt Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel attacked them. This proves something about the approach taken by the White House, but it proves nothing about what was possible under a different approach. And while the right was mobilizing its side against the ACA at the same time many Republican Senators were negotiating favorable details, the Democrats repeatedly promised to begin selling the ACA to the public for years after the bill had passed, and it hasn’t happened yet.
While organizers have been working to get the Medicaid expansion done around the country, the Democratic Party has had a lot of say about how awful GOP opposition is but hasn’t done much to fight for it. A lot of talk has happened in the last few days about the possibility that unified GOP control means cuts in Medicare (among many other things) but this was never made a significant issue during the campaign. The ACA’s troubles have been partly a result of designing a bill with little thought to how to generate public support, and partly from asymmetrical mobilization.
We might compare that moment with the short period when Democrats were attacking the GOP for wanting to end Medicare through privatization. Republicans squealed that this was unfair and soon Democrats shifted to the weak phrasing “ending Medicare as we know it,” which makes as much sense as saying replacing the U.S. Army with a voucher system for national defense wasn’t ending the army. (Part of the reason for this is because some top Democrats, like Bill Clinton, wanted to work with the GOP to “reform” Medicare. Also, the Obama White House.) The GOP isn’t supposed to care about such attacks. They are immovable, we are told. They are openly ideological.
Or maybe they only appear that way because of how little they experience pressure.
More to the point, it’s only if one ignores the history of significant change in the United States and of the major social movements that one can conclude that small bore change is the only option, and significant change only happens with bloodshed. Part of the confusion here is not paying attention to such things as how the agenda is set (what problems gets talked about), how alternatives are selected (what solutions get serious consideration), and how policies are implemented (how they play out on the ground) in favor of the much narrower question of what decisions are made. The latter approach tends to ignore the politics, all the ways in which what is possible can shift.
How does money in politics work? Less by determining outcomes then people think. More so by shaping the agenda and the alternatives. But historically, movements have shown that they can overcome this. And I’m not only talking pre-Citizens United. The Fight for 15 is an obvious example of how non-institutional demand marking can shift these things.
Finally, there’s one other important thing to note. Polarization and money in politics are two things that are, as I mentioned above, very difficult for regular people to do anything about. Is that true of mobilization?
The answer is both yes and no. Obviously, there are many institutions, like the Democratic Party, unions, advocacy organizations, which have resources which could be put toward mobilization. And while I’m not suggesting that no one is doing this, there is not enough of it. Telling them to do it seems pointless to me. If a union or candidate wants to hire me to give them advice, I will give them this advice. But if they don’t, they probably don’t care what I think, and odds are this applies to you as well.
But they can be pressured into changing their behavior. And the rest of us can put our energies into that, or mobilizing those around us. And it’s not like we don’t have some good ideas lying around to use–think, for example, about Medicare For All.
Is that hard? Yes. Anything worthwhile in politics is hard. And while resources are important, people power is one of the most important resources. Face to face interaction is the best way to move someone to action. And it’s the one thing that regular people have.