Electing a Republican to run your government is like electing an atheist to be your minister: fundamentally, they’re just not fit for the job. I don’t want a member of the Flat Earth Society piloting my cruise ship. And that’s what we’ve got with Republicans in government.
We don’t call ministers who believe that God is the problem. We don’t call ministers whose most fervent dreams include drowning God in a bathtub. Why would we elect people to serve in government who don’t believe government can work as a powerful force for good in America and the world?
This is the challenge for Democrats and America more broadly: governing effectively in a two-party system in which one party’s guiding thesis is that government doesn’t work. Democrats must not only pass legislation that improves people’s lives, they must do it while being opposed by a party for whom government’s failure proves their point. This is the structural imbalance of power in American politics today. Republicans don’t actually have to do anything. Victory for them can be as simple as an erosion in the faith of the American people in their government to govern. When 45% of people (across party lines) say they are “very dissatisfied” with the country’s political system, that’s a Republican victory.
Politically and strategically, Republicans have staked-out a no-lose position. By claiming that government doesn’t work, that it can’t work, Republicans can win the argument even as they fail to govern. Supply-side economics failed? See, government doesn’t work. Tax cuts didn’t increase tax revenue? See, Washington is incompetent. Intransigence on raising the debt ceiling caused a downgrade in America’s credit rating? We told you: government doesn’t work.
Are you jaded yet? Are you cynical? Are you skeptical that politicians will ever do anything but serve the monied and the powerful? Do you think government only works for the beautiful, the famous, the rich, the jet-setters, the cigar smokers?
There: Republicans win.
The more Washington bumbles, the more Republicans win. The less you believe that government can function effectively, create opportunity for all Americans, distribute justice to the oppressed the more Republicans win.
Governing as a Democrat is like being on a road trip with a guy sitting shotgun who every once in a while tries to grab the wheel and run you both into a bridge embankment. So, how are Democrats and responsible lawmakers supposed to govern when their opposition wins when the process of governing falls apart? How can they build consensus when Republicans have every incentive to never consent?
I don’t have any answers to those questions, but I don’t mean them to be rhetorical, either. When government’s divided, we have two options. First, we can build compromises along largely Republican lines—welfare reform in the 90s, spending cuts in the recent debt ceiling negotiations. (Note how both of these bipartisan compromises reinforce the message that government cannot work.) Second, we can use Republican’s selfish intransigence against them. We can use what power we have to force vote after vote on bills that are popular with the American public.
Massive majorities support raising taxes on the super-rich. Massive majorities support closing corporate tax loopholes that allow 38% of the richest companies in America to pay zero taxes. A smaller (but a clear) majority support increased spending to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure.
In a recent special to the New York Times, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg outlined the problem with our eroding faith in government to work on behalf of the public’s interest. Following Bush’s bailout of Wall Street and Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, “They think that the game is rigged and that the wealthy and big industries get policies that reinforce their advantage. And they do not think their voices matter.”
As people across the country told me, the average citizen doesn’t “get money for free.” Their conclusion: Government works for the irresponsible, not the responsible. […] Everything they witness affirms the public’s developing view of how government really works. They see a nexus of money and power, greased by special interest lobbyists and large campaign donations, that makes these outcomes irresistible. They do not believe the fundamentals have really changed in Mr. Obama’s Washington.
What makes Greenberg’s article useful is not his diagnosis of the problem, but rather his prescription for restoring people’s faith in government. He provides a few policy positions that Democrats can adopt to restore American’s confidence in their civic institutions.
First (and most important in my mind), is campaign finance reform. In a separate essay, I will address the poverty of our cash-rich process and the damage it does to the foundations of our democracy. Here, it is important to recognize that having a process that allows shadow organizations to take millions of dollars from undisclosed individuals and corporations works to make the average citizen feel like the game is rigged. The more our political process makes people feel like they are not represented—that government works for the monied and connected—the more Republicans win. Republicans’ primary message—government can’t work—is reinforced by an electoral process that makes our democracy look like a plutocracy.
The Democrats have to start detoxifying politics by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions, which would mean a fight with the Supreme Court. They must make the case for public financing of campaigns and force the broadcast and cable networks to provide free time for candidate ads. And they must become the strongest advocates for transparency in campaign donations and in the lobbying of elected officials.
Greenberg closes his article by proposing additional policy areas where Democrats can show the American people that government can work: tax reform (transparency), immigration reform (responsibility), and deficit reduction (accountability). The whole article is worth a read.
Governing is hard. That much is obvious. But, electing Republicans makes governing doubly hard because they win, politically and ideologically, when government fails. The unfortunate reality of modern two-party politics requires the Democrats to win overwhelming majorities in Congress before anything can get accomplished. With compromise foreclosed, our only option remains building a popular movement that can send to Washington an overwhelming force of elected officials who believe government can—must—work to improve the lives of all Americans. Without overwhelming numbers, Republicans in Congress can continue to sabotage government for their political gain.
Writing about the Republican Presidential primary candidates, John Dickerson observed, “When you see government as a rampaging elephant, you want a candidate who can shoot the elephant dead, not someone who can manage to ride the elephant better." This is the difference: Republicans elect people to kill the elephant while Democrats want to throw some saddlebags on the elephant and cover great distances on its back.
Right now, Americans are deeply skeptical of our government’s ability to travel any distance for the common good. Until Democrats can show the American people that government can still work for everyone, Republicans’s message will continue to resonate and the American people will continue tolerating Republicans, hiding in the bushes, guns trained on our government’s heart.