Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Politics is Fundamentally about Power

When Bill Clinton ran for President back in 1992, his campaign had a few simple phrases that they used internally to stay on message. The most famous of these became widely cited: "It's the economy, stupid." Clinton's success propelled that phrase to almost mythic status: elections are won or lost on economic or "pocketbook" issues.

This is relevant as we start the serious, above-board portion of the next Presidential election cycle (yes, it's still early in 2015 and we're talking about the 2016 campaign - so it goes these days). Candidates are emerging from the woodwork (few of them surprises) and already starting to argue about the agenda. Economic issues are featuring prominently already, and probably will throughout.

A lot has been written (including in this blog) about the growing level of inequality in America. The phrase "the 1%" now has a lasting and universally-understood meaning, which itself is an indication of how skewed things have become. I still believe that the question of economic distribution is one of the fundamental issues of our time, because it opens the door to the wider question of what kind of society we want to live in.

Unfortunately, the economic argument has become mired in our usual tribal politics and bumper-sticker sloganeering. And here I have to give props to the conservative side of the argument, because they have managed to fashion a couple of closely related trump cards. One is the argument that "Liberals care about equality of outcomes, conservatives care about equality of opportunities." The other is the nearly universal revulsion the conservative movement has instilled towards the notion of "economic redistribution". Robin Hood (taking from the rich and giving to the poor) no longer has much legitimacy in America.

Leaving aside the sincerity of either of these arguments (and I believe that many conservatives are sincere, especially about the opportunity vs. outcome side of things), this whole "debate" misses the point. Focusing on money and economic distribution is trying to treat the symptom instead of diagnosing the disease.

The real issue - indeed, the fundamental question of all governance no matter what kind of political system you have - is distribution of power. We talk a lot about money corrupting politics, and it clearly can and does - but that's a back-end reinforcement mechanism. Money follows power far more than it leads it. Take a look at folks who got rich outside the usual power structures - Bill Gates is a good example. Gates has more money than the Koch Brothers will ever have, but that doesn't make him more powerful. His wealth has had very little, if any, impact on American politics. Most people don't even know what his political views are.

So when we argue about whether our political system should be redistributing wealth, we are barking up the wrong tree. What we should be talking about is the redistribution of political power. We have forgotten that such redistribution is exactly what democracy is designed to do. Political power always and everywhere tends naturally to accumulate over time in the hands of a small elite - this has happened in every human society, everywhere, at every stage in history. The whole point of the American revolution, the Constitution (and before it, the Articles of Confederation), the Magna Carta, and all of what we regard as the best political experiments in history have had this one thing in common: the goal of intentionally taking power away from the few and spreading it out among the many.

In this, our current political system is failing spectacularly. I've cited before the study by Gilens and Page showing remarkable evidence of oligarchy stretching back decades. Other studies have been done, and other evidence collected, pointing in the same direction. The growing concentration of power in the United States isn't a debatable point - all the evidence we have points to the same conclusion.

This will sound to some like a partisan argument, and in a certain sense it is. The Republican Party, from its policy positions to its core ideology to its funding sources, seems to have aligned itself some time ago with the existing dominant bases of power in the United States. A message that rejects wealth redistribution is a message in defense of the status quo - that is, the current distribution of power in the country. So far as I can tell, the Republican Party on most fronts seems content with the existing concentration of power.

But mine is not necessarily an argument in favor of the Democratic Party in general, or Hillary Clinton (the presumptive nominee at this point) in particular. Clinton is very much a part of the existing power structure (as are nearly all of the other potential Democratic candidates), and has never shown a great deal of fervor for the mission of redistributing power back out, though she does adopt some of the lingo. The Democratic Party in general, going back probably the late 1960s and the Chicago debacle, has largely accommodated itself to the existing power system as a means of remaining relevant.

Recently some friends of mine on the left have been cheering as wealthy private individuals (Warren Buffet, George Soros) with more left-leaning views have begun talking about jumping into the political fray to push back against the power of conservative money. And while such a struggle would appear to make the system more "balanced", in reality it simply turns American politics into an argument among rich white guys. The famous Swahili proverb seems to fit: "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled."

Some have turned to the growing Libertarian movement as an antidote, and on its face it would seem that Libertarianism - with its message of shrinking the power of government and pushing decisions back to the local level - is consistent with the notion of redistributing power. But in this, Libertarians are terribly naive. They focus entirely on official government power and ignore the significant power in the hands of private players (the Koch Brothers, Buffet, or otherwise). A weak central government is an extremely fertile ground for an oligarchy - look at Russia in the 1990s under Yeltsin, when the oligarchs ran roughshod over the country and gobbled up nearly everything of value. Believing that you can shrink the power of government and wind up with a freer and more democratic outcome - or even a place that people like living in - flies in the face of the evidence.

So where to turn? As usual, I don't have any good solutions - if the answer were obvious somebody else would have found it already. But I do argue - as I always have - that asking the right questions and focusing on the right issues is far more important that having the answers. Right now our political system is largely asking all the wrong questions. We have for the most part abandoned the central mission of democracy in favor of some of its trappings. If we start asking the right questions, I don't know what will happen - but I think the outcome is likely to be better than the path we are on.

No comments:

Post a Comment