Daniel Nexon Reflects On Our Current Crisis — A Must Read

Daniel Nexon over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money had a fantastic post the other day that captured so many things I’ve been trying to say about the decay and collapse of the Republican party and the dangers to our democracy in far better words than I can. I beg you to read his entire piece.

Nexon starts by quoting Julia Azari and her point that weak parties and strong partisanship ultimately end up destroying faith in institutions. Says Azari, “It’s hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments — to have legitimacy when partisan motives are constantly suspect. This is also true for other kinds of institutions, like courts and, as we’ve seen most recently, law enforcement agencies like the FBI. Citizens view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens.”

In fact, one of the most important functions of political parties in this country is to nominate qualified individuals to run for President. According to Nexon, “The 2012 presidential nominating process, however, now appears something of a canary in the coal mine. We saw a succession of ‘bubble candidates,’ including Bachman and Cain, who were manifestly unsuited for the Presidency. But Romney prevailed, giving the impression that the party could still effectively screen out the lunatics.” That impression obviously proved to be incalculably incorrect.

Nexon blames much of this on the G.W. Bush administration with its lies about Iraq, failure in two wars, government ineptitude peaking with Katrina, and the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. With Republicans blamed for these disasters and their approval numbers at near historic lows, “Republican party mounted a scorched-earth campaign geared toward delegitimating not only Obama and the Democrats, but the entire system of governance”.

But the most important points Nexon makes are about the transformation of our political economy and how GOP strategies since Reagan have distorted our economy to the detriment of individual Americans. “Starting under Reagan, the United States has run pro-cyclical budget deficits. In the process, its accumulated a huge amount of debt. This has not only hamstrung progressive policies — the ‘starve the beast’ strategy — but its had widespread effects on American political economy. Servicing this debt depends on low interest rates, low interest rates encourage private-sector borrowing and help fuel the growth of the financial sector…This contributes to boom-and-bust cycles, and it is part of an overall story about the financialization of the American economy and the rise of the credit economy. The combination of low taxes, lax financial regulation, and the erosion of government policies aimed at combatting inequality through transfers, has been a toxic stew. The rise in college tuition paid for by accumulating student debt provides an examples of one of the relevant dynamics. Cuts to support for higher education drive up tuition. The policy instrument used to address the rising costs? Encourage the financial sector to provide loans. The shift to financing through personal debt allows colleges and universities to raise tuition. Rinse and repeat. More generally, people making middling incomes — and higher — compensate for wage stagnation by taking out easily available debt. This reduces labor mobility and bargaining power, because the ‘cost’ of missing a loan payment can be catastrophic — people making otherwise decent wages can no longer afford to go for periods without a paycheck. Those who don’t make enough to qualify for relatively cheap credit are forced into usurious ‘payday loan’ schemes. All of this is part of an enormous shift of risk onto ordinary Americans. Instead of defined-pension plans, we have taxpayer subsidized individual retirement schemes… Risk for large financial institutions are socialized — hence ‘too big to fail’ — but the stew of economic policy makes individuals particularly vulnerable.”

To those factors I would add Reagan’s destruction of unions which began to establish the supremacy of capital which has driven rampant and growing inequality since the 1980s. As the influence of unions waned, Democrats became more susceptible to the money and the opinions of Wall Street and colluded with the Republicans in the financialization of our economy and shifting the risks onto the individual. Reagan’s elimination of the fairness doctrine also created the space for Fox News and talk radio to essentially become the propaganda arm of the Republican party but, because the party never had direct control, the messenger started to be able to craft the message, pushing the GOP to even greater extremes. And the erosion of campaign finance laws allowed fringe candidates like Newt Gingrich to continue their campaign with only the backing of a single multi-billionaire.

Nexon continues, pointing out not only how badly our institutions are under assault but also how much seemingly irreparable damage the Republicans have already done to them. “It means that the crisis of American institutions is grave indeed. It’s been here for some time, and it came to an immediate head with the election of a demagogue. Trump is weaponizing partisanship — and the underlying loss of faith in democratic institutions — in the service of his narrow interests: status, wealth, and, it seems increasingly clear, avoiding criminal and civil culpability for his business practices…How do we rebuild norms? If we leave Republican violations ‘unpunished,’ those norms are gone. But if we retaliate, we risk making the crisis worse. The treatment of Garland provides a nice illustration. With the Court profoundly politicized, the only norm we had was that the President got to appoint — and the Senate consider — nominees in the event of a vacancy. McConnell ripped that up. The only way recourse would be to pack the Court. But that’s extremely risky — not only in terms of the politics, but in terms of the downstream institutional implications for judicial independence.”

In the end, it all makes for depressing reading but also makes clear that Bernie Sanders is correct in saying that we need a political revolution in this country or, as Nexon describes it, “a new institutional compact, as we saw after the Civil War or after the Great Depression”. In the present political environment, that can only begin when the people rise up.

Originally published at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com on July 26, 2017.