In reading Cadillac Desert , I pondered one of the reasons why partisanship has gotten nastier in the last decade and a half or so. In my musings on political culture, I often see our times in the grim way that I grew the period before the American Civil War, as a nearly inevitable crisis ground its way through the political culture eventually preventing all common ground from which compromise could be built and so, eventually, warfare was inevitable once it appeared as if the political tides had shifted so that the majority region of the United States could rule without the need for the minority region, leading to civil war.
Such an ideological division has not yet occurred in the United States, as there is not yet a party that is sufficiently “regional” to force the genuine and deep cultural schism present in our society into open warfare between two camps. Part of the reason for this is that the political culture of the main parties does not appear to represent the worldviews of the majority of citizens. If there is a political movement that taps into the latent (and unrecognized) positions of the people at large and that motivates them into open hostility to the corrupt political culture of our time, there will be a moment of grave danger when the burden of decades of mismanagement is finally seen for what it is.
That moment has not yet come, but it may be near. It appears that the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, responsible for the Tea Party fervor, is among the earliest mobilizing of these groups, but this is not likely to be the last of such reorganizations. Both Republicans and Democrats have a great deal to be concerned about in any kind of political reorganization. After all, if Democrats lose any voters committed to traditional moral standards in a pure socialist cast, they will not be able to successfully compete for national elections. Likewise, the Republicans have a voter base that is vastly more concerned about certain issues than its political leadership is–a Republican party committed to nativism would also be a long-term loser in politics (anyone ever read about the fall of the Know Nothing Party, after all?).
Since there has not been the political earthquake bringing political parties in line with the goals and positions of the people at the base, the day of reckoning has not yet come. It has been delayed. And yet part of that pressure seems to have caused a great deal of gridlock in politics despite the fact that political parties sit on different faultlines than the culture war that has been waging now for decades and shows no tendency of letting up. It would appear, therefore, that the crisis of the political class rests on different lines than the crisis of the culture at large.
The crisis of the political culture, in fact, would appear to relate to the problem that politics is becoming a zero sum game. For many decades, whatever the ideological positions of candidates, there was often a great big pie of federal expenditures to divide so that everyone could end up happy and content about their place within the world of politics. While presidents like Jimmy Carter could rail against pork barrel projects and presidents like Ike could complain about the military-industrial complex, there was not a lot that could be done about congressional log rolling in order to foster a culture of mutual harmony in the shared goal of bringing home the bacon for one’s congressional district.
There were several ways money could be spent. One large class of expenditures has to do with infrastructure expenditures. These could be bridges to nowhere in Alaska, interstate highways in Vermont, or water projects in California or Arizona. They could also be hospital buildings named after West Virginia senators. In any case, this sort of pork was highly tangible and allowed congressmen to claim to their voters that they were bringing home ‘their fair share’ of federal expenditures to their home areas. The fact that many of these projects were boondoggles, or could not remotely hope to pay for themselves, was entirely irrelevant. Tax expenditures were not considered a sacred trust but were considered to be some sort of magic genie that could be rubbed for one’s wishes and desires.
Another large pot of money went into other expenditures that were considered, or were, untouchable. Some of this money went into paying off the debt or at least servicing the interest, some went into “third rail” programs like Social Security, and others went into projects like the military. These expenditures were either tied so directly with the sacred honor of the nation (like paying the debt or the military) or were so personally important to a wide and politically active part of the population (like Social Security) that cutting them remains a politically suicidal decision. In many European countries, for example, subsidized university education is in this category as well because the young adults will riot if their tuition is raised. We have not yet seen that sort of youthful violence here in the United States relating to college loans and grants–not yet at least.
In recent years, though, with drastically rising levels of debt at local, state, and national levels, and increasing levels of cost for the sorts of projects that would continue the gravy train of federal funding, it has become impossible for the good old days to continue. Generations of people in the West depend for their survival, and livelihoods, on over-promised water and over-promised budgets, and to turn off the spigot in the hour of greatest need would appear to be a terribly unkind decision. It may, though, become necessary. Who gets to decide who lives and who does, which areas return to desert or which nations with water (like Canada) get invaded? These are not pleasant decisions in the least.
It would appear, therefore, that a great deal of the present hostility within Congress has to do with fighting over who gets a share of a diminishing pie of “free” taxpayer money to play with and who gets left out in the cold. If voters ever en masse decide to wean themselves from the teat of government subsidies, then a more drastic realignment of politics is possible . Such a realignment would also be terrifying, as it would be a moment of great judgment for a lot of people. Until and unless that happens, our political scene will resemble two falling down drunks fighting for the last bottle of beer in an Old West saloon, the winner of whom gets to be the town’s next mayor, with the vague hope that the next shipment can come in time for an outbreak of brawling to be averted.
It is striking to note the coincidence between the decline of big government (largely due to the growing inability to pay for the edifice of socialism in all its glory) and the rise of nasty partisan bickering. It would appear that while pork is unclean it helps keep the political class content. Its relative absence means that there are few ways that a congressman can justify staying in office for decades to bring home the bacon for his constituents. We should therefore expect the political climate to worsen to the extent that there is an ever-shrinking ability to provide for discretionary spending. The moment of real danger, though, will occur when politics takes on the life-or-death concerns of the ordinary people, though. At that time, it appears as if some sort of war would become inevitable. What type ends up breaking out will depend on whether we choose to fight ourselves for survival or try to fight someone else. Either way, it doesn’t appear as if it can end well .