Friday, May 28, 2010

Looking to Government in an Era of Incompetence

Peggy Noonan's latest column actually taps into something much larger than the BP spill - she speaks to the defining narrative of our current political era. American politics realigned in the 1960s and 1970s, we entered a period of declining trust in government and an ever growing sense that government was in fact incompetent. Our traditional attachment to mass-based political parties fell away and we began an era where neither party had a strategic advantage. It's not just a period of divided government, we've experienced that in the past (think of the balance between the Whigs and Democrats in the mid 1800s), and it was a vibrant policy era. The difference now is that neither party has a substantial base of support. Rather more than one-third of the electorate operate as non-partisan free-agents. So each party seeks immediate strategic advantage, but neither can undertake substantial policy reforms as they lack mass-based support. We entered an era that political scientist Walter Dean Burnham defines as the "politics of collision, coalition, and the permanent campaign." This has created a system of government incapable of addressing the significant challenges before us - which then reinforces the notion of incompetence.

Democrats, as the pro-statist party, are more harmed by this crisis of confidence than are Republicans. In "Why Trust Matters" Marc Hetherington makes a compelling case that American liberalism cannot recover barring a resurgence of trust and confidence in government. But since the 1960s every crisis, except 9/11, has served to further erode public confidence.

Noonan rightly points to hurricane Katrina to illustrate this point:
Katrina did at least two big things politically. The first was draw together everything people didn't like about the Bush administration, everything it didn't like about two wars and high spending and illegal immigration, and brought those strands into a heavy knot that just sat there, soggily, and came to symbolize Bushism. The second was illustrate that even though the federal government in our time has continually taken on new missions and responsibilities, the more it took on, the less it seemed capable of performing even its most essential jobs.
This is the problem for President Obama and for his supporters - conservatives have long believed that the government was ineffective, but liberals tended to believe that federal failures resulted more from a lack of competent leadership. The failure of financial regulation and the failed response to Katrina were emblematic of the incompetence of George W. Bush or the anti-government philosophy of Ronald Reagan - but certainly not the result of ineffective government.

Enter Obama:
His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality.
This is the real challenge for Democrats, the Left, and all advocates of active government - if government fails even when led by seemingly competent adherents to its promise and potential then who is at fault? The response from the Right will be that this simply provides additional evidence that government cannot solve society's problems. The likely response from the Left will be a call for an ever more powerful government (read E.J. Dionne's latest) - if only there was more oversight, more regulation - the crisis could have been avoided.

In the current era, the Right will win that message war with the Left - as Noonan observes:
But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: "Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust." Then the oil spill came and government could not do the job, could not meet need, in fact seemed faraway and incapable: "We pay so much for the government and it can't cap an undersea oil well!"
The Right will win in the short term, but in the long run we all suffer from this crisis of confidence in government. The current era has produced incompetent and ineffective government. Burnham argues that at some point a crisis will occur that will demand a reenergized governmental system.  Thus far, however, crises have served to reinforce the dominant narrative of ineffective governance. The Obama Administration's "handling" of the BP disaster offering the latest example.

An excellent piece from Michael Gerson in today's Washington Post on the public's reaction to health reform serves as a further illustration of the troubles that await the Democrats. The fundamental miscalculation made by President Obama and Congressional Democrats was that the recent crises would make the public more open to government intervention - but in fact the public sees the government as being complicit in the crises.
One and a half years after a financial meltdown that some supposed would be a crisis for capitalism itself, 58 percent of Americans agree that "the government has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the free enterprise system."
The reaction from political elites has all too often been to dismiss the public as simply being uninformed - the real danger for Democrats is that the public is informed and is simply rejecting their policies.