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In the latest edition of National Affairs writer Jay Cost raises a concept that few of us Baby Boomers have ever had to consider. He calls it “the politics of loss.”
Cost’s premise is that for almost the entire six plus decades following the end of World War II, politics has consisted of arguments over taxing and spending in an era of surplus wealth. Call it the “politics of sharing.”
The post war period was the time of the Great American Growth Machine. Interrupted from time to time by brief and usually mild recessions, the American economy grew at such a rapid clip that politicians were largely insulated from having to make difficult choices. As a result, the domestic policies of Democrats and Republicans were largely interchangeable, differing only on the margins. Democrats like John Kennedy and Bill Clinton cut taxes. Republicans like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford expanded the welfare state.
Both parties generally supported a robust military and both parties saw fit to expand the menu of taxpayer-funded social entitlements. Generally speaking, politicians were able to reward one group of Americans without unduly penalizing other groups of Americans. The country’s relentless growth permitted a mostly permanent budget deficit, covered by borrowing, the cost of which was borne by ever expanding national wealth.
This is not to say there was no contentiousness in our politics. Those on the far left cried foul when social entitlements were too limited in their view. Those on the far right continually warned of fiscal danger, albeit danger that awaited at some indeterminate time in the future.
Those in the middle, however, where elections are decided, were generally pleased most of the time. As a result, as one political pundit once explained using a football metaphor, American politics was a game played largely between the 40-yard lines – sometimes shifting left of midfield and sometimes shifting right.
This week’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin offers stark evidence that the political game has changed. In an era of much lower economic growth and public spending that cannot be sustained, the argument in Wisconsin, rather than revolving around sharing an expanding pie, revolved instead around loss – in the case of Wisconsin the loss of the lavish pay and benefits packages enjoyed by the state’s public employees.
As Cost explained it in his National Affairs essay, “the days when lawmakers could give to some Americans without shortchanging others are over.”
It’s much easier to reach consensus when you’re talking about splitting up an ever larger pie. But come the time when you have to take pie away, it starts getting ugly. Certainly that was the case in Wisconsin. Unions and the Democratic Party threw everything they had at the Wisconsin recall (save for the personal involvement of President Obama), while business-friendly PACs and the Republican Party threw everything they had back.
If you are among those that long for more civil discourse in American politics, the news for you is that such may be a thing of the past. Going forward, debates will be increasingly rancorous, winner-take-all affairs and bipartisan compromise will be all but impossible.
Lately, the word “no” from Democrats as it applies to whatever Republicans propose has largely worked. While Republicans have put forth concrete proposals such as the budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan, the Democrats have been able to get away with simply saying “no” while offering no budget plan of their own. The U.S. Senate has not passed a budget in three years and recently voted down the administration’s budget proposal by a count of 99 – 0.
But the result in Wisconsin suggests that the Democrats may now be at a disadvantage that they only just now recognize. “No” may no longer be enough. An actual plan that recognizes the actual math of the country’s fiscal condition will be necessary. It will entail a recognition of the mathematical fact that the “rich” are not rich enough to sustain public spending on its current scale.
Such math flies in the face of what most liberals believe.
This all suggests that as important as the 2012 election undoubtedly is, history will come to see it as just an early battle in what is surely going to be a long and bloody war.