Our Dysfunctional Politics

Yesterday, in comments, one of the long-time commenters here made this remark:

We have a minority party absolutely devoted to a completely outdated notion of governance.

going on to castigate the manifest failings of the Republican Party. What struck me about the comment was how well it characterized both of our major political parties.

Both of our major parties are minority parties. According to the most recent Gallup poll on party affiliation, neither party commands the membership of a majority of the electorate (Republicans 29%; Democrats 31%). Indeed, even if you include those who “lean Republican” or “lean Democratic”, neither party commands an outright majority (Repubicans 44%; Democrats 46%).

That may even overstate the actual party support. 37% of those polled identified themselves as independents and there’s no category for “leans independent”.

If we had a parliamentary system, neither Republicans nor Democrats would be able to form a government. Either party would need to make common cause with other parties including some who disagreed pretty vehemently with their programs. There’s really no way to tell what sort of government would result.

But it’s not just in their mutual minority status that the two parties are lacking. The Republicans, as has been pointed out, are divided between reformers and rejectionists (the Tea Party supporters). The rejectionists do not yet recognize and may never recognize that most Americans simply don’t want the sort of country they’re proposing. Most want the catastrophic and inherently conflicted status quo: a superpower military combined with social spending that we either can’t or won’t pay for.

However, Democrats are similarly divided. Divisions include the one between the Clintonians and the Deaniacs or the technocrats and the progressives. From my vantage point many but not all Democrats envision policies along the lines of those of European social democrats. The problems with this are pretty obvious—European countries are backing off from their social programs even as we’re embracing them. Sweden’s social insurance program, for example, is less munificent than ours. Most American progressives would probably reject it if it were proposed without the “Swedish” label. The Swedes are moving towards a “fee for service” system in their healthcare system even as we begin to move away from ours. France has recently constrained its own healthcare system. Under the parcours de soins coordonné there is an attempt at constraining visits to specialists in an effort to control costs. The long and the short of it is that healthcare costs are rising everywhere and the French don’t find their system any more affordable than we do ours. Their system would be completely unworkable if they were paying American prices.

Thinking that Americans will accept the very high levels of taxation that would be required for a French-style healthcare system (particularly one with American prices) is just as lunatic as believing that we can afford an ever-growing military along with our present social safety net while keeping taxes at their 2012 levels.

In my view European social programs depend upon European levels of social cohesion and we just don’t have them. Can we get them? Should we? I have no idea.

When I stand back and look at our political parties I don’t see a sane party and a crazy party. I see two crazy, dysfunctional parties. One holds the White House, the other one doesn’t.

21 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    I don’t put too much stock in self-identification by party because I think it’s become a “cool kids” thing to call yourself independent. But I’d agree that still probably leaves both parties in the minority or close to it.

    I don’t agree that schisms in the Democratic Party are nearly the equal of those within the GOP. We have two mealy-mouthed wings who basically get along pretty well. The hard lefties are mostly tamed. (Which is why I can call myself a Democrat now. I couldn’t pre-Clinton.) We don’t have the extreme passions in our party.

    My view of a two party system is that there’s meant to be a dialectic, a back and forth, a push and pull. The Mom and Dad party. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, it’s not that Mom should be running things on her own, it’s that Dad has abandoned ship (and reality.) I would welcome a return of actual conservatives. I would welcome a grown-up Dad party, if only to ensure that the tame lefties stay tame.

    But it’s a very big problem for the GOP, and I don’t think it’s a given that they’ll succeed. This isn’t about some rational discussion of what we can afford and how we’re going to pay our bills. What we have in the GOP is simple fear. Rural whites and older whites feel they’re losing a status they’ve long enjoyed. And they are. Step One is for them to adjust to reality.

  • I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. I believe that what you’re seeing is an artifact of a Democrat in the White House, particularly one of so even a demeanor as Obama.

    I think that both parties are dreaming of a mythic past. The Republicans are dreaming of a 1981-1984 that never existed and the Democrats are dreaming of a 1961-1963 that never existed.

  • PD Shaw

    I think the most difficult dynamic is that with such a balanced electorate that politicians and partisans cans delude themselves into thinking time is on their side. The alternative to negotiating legislation is waiting until after the next election when your hand will be stronger. Its not entirely irrational, we’ve recently had Republican single-party government and Democratic single-party government. But that might also be a fluke.

  • michael reynolds

    I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

    That’s going to happen from time to time.

  • Icepick

    You see, it is completely sane to run annual deficits of about 8% of GDP in perpetuity when the total federal debt is already over 100% of GDP – what can possibly go wrong! Thus the Democrats are the party of fiscal sanity, because balancing the budget can only be done by adding trillions to the national debt while raising taxes on people making $45000 a year to insure that Warren Buffet’s accountants have to work a little harder to make certain that he and his company continue to not pay what they’re obligated to pay under the current system – all while calling for more taxes on everyone that can’t afford good accountants. It all makes perfect sense.

    But I break my self-imposed embargo to point this out: Today we got the best unemployment report ever in the history of unemployment reports! With today’s report the country is now only 3,961,000 jobs SHORT of where we were in December of 2007! That’s the first time we’ve been under 4,000,000 jobs short in quite some time – four years exactly, as a matter of fact.

    This, the permanent loss of millions of jobs, is what the country’s electorate considers wild success. And given that (at a conservative estimate) we need to be adding about 100,000 jobs a month to keep up with population growth, we’re over 6,000,000 jobs short on that front, dating from the start of the recession. There has been no recovery, just a slow grind bouncing along at the bottom of the dip.

    Add the almost four million we’re short from where we were to the six million we’re short due to population growth and we’re about ten million jobs short of where potential workers would like to be. And that ignores that the quality of many of the jobs gained in the last few years of “recovery”: too many have been low-paying, part-time, temporary or contract positions with no benefits. Benefits that people will now be mandated to buy.

    Ten million jobs short, and Obama takes a fabulous Hawaiian vacation on the public dime. This is considered a wild success by the American electorate. The only conclusion to draw from this is that they enjoy watching their fellow Americans suffer.

    Best fucking unemployment report ever.

    I’m going back on hiatus now, at least until the next unemployment report comes out.

    Just remember, still almost four million jobs short from where we were five years ago. And this is what the American public wants more of. Out-fucking-standing.

  • Drew

    I can identify with just about every word Dave wrote in the essay, with a caviat. The socialist (call it what you want: progressive, caring, blah, blah, blah) oriented style has basically won for 50 years. Basically, a decent saftey net has been expanded beyond all comprehension, and it is bankrupting us. Deny if it makes you feel better.

    But the middle class is about to get religion. In a year? Within five? I dont know. But soak the rich nostrums are for internet site morons. The middle class is going to get marked benefit cuts, or marked tax increases. Its just arithmetic. The US can hold out longer than Greece because of its standing. But not forever. The bond market is awakening.

    The answer is not Dem vs Republican. Its a smaller government world view. We are anything but there. The employment report was dismal as usual; and falsely flagged in the media. E6 is probably every bit of 14%. Is this the America we want? 14% our national pets?

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler
    I think that both parties are dreaming of a mythic past. The Republicans are dreaming of a 1981-1984 that never existed and the Democrats are dreaming of a 1961-1963 that never existed

    For most people, their “political lifetime” is 6 to 10 years. I think this started about 2000. Previously, it was about 20 to 40 years. Pop culture, fashion, and general history have limits, also. All history prior to the that limit is the same. Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and TR were contemporaries.

    Years ago, I had a conservation with a 20 year old girl, and she thought all people over 40 were the same. To her, life in the 1950’s was not much different than the 1900’s. It was a fascinating revelation.

  • michael reynolds


    I hope you’re not absent on my account. I’d rather we shared the same space, but if not then I’ll go.


    Yes, the socialist point of view has won for the last 50 years. Because that’s what people want, and that’s what the entire developed world has.

    An intelligent discussion between the parties would center on how much of that we need and how much we can afford. That’s not the argument we have. Democrats cry about granny starving in a ditch, and Republicans essentially concede while making lots of noise and throwing dust in the air and ranting about some mythical bygone day.

    Instead what we get from Republicans is nonsense about privatizing SS. Why? Because it makes sense? No, of course it doesn’t make sense, because we’d still end up caring for the people who failed to care for themselves.

    Or we get “private market solutions” to medical care that simply ignore the reality that no one, but no one, is going to insure a 60 year-old with a history of heart disease.

    We get ideologically-driven fantasies. The people smell a rat and the Republicans have no second index card. They’ve asserted their ideological preference, and then they’re done. They don’t have the objectivity or the flexibility to try and actually solve problems. That’s why we never got even a hint from Mr. Romney of what he’d do about health care or taxes or the deficit. Everything that might have been helpful was anathema to his own party. And everything he could talk about publicly without causing the tea pot to boil over was anathema to the American people.

    Bear in mind, it wasn’t us who made Mr. Romney unelectable — it was Republicans. Gingrich and Santorum and Perry and Fox News killed your candidate.

    The inability of Republicans to come to grips with practical governance leaves the field to the Democrats. Who are not to be trusted playing all by themselves.

  • steve

    ‘Thinking that Americans will accept the very high levels of taxation that would be required for a French-style healthcare system (particularly one with American prices) is just as lunatic as believing that we can afford an ever-growing military along with our present social safety net while keeping taxes at their 2012 levels.”

    The French cover everyone and everything for about 2/3 of what we pay for everything. Yes, our taxes would go up a bit, but then no one would be paying for private insurance. Given how much health insurance costs my corporation, that is a deal I would take in a heartbeat. It is not health care alone, like in the US, which is killing their budget, it is all of their other social spending.

    Are their costs going up too fast also? Maybe, but they start at a lower level and have years before they would, if ever, match us. Of note, they are already working on lowering costs. They have a huge advantage over us in that their people are pretty much all in the same system. Health care costs going up affect everyone. In our fragmented system, parts can be played against each other or ignored.

    “Their system would be completely unworkable if they were paying American prices.”

    Kind of the point isnt it? No system in the world is workable with our prices. Then, add in our utilization problems.

    “In my view European social programs depend upon European levels of social cohesion and we just don’t have them. Can we get them? Should we? I have no idea.”

    Me either, but they are the ones who have high quality at lower prices, and a reasonable chance at controlling them. At some point, we need to do something. Suppose we get lucky and aliens take over the Congress for a month and we solve govt financed health care. What do we do about rising costs in the private sector?


  • PD Shaw

    steve, by some accounts American physicians make four times what their french counterparts do. Is that a deal you would take? If you would, you’re a saint and I doubt there are enough of you.

    I think the question is, what type of system is necessary at these price levels to control costs, as opposed to what system should have been put in place generations ago. I, of course, don’t know the answer.

  • steve

    @PD- Notice that French docs are not moving here. That suggests to me that there are advantages to working there which are not clear to us living here. I know schooling costs them less. I know that they work a bit fewer hours and not so much at nights and on w/e’s. They also pay their specialists more, so if we stayed even, I would probably see just a 50% cut.

    To answer your question, no one knows for sure, but it sure looks to me like having everyone in the same kind of system, that doesnt necessarily mean single payer, is necessary to address costs.


  • michael reynolds

    Are we comparing perhaps average US doctor salaries that include extremely well-paid specialists? Perhaps the average pay of the average doctor isn’t so great. Plus of course they, too, benefit from the French safety net and lifestyle.

  • michael reynolds


    I think a French style system makes all the sense in the world. Republicans won’t discuss it — socialism, dontcha know. So we can’t really begin to address the biggest issue on the table. We can only contemplate changes that don’t overly offend Republican ideology. Which means not solving the problem.

  • PD Shaw

    steve, I agree about the importance of intangible benefits and employment costs. I definitely think government needs to keep that in mind when it starts imagining ideal salaries for things it likes, apparently teachers, college professors, attorneys not performing legal work and physicians.

    But the claim here is that a single-payer system would make it easier to bargain down costs. Physicians are costs. People should put a face on it when they adopt abstract notions of how affordable everything would be if we adopted a French model.

  • jan


    A good analysis of the two parties. I can’t say I disagree much. I perused the other comments as well, and it was all interesting. Good to hear from Icepick again, too.

    I do find it different, though, that while we are embracing European kind of socialism, they are trying to find their way out of some of their overextended social promises made to people, and now hard to rescind. I would think this would wave some red flags in our country — that if you give too many freebies and things that can’t be paid for, there is bound to be tremendous disappointment registered from the people when you have to shrink some of these benefits. Like Michael has said, in other posts, people like big government when it benefits them. It’s along the same premise as environmentists who like wind mills, but not in the lot next door to them.

  • jan

    Here is an example of the monetary difficulties just one European country is having —> Desperate Spain raids pension fund. When you run out of money, I guess everything is on the table.

  • Nit: I understand the label “Deaniacs,” but I don’t think its a very good one for the constituency you describe. Dean’s small coalition was mostly united by opposition to the Iraq War. Dean himself was to the right of the median Democratic primary voter, and his rhetoric on domestic policy was a straightforward liberal (not social democratic) defense of the welfare state as an attempt to preserve the capitalist system in the face of its own excesses and dysfunctions.

    On the big issues: I applaud the attempt to be even-handed, but its not going to cut it in 2012. The center of intellectual gravity and the reigns of power in the Democratic party are rather firmly in the hands of those who believe in center-right policies. Every major domestic economic initiative of the Obama administration was well within the mainstream Republican consensus as recently as 2007/2008: cap-and-trade, an individual-mandate approach to health-care reform, and stimulative tax and spending policies in the face of a deep depression.*

    Indeed, Obama clearly wants to pursue short-term (modest) stimulus combined with long-term deficit reduction. If the Republicans really cared about this deficit reduction, they’d at least call his bluff and accept that, along with higher taxes on $250K, in exchange for Obama forcing modest, but not insignificant, entitlement reforms on his own party. Both sides need the cover of “bipartisanship” to swallow the bitter pill of entitlement reform, but the GOP doesn’t seem to want to give up very much for it — whether because they’re Tea Party extremists or they fear getting targeted in primaries by the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.

    Furthermore, the key entitlement problem isn’t some “big addiction” to the welfare state — although providing grossly inefficient welfare via the tax code is a major problem that might be addressed via tax reform — but health-care spending. Social Security is basically fine; if it needs it, it can get the kind of tinkering that happend in the 1980s. But we must spend less on health care. Again, the GOP have made this harder than it already is by demagoguing even the modest curve-bending components of the PPACA.

    Sorry for the long-windedness, especially as I have almost never commented here in the last few years. Just saw this thoughtful post on my RSS feed, saw the thoughtful comments, and thought I’d drop in.

    *And the point about giving a damn about governance is an important one: confronted with the complete lockdown of the US credit system in the fall of 2008, the Democrats provided the majority for the plan brought to them by the Bush Administration. We can criticize the specifics of TAARP all we want, but the (until then) highly obstructionist congressional Democrats were willing to support a rival administration when faced with a severe crisis. But, at the end of the day, it is the 180 degree turn on conservative policies — many of which Democrats had gradually embraced during the 1990s and 2000s as pragmatic and bipartisan ways to tackle public policy problems — during 2008 and 2010 that makes it very hard for me to buy equivalency arguments. That and the fact that Lugar got tossed out because he dared to work with Democrats on occasion.

  • Thanks for commenting, Dan. It might not be clear from just this post but I agree with much of what your wrote, particularly the primacy of healthcare reform in gaining control over our fiscal situation. I wrote about that extensively during the debate over healthcare reform several years back.

    I was bitterly disappointed by the law that was finally passed and then sustained by the Supreme Court. It simply didn’t take the steps that were necessary and did so on behalf of too few people when other, less sweeping approaches might well have done that job. I don’t believe that improving the present system will get us where we need to go. Much more fundamental reforms will be necessary and, unfortunately, nobody has the stomach for it. The history of healthcare reform at the federal level is one of big steps taken about once a generation. I think we’ve missed an opportunity.

    My greatest disappointment, both with the PPACA and the recent backing off from the fiscal cliff, is that the process that occurred was not one conducive to the incrementalist approach that the legislation apparently presumed would take place.

  • As far as stimulus goes, I don’t think that what President Obama has proposed is modest. I think that in the context of a $15 trillion economy it’s a flyspeck.

    What I favor is an approach originally suggested by the economist Paul Samuelson, a stimulus of margins. You stop spending on things that are very inefficient in favor of increased spending on things that are more efficient. The “deal”, unfortunately, does almost the opposite.

  • michael reynolds

    Quoting from Podhoretz writing about the House GOP at National Review:

    This is cannibalism, not political combat. This is unreason, not reason. This is temper, not temperament. This is anarchism, not conservatism.

    Doug Mataconis at OTB — Mr. Both Sides Do It — writes:

    It’s been evident for at least the last two years that there’s a not insubstantial portion of the Congressional GOP, mostly in the House but increasingly becoming a powerful force in the Senate GOP Caucus, for whom the idea of governing means only getting what they want. The idea of compromise and legislative bargaining, a part of American politics from the beginning of Republic is not only anathema to them, it doesn’t even seem to exist.

    I’ve been saying this since forever. The GOP is not a partner for peace, so to speak. They’re mental patients. The idea that they are people to be negotiated with and reasoned with is ridiculous.

    We don’t have a two party system in Congress. We have the Democrats and we have crazy people. Honestly, Dave, I don’t think you’re going to understand politics as it is today until you recognize that this really is something different.

  • “I don’t put too much stock in self-identification by party because…” when presented with evidence that goes against my beliefs I just make shit up so I can go on believing what I want. Reality be damned!

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