Pundit Under Protest
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: June 13, 2011
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I’ll be writing a lot about the presidential election over the next 16 months, but at the outset I would just like to remark that I’m opining on this whole campaign under protest. I’m registering a protest because for someone of my Hamiltonian/National Greatness perspective, the two parties contesting this election are unusually pathetic. Their programs are unusually unimaginative. Their policies are unusually incommensurate to the problem at hand.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
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This election is about how to avert national decline. All other issues flow from that anxiety.
The election is happening during a downturn in the economic cycle, but the core issue is the accumulation of deeper structural problems that this recession has exposed — unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special-interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality.
The number of business start-ups per capita has been falling steadily for the past three decades. Workers’ share of national income has been declining since 1983. Male wages have been stagnant for about 40 years. The American working class — those without a college degree — is being decimated, economically and socially. In 1960, for example, 83 percent of those in the working class were married. Now only 48 percent are.
Voters are certainly aware of the scope of the challenges before them. Their pessimism and anxiety does not just reflect the ebb and flow of the business cycle, but is deeper and more pervasive. Trust in institutions is at historic lows. Large majorities think the country is on the wrong track, and have for years. Large pluralities believe their children will have fewer opportunities than they do.
Voters are in the market for new movements and new combinations, yet the two parties have grown more rigid.
The Republican growth agenda — tax cuts and nothing else — is stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible and politically impossible. Gigantic tax cuts — if they were affordable — might boost overall growth, but they would do nothing to address the structural problems that are causing a working-class crisis.
Republican politicians don’t design policies to meet specific needs, or even to help their own working-class voters. They use policies as signaling devices — as ways to reassure the base that they are 100 percent orthodox and rigidly loyal. Republicans have taken a pragmatic policy proposal from 1980 and sanctified it as their core purity test for 2012.
As for the Democrats, they offer practically nothing. They acknowledge huge problems like wage stagnation and then offer... light rail! Solar panels! It was telling that the Democrats offered no budget this year, even though they are supposedly running the country. That’s because they too are trapped in a bygone era.
Mentally, they are living in the era of affluence, but, actually, they are living in the era of austerity. They still have these grand spending ideas, but there is no longer any money to pay for them and there won’t be for decades. Democrats dream New Deal dreams, propose nothing and try to win elections by making sure nobody ever touches Medicare.
Covering this upcoming election is like covering a competition between two Soviet refrigerator companies, cold-war relics offering products that never change.
If there were a Hamiltonian Party, it would be offering a multifaceted reinvigoration agenda. It would grab growth ideas from all spots on the political spectrum and blend them together. Its program would be based on the essential political logic: If you want to get anything passed, you have to offer an intertwined package that smashes the Big Government vs. Small Government orthodoxies and gives everybody something they want.
This reinvigoration package would have four baskets. There would be an entitlement reform package designed to redistribute money from health care and the elderly toward innovation and the young. Unless we get health care inflation under control by replacing the perverse fee-for-service incentive structure, there will be no money for anything else.
There would be a targeted working-class basket: early childhood education, technical education, community colleges, an infrastructure bank, asset distribution to help people start businesses, a new wave industrial policy if need be — anything that might give the working class a leg up.
There would be a political corruption basket. The Tea Parties are right about the unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country. It’s time to drain the swamp by simplifying the tax code and streamlining the regulations businesses use to squash their smaller competitors.
There would also be a pro-business basket: lower corporate rates, a sane visa policy for skilled immigrants, a sane patent and permitting system, more money for research.
The Hamiltonian agenda would be pro-market, in its place, and pro-government, in its place. In 2012, on the other hand, we’re going to see another clash of the same old categories. I’ll be covering it, but I protest.