Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Everybody is Frustrated with American Politics

Americans are frustrated with politics. This comes out in every poll anybody takes; the sense that America is "on the wrong tract" has much more to do with politics than economics. But why?

Well, for one thing, the country seems to be very closely divided in politics, so neither the right nor the left is really getting what it wants. For another, many people think the system is controlled by big money and lobbyists. This last, though, may not really be true. For example, the Koch brothers have been talking about getting out of politics because they are getting so little return for what they have spent. They were especially angry that after spending so much to help the Republicans take over both the House and the Senate they couldn't even get rid of the Export/Import Bank.

Matt Yglesias summarizes the findings of a fat book by some political scientists that tried to analyze the impact of outside spending on the legislative process:
What Baumgartner et al. find is that across a broad range of issues, the public's fear that whichever side spends more will carry the day in Congress is misplaced. Resources spent statistically explain less than 5 percent of the variation in policy outcomes.

But this holds for the boring and not-that-uplifting reason that the system embeds massive bias toward the status quo. Whichever side fights to not change things tends to win, regardless of who spent more money.
The American political system is just set up to make it very hard to change anything, so if there is any controversy, the general outcome is that nothing happens. And this helps to explain this interesting finding:
In a country whose politics are increasingly driven by principles-based ideological activists, a constitutional structure that makes it hard for anyone to prevail is a recipe for anger and frustration. A revealing 2015 Pew poll showed that Democrats feel their side is "losing" in politics by a 52-40 margin, while Republicans also feel their side is losing, by an even larger 79-14 margin.


Anonymous said...

In other words, Americans aren't so much frustrated with politics, as with each other. Perhaps even more exactly, we are frustrated that other Americans are preventing us from getting our way. Perhaps the great historical question facing us as a people is, can we live with that? Or is it time to part? One might suggest that the country break up into smaller polities of the like-minded, where the like-minded could more easily get their way. But I suspect the most likely result of such a course would be many, many small civil wars based on "the narcissism of small differences," quieted at times by local tyrannies.

G. Verloren said...

I was watching some of George Carlin's standup from the 90s recently, and I was struck by just how little has changed. All the jokes about politics sounded like they were written just last week rather than a quarter of a century ago.

It seems the Culture Wars never really went away. I suspect, in a sense, we're still suffering lingering effects of the Cold War. The USSR collapsed and suddenly we lacked an external threat to drive us to cooperate, so we began to bicker amongst ourselves more heavily during the 90s. Then at the turn of the millenia we shifted our attention to the Middle East and Central Asia, and forgot about our differences for a bit. But now, despite certain concerns over ISIS, we're once again in a situation where there's not much in the way of external crises to compel us to compromise.

And so we're perhaps going to see things actually develop into a broader conflict. I think it depends entirely on whether we can find it within ourselves to foster a spirit of cooperation and compromise - if one side can find it within themselves to reach across the aisle, and if the other isn't too stubborn to reject them when they do.

But I think that's a ways off still. I think too many Americans are spoiling for a big ugly brawl at the moment, both as a means of fulfilling their own agendas and as just a crass form of spectacle for the disgruntled masses to hoot and bellow over. Basically we've turned turned politics into a sport, and our "soccer hooligans" are all screaming and pounding on the chain link fences, hoping to encourage the players to forget the match and start a brawl. And if that doesn't pan out, they might just tear down the barriers and start a riot themselves.

Nearly 1500 years on, our modern day Byzantium seems primed for a revival of the Nika Riots. I dearly hope I'm wrong.