The Politics of Permanent Confrontation

age-austerity-how-scarcity-will-remake-american-politics-thomas-byrne-edsall-paperback-cover-artReviewed: The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics by Thomas Byrne Edsall (Anchor Books, 272 pp., $15.95). The New Year’s Day bill that Congress finally passed to avert the “fiscal cliff” prevented a rise in income taxes for most American families, and put off drastic cuts in the federal budget for two months. Although it made permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent of Americans, 151 Republican members of the House, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, voted against the compromise measure. And Republicans immediately began threatening to use the debt ceiling debate to hold the federal government hostage. It is unlikely that a sweetly reasoned Grand Bargain will emerge. The Age of Austerity, which should be read by anyone wanting to understand the underlying dynamics of the struggle over fiscal issues in Washington, D.C.

For more than two decades, Edsall was the chief political correspondent for the Washington Post. He now teaches journalism at Columbia and writes a weekly online column for The New York Times. Edsall relies on research, reporting, and fact-based analysis, and his work is informed by a clear-eyed sense of American history, especially the role of race in American society.

In his latest book, Edsall describes how “the politics of austerity” revolves around fights over spending cuts and tax increases in a time of recession and potentially slower growth. He explains:

“The year 2008 marked the emergence of a Democratic Party driven by surging constituencies of minorities, single women and voters under 30. The flowering of this coalition, manifested in the election of President Obama and continued Democratic control of Congress, was quickly followed by developments affirming the activist, redistributive state: the enactment of a $787 billion economic stimulus bill, passage of the $900 billion health care reform act and rising demand for food stamps, unemployment compensation, and Medicaid.”

To the Republicans “the newly empowered Democratic Party was determined to institutionalize government expansion through oversight of the financial sector, broadening access to medical care and federally mandated environmental regulation….”

In response, Republicans shifted the focus of American politics to debt and austerity—with a specific attack on means-tested social programs. After winning back control of the House in 2010, they mounted attacks on safety-net spending and the regulation of business. Edsall argues that “the conservative agenda…racializes policy making, calling for deep cuts in programs for the poor. The beneficiaries of these programs are disproportionately black and Hispanic.”

“Congressional trench warfare rewards those most willing to risk all,” Edsall notes. “Republicans demonstrated this in last summer’s debt ceiling fight, deploying the threat of a default on Treasury obligations to force spending cuts. Conservatives are willing to inflict harm on adversaries and more readily see conflicts in zero-sum terms…” This all-or-nothing, anti-poor, anti-minority and anti-government politics is risky, given the changing demographics of the country. Obama did win reelection by running against the unfairness of the conservative austerity agenda.

Nor is austerity a prescription for national renewal. “If the country needs to invest in education and rebuilding infrastructure….” writes Edsall, “those initiatives are in large part precluded in a political environment that places top priority on deficit and debt reduction. Retrenchment, in effect, becomes a noose, choking off prospects for growth.”

Over time, the Republican Party has transformed itself into an angry, reactionary party driven by fear. The change began with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, continued through the Reagan years and on to the politics of Bush/Rove and the Tea Party. Better than any other political analyst, Edsall explains this significant development in American politics.

Is bipartisan compromise likely when a majority in the Republican Party considers the president an un-American socialist? The bitter confrontation over the debt ceiling and budget cuts will prove Edsall to be on the mark. It might help if President Obama moved the public debate beyond debt and deficit to inequality and lack of economic opportunity. He could appoint a presidential commission on economic inequality to hold hearings, publicize the facts and offer recommendations to deal with root causes.

The Obama campaign and its allies did a good job combating Republican efforts to suppress voting, and in getting the president’s supporters to the polls, but such efforts during a campaign are not enough. Obama might try to combine immigration reform with a national identity card that automatically registers every citizen to vote. Other possible reforms include: making election day a national holiday, providing same-day voter registration, and expanding early voting.

The country’s changing demographics favor the Obama Democratic coalition, if its members register and vote. Texas, for example, could become a blue state sooner than anticipated, greatly diminishing Republican prospects of winning the presidency. It might be that only defeat at the polls will convince the Republican Party to moderate its views, embrace a more diverse America, and understand the vital role government plays in the American economy.

Derek Shearer is Chevalier Professor of Diplomacy and Director of the McKinnon Center on Global Affairs and Politics at Occidental College and a former U.S. ambassador to Finland.