Friday, April 24, 2009

The Pendulum Swing

American politics has devolved into a two party system. Some people like such a system. The basic idea of a two party system is that policies would swing like a pendulum between major issues. Periodic changes of administration should theoretically lead to a fairly balanced government.

Unfortunately, experience does not hold to theory. The reason for this is that the parties are continuously realigning and changing the weight of the pendulum.

For example, let us examine the important issue of the overall size of government. There are some people who think bigger government is the answer to our problems, and those who opt for greater personal liberty. For want of better terms, I will call the group wanting more government "progressive" and those wanting more freedom "liberal."

As it happens, neither of the parties have a purely progressive or liberal agenda. There are progressives in the Republican Party (including Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover, GW Bush) as well as those championing liberty such as Reagan or Ron Paul. Likewise, the Democratic Party encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs.

Politics is not a simple matter of parties holding to set beliefs. It is a complex system in which both parties have internal pendulums.

What seems to happen is that when a party is out of power, the liberal elements of the party come to the fore. These liberal voices are quick to point out the abuse of power of the opposition. They fill the airwaves with a lot of freedom centric rhetoric.

The progressive side of each party take a different tact. Progressives often lie low when their party is out of favor. In some cases, when progressives sense a change in the balance of power, they simply switch party and attach their fortune to the winds of change.

The Bush Administration was punctuated with a large number of neo-cons. Many of these were progressives who simply realized that moving from the Democratic to Republican party was a better path for pursuing their political objectives.

The inner party pendulum swings create a perverse system where the small government forces within each party hold sway when the party is in the minority, while the big government forces within the party come to the fore as the party moves into the majority.

This synchronized swing of policy positions within the two party system creates a system that works more like a screw than a pendulum.

Rather than having a pendulum that swings from more government to less government, we end up with cycles where the big-government elements come to the fore when parties are in the majority.

Rather than a pendulum swinging between more and less liberty, we have a system that ratchets down on liberties with each election cycle while notching up the size of government.

Only on the rarest of occasions does one find situations (such as the Clinton administration) where both parties were on a swing toward greater liberty. Even then, the nation did not see a decrease in the size of the government. We simply saw a temporary decrease in the rate of increase.

More common are situations like the Bush administration where the public rhetoric becomes detached from actions. During the Bush years, the small government advocates of the Repbulican party were yelling slow down, but the administration increased the size of government. This gave the illusion that it was the small government advocates who created the big government mess.

During the Bush years, the Republicans took a jump to the left. The Democrats took a bounding leap to the left. Meanwhile, the groups advocating greater liberty are simply left out in the snow.

I penned this piece on the pendulum as I think the Tax Day Tea Parties were not simply a rightwing effort, but an effort to kick both parties off the track of seeing bigger government as the answer, and on to the track where one values the freedom of the people.

Regardless, the two party system creates a political structure where partisans rule and the average person is cut out of the process.


Jason The said...

The Tea Parties were actually a corporate lobbyist sponsored event, planned months ago... but whatever, they were good for a laugh.

Progressives NOT laying low is actually what led to the current incarnation of the Democratic Party. In fact, progressives can take sole credit for the rebranding of the party during the Bush years, something the Democratic Party had not successfully taken back since they allowed the GOP to brand and define them in the 90's.

I'm inclined to believe there is a realignment afoot (though it's much to early to find solid proof) that is based more on what works and what doesn't, not some overly simplistic notion of the size of government. Polling suggests people simply want their government to do more for them. Socially, liberalism always wins. Some see it as progress, some see it as degradation of traditional values. Either way, it happens. As our personal worlds expand and become more complex, so do our personal politics, and the current GOP cannot sustain a complex political understanding, but only faux-populism and transparent "solutions." People pick up on that, subconsciously, if not directly. Same thing happened to the Democrats post Carter, when they simply tried to mimic Reaganites. Vapidity has a smell, if you will.

The next Republican that wins the White House will be more socially liberal than any we've seen in 20 years, and will also offer something more than the vague notion of "small government" but rather "good government." I also predict it takes them until 2016 to figure this out as a party (and even then, it may be too late).

y-intercept said...

The push for tea parties arose in reaction to the rescue plan and budget bill. One can read into the large showing at the events (a month after the passing of the budget) that the angst about big government is sustainable.

BTW, pretty much all of the community action events are planned months in advance.

BTW, your description of the next GOP was pretty much the formula of the hated GW Bush. You might remember the guy pushing Compassionate Conservativism.

Bush's idea of deregulation was essentially a privatized centralized regulatory regime.

You might remember a GW Bush marching into Baghdad with the notion that a Shock and Awe campaign by a big government would progress Liberalism in the Middle East.

The Bush GOP had exactly the centralized technocratic vision of a state ruled by pragmatism, not ideals, that you described.

The Public-Interest style neocons that dominated the Bush years tried the "good government" concept. The much publicized failure of the Bush administration is that Neocon ideas about good government. The loathed No-Child-Left-Behind act is the typical product of "good goverment" thinking.

The growth of government under the pragmatic "Good Government" Bush administration was equal to that of LBJ!

The limited government envisioned by the classical liberals is actually a lot more subtle than the dunderheaded doltish ideas of the progressives.

Progressives are like the legacy IT manager who believed that they could do all of the processing for the world on one big Mainframe computers.

Classical liberalism is more like the PC freaks and Linux hackers who realized that they would actually get more done by creating a simple well defined interface for a network (The Internet). Then let people have at it.

Yes, your typical mainframe computer is much more complex than the internet, but a lot more interesting things happen on the internet.

BTW, the years when the Democrats mimicked Reaganism saw pronounced leaps in the economy and quality of produced goods.

During the Bush years, the nation and world took a major leap to the left and things got worse.

d.eris said...

"the average person is cut out of the process."

Except when they go to the polls every two and four years to vote the same people back into office.

y-intercept said...


The two party system gives us a choice between two candidates who represent their respective party.

When we vote, we aren't really voting for a candidate to represent us but are selecting which party we want in the majority.

Voters generally find that there is no way to vote the bums out. They simply see a choice between bad and worse.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I have heard about and thought about the pendulum concept in politics my whole life. But in recent years I have also found it somewhat unsatisfactory as an explanation of how political matters really work. The screw concept works much better and explains why statists seem to always gain control regardless of party.

Although I remained aloof from the whole tea party thing, I noted that staunch party-ists from both major parties detested the tea parties. They used different rhetoric, but the essential underlying message was that people were trying to exert power outside of the carefully crafted system where the two parties control everything and wield all power.

This sentiment sort of reminds me of a mob protectionist racket. If these tea party folks try to get serious about the matter, watch for them to get roughed up by the controlling powers in one way or another.

BTW, the neocons initially held little power in the GWB administration. In January 2001, the movers and shakers in the administration were 'realists' that were steeped in Brent Scowcroft-esque thinking. That continued until 9/12/2001. There was a massive conversion and neocons suddenly gained power at all levels of the administration.