if the goal is civility, moderation may be the problem, not the solution

Senator Susan Collins writes, “in modern times, I have not seen the degree of bitter divisiveness and excessive partisanship now found in the Senate.” That is probably an accurate description of the Senate and the country as a whole. We have sorted ourselves by party and ideology and are hurling outrageous invective across lines of political division. That is bad, not because politics should be polite and warm-and-fuzzy, but because bitter rhetoric drives people out of public life, whether they are contemplating a run for office or simply trying to follow the news. The field is left to professional advocates and interest groups. Also, when we are sharply and angrily divided, we cannot understand each other or work together even when our interests and values do overlap.*

So I agree that the present state of discourse is bad, but I do not share Senator Collins’ view that ideological moderation (her own declared philosophy) is the solution. Congress is tangled in invective because Americans are angry. Americans are in an especially bad mood because the economy is terrible. When the economy is poor, trust and comity fall because people naturally develop a zero-sum, suspicious attitude toward institutions and toward one another. See Eric Uslaner, The Decline of Comity in Congress (1997) for evidence.

At least part of the solution must be to improve the economy. There are at least three leading prescriptions. The federal government could cut spending to balance the budget, cut taxes to stimulate investment, or borrow to subsidize state governments and stimulate demand. I must say that I find the third option much more plausible than the first two, but all have supporters.

What we are actually doing, instead, is the “moderate” thing. The stimulus package was an even mix of tax cuts, direct federal spending, and aid to states. The amount of the stimulus was capped at about 2 percent of annual GDP. Meanwhile, states are cutting their spending by comparable amounts. The net effect is very close to a wash. That doesn’t fit any coherent theory of macroeconomics, but it represents a compromise that Susan Collins and a few other Senate “moderates” voted for. If it was poor economics, then moderation contributed to the economic crisis and prolonged an important cause of incivility.

What’s more, because the bill was such a compromise, no one can see clearly what theory was tested. Many Americans believe that the administration just tried a radical, leftist strategy, which is certainly not true, but we didn’t try supply-side tax cutting either. We muddled through the middle, and the results speak for themselves.

    *Compare Federalist 60, in which James Madison criticizes Pennsylvania’s “Council of Censors” (which had met in 1783 and 1784) as overly partisan. He wrote: “Throughout the continuance of the council, it was split into two fixed and violent parties. … In all questions, however unimportant in themselves, or unconnected with each other, the same names stand invariably contrasted on their opposite columns. Every unbiased observer may infer … that, unfortunately, passion, not reason, must have presided over their decisions. When men exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them. When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same.”

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