Two Books About Government and Partisan Nonsense

From a Wall Street Journal story by Barton Swaim headlined “Political Partisans Left, Right, and Center”:

Alice M. Rivlin, who died in 2019 at the age of 88, was a liberal economist and an accomplished public servant. She ran the Congressional Budget Office (she was its first director) and the Office of Management and Budget, and in the late 1990s served as vice chair of the Federal Reserve. She was also “a partisan Democrat calling for more bipartisanship,” as her admiring son and daughter- in-law point out in the preface to her last and posthumously published book, “Divided We Fall: Why Consensus Matters.”

That is an attractive premise, but it is undercut by the book’s repeated contention that Republicans were and are the chief cause of incivility and dysfunction in Washington. Rivlin includes a long chapter purporting to explain the origins of the GOP’s present-day antidemocratic and authoritarian demeanor.

Devoted readers of the New York Times will not need to be persuaded of her thesis, but I find it risible. The “George Wallace faction”—that is, the Southern Democrats who migrated to the GOP in the 1970s—has taken over the Republican Party, in Rivlin’s view. It is, she writes in a confusing series of negatives, “not clear whether the Republicans who do not define themselves as racists and who believe in democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law will continue to support the party if it opposes these values.” In other words: Republicans are basically all racists.

Ah, the sweet sounds of comity and bipartisanship!

Also preposterous, in my view, is Rivlin’s contention that this George Wallace faction has “proven far more effective in moving the Republican Party to the right than the progressives have been in moving the Democrats away from the center to the left.” It’s true, as she says, that “the willingness of the Tea Party to see budget negotiations fail, and even the government fail, finds no parallel on the left”—although it’s equally true that the willingness to stage sit-ins in the House of Representatives, for example, or to destroy the lives of Supreme Court nominees, finds no parallel on the right. But these are tactics, not policies. On matters of policy, with the exception of immigration (on which Republicans moved right) and trade (on which they moved left), Republicans haven’t changed much in 40 years. Large segments of the Democratic Party, by contrast, now hold views almost nobody seriously considered a decade or two ago: special laws on transgender rights, Medicare for All, decriminalization of illegal immigration, racial reparations, “free” college tuition, and on and on. These views are to the left of yesterday’s left-wing views.

Republicans have behaved abysmally at certain times, to be sure, and I am open to reasonable counterarguments on this subject; but not from a writer who sprinkles her discussion with—let us call them—uncharitable inaccuracies. She remembers, for example, her shock that “Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell would say his goal was to see President Obama fail and become a one-term president.” Mr. McConnell did say, in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, that he wanted Mr. Obama to be a one-term president—as gentle an expression of political opposition as I have ever heard. But he then went on specifically to say, “I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”

Feigned outrage is its own kind of incivility.

Throughout her long career, to her great credit, Rivlin warned against the dangers of runaway government debt. Her recollections of attempts in the 2010s to find a grand compromise on controlling the ratio of debt to GDP are valuable as expressions of orthodox Keynesian fiscal policy. Her narration of budget fights in the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama presidencies is, as I see it, highly selective and accepts all the debatable premises of Rivlin’s own economic philosophy; but a moderately informed student of economics will gain an understanding of the presuppositions and foolish behavior that have given us permanent billion-dollar deficits.

The book’s most revealing moment comes in the preface by Sheri and Allan Rivlin. “Alice was always calling for a reduction in partisan blaming,” they write, “but she was not asserting that both sides are equally to blame for increasingly dysfunctional partisanship.” There is, they suggest, “an asymmetry built into budget negotiations.” The asymmetry they speak of: Democrats are “pro-government” and Republican are “anti-government.” Democrats, they continue, “need negotiations to succeed to maintain basic governmental functions (passing budgets to keep the government open, avoiding a default on the national debt) while Republicans are more willing to see negotiations fail, causing harm to the public they represent but reinforcing their assertion that government cannot do anything right.”

The statement perfectly captures elite liberals’ view of themselves and their opponents. Democrats simply want to “maintain basic governmental functions,” a goal so innocuous only a monster could question it. Whereas Republicans, by the nature of their political outlook, are inclined to negotiate in bad faith and deliberately “harm” their constituents. The possibility that restive Republicans were acting on principle rather than cynical self-interest and/or stupidity is nowhere suggested in “Divided We Fall,” a book about bipartisanship.

Paul W. Kahn’s “Democracy in Our America: Can We Still Govern Ourselves?” offers a similarly unifying message while undercutting it with partisan nonsense. The book’s overarching argument, borrowed from Alexis de Tocqueville, is that a society’s capacity for self-government depends on the spirit of volunteerism. Mr. Kahn, a law professor at Yale, draws on his experiences living in Killingworth, Conn., for the past 25 years.

I sympathize with Mr. Kahn’s unhappiness about the decline of voluntary participation in society’s mediating institutions (churches, sports leagues, clubs and so on) and the emergence of mass social isolation. It’s a well-worn theme, having been foregrounded in the work of Peter Berger and others in the 1970s and ’80s and popularized in Robert Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone,” but Mr. Kahn’s application of it to the town of Killingworth has moments of poignancy.

Some of Mr. Kahn’s observations strike me as predictable. I have seen social media blamed for incivility so often that, obvious as it seems, I am tempted to believe the opposite. Also predictable are his protests that federal social welfare policy bears no blame for the pathologies he describes.

But what finally unmakes “Democracy in Our America” is its author’s unaccountable need to signal an unrelenting and, in my view, maniacal hatred of Donald Trump. Never have I read a more comprehensive collection of indictments, many of them citing innuendo-laden hyperpartisan media accounts, than I encountered in this book’s first chapter, “A Constitutional Coup.” A sentence taken at random: “We do not really know whether 2016 was an ordinary election or an attack by a foreign power.”

Mr. Trump’s election, in this account, is supposed to mark the onset of a quasidictatorship over an atomized and helpless citizenry. Which to this reader sounds like a certain law professor has spent a bit too much time on the internet.

Barton Swaim is an editorial-page writer for the Wall Street Journal.

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