Politics of Pure Meanness: Three New Lows in American Governance

Mar 22, 2011Bo Cutter

Shaping the future with today’s choices.

There is a standard Russian response to the question: How are things? Which is: "Worse than yesterday, better than tomorrow." That's roughly where I am. And let me be clear: I am not a Utopian. I think the glass now is 80% empty, not 20% full. I am well aware that in politics the inconceivably long-run is Friday and I think our politics is broken at both ends with a vacuum in the center.

But we have before us, occurring simultaneously, three new lows: Wisconsin, Congressman Peter King's anti-Muslim hearings, and the budget antics of the House Republicans. You know the details as well as I do. I want to extract and comment on a common element throughout each. I am even more pessimistic about what these episodes have in common than I am about the differing surface issues they involve.

Wisconsin: I mostly agree with the Republican Governor's budget stance and I am virtually certain we will see these same budget pressures play out in almost every state. But I am appalled at the mean-spiritedness the Governor and the Wisconsin Republicans have displayed toward the state's public employees unions. It is entirely possible to be ambivalent about public employees unions (FDR was ambivalent about public sector unions, though he was certainly not anti-union, as some have suggested) without trying to break them. And it would have been possible to say explicitly that all of the state's citizens were in this together. But this is not the path the Governor took. He did it out of "pure meanness," as we used to say in high school; he did it because he could.

Congressman Peter King: His hearings last week -- ostensibly to explore U.S. domestic Muslim radicalism -- were based on nothing and uncovered nothing. This is a time when our country ought to be pulling together, a time when one of the best things we could possibly do to counter terrorism would be to embrace our Muslim citizens as part of America's fabric. However, the Congressman chose to emulate some of the sorrier moments of American history. He did it out of pure meanness; he did it because he could.

House Republican Budget Antics: With a highly refined sense for the capillaries, the House Republicans are focusing on less than 10% of the budget to solve the whole problem. Moreover their "death by a thousand two week cuts" approach makes everything worse.

I believe -- as I have made clear -- that we have to change our debt and deficit trends. But we have to do this consistent with our economic health. We do, after all, have a close to 9% unemployment rate. And eventually we will have to look at everything -- new tax revenues, entitlements, and defense.

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But when we finish this we also have to have a strong and competent public sector. That is not the direction the House Republicans are taking. They are slashing wildly, taking out regulatory, oversight, and management budgets that might actually save money. There is not a scintilla of evidence that there is any actual thought here beyond a frenzied desire to hit a completely random number. As someone once said about a baseball player, "He can't hit, but on the other hand he can't field." In this case, these actions won't have any discernible effect on the deficit, but they will make a lot of programs worse. They are doing it out of pure meanness; they are doing it because they can.

The actual policies embedded or implied in these episodes are terrible. But what the episodes are saying about our whole system, and about where we are going, is worse. Think about "pure meanness," polarization, absence of compromise, and belief in magic.

Start with meanness. I've been in and around politics and government for almost 50 years. I have zero illusions about it. It is a hard game -- during my first White House experience, I was going through a very bad period and a friend said, "Shut up. This is the big leagues and they throw at your head." But at the same time, Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen had a drink together every evening. Tip O'Neil played poker and golf with Jerry Ford. They were opponents, not enemies. The sense you get today -- on the right and the left -- is that it is almost as if the two sides don't share the same country. In each of the three examples above, the winners are acting with a degree of sheer meanness that says they don't think the other side has any legitimate interests.

The meanness, however, is just a symptom of polarization. In fact, the two sides do not share the same country. For my breakfast seminar, The Next American Economy, I asked Bill Bishop, author of a great book "The Big Sort", to speak. We are sorting ourselves and segregating ourselves by lifestyle and ideology. At a national level, we are roughly equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, but at the local level the division is much more a series of 80-20 splits. As a result, when someone wins an election, the result is due to the 80, the 20 is irrelevant, and the winner does not feel the slightest compunction to acknowledge its existence. As a result, our congress is more divided than at any time in the last 100 years. And it is a very widely known aspect of group dynamics that homogeneity begets more homogeneity: like groups become more like and drive out the dissidents. That is very clearly happening with both the right and the left in America.

Which means, as an immediate consequence, that both sides think compromise is evil. The Tea Party movement enforced a rigid purity in 2010 -- ask former Republican senator Robert Bennett, a deeply conservative man with an unfortunate proclivity for civility and bipartisanship. The Democratic Party's left is much the same -- look at how Erskine Bowles has been treated. But there is not a single major problem in American life that can be solved from only one side of our political spectrum. For two reasons: first, the votes aren't there; and second, the real ideas aren't there. Both America's right and left are mired in orthodoxies that serve to prevent the emergence of new ideas.

And as a result we get a politics dominated by a profound attachment to magic, or more prosaically, to problem avoidance. If you are part of a polarized political system, if you believe that your opponents are enemies and compromise is evil, then unless you are irredeemably stupid, you also know that you aren't actually going to accomplish anything. So you turn to magic and/or problem avoidance. Congressman King invents enemies. The House Republicans choose "trophy" cuts -- zeroing in on NPR. The left simply denies that there is a debt/deficit issue. It would all be fun to watch, except I keep thinking that the universe may not wait while we keep playing these games.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team.

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