Policy tweaks failed us yesterday, and they won't save us today either.
There is a type of person interested in politics who restricts his concerns to policy. He may claim to be above the “distractions” of the culture war, which is just bloodsport for partisans. Our real focus, he will insist, should be figuring out legislative strategies to remedy the problems we face. Any discussion beyond tinkering with policy threatens to undermine the collaborative decision-making that is necessary to implement effective policy. Many who fit this type are intelligent but miss the whole picture.
These policy wonks are relics of the twentieth century when “normal democracy” still obtained. Normal democracy exists when certain preconditions for the proper function of democratic governance are met. There needs to be agreement between the government and the governed about what problems the nation faces and which classes of problems must be prioritized. Next, the majority of people who hold elected office must agree upon the stated rules and unstated conventions that set the procedural limits for political action. Further, upon the implementation of a new policy, there must be a common interest in making it work and a public belief that the new policy will endure. Finally, when these preconditions are not met, citizens must have the means to ensure that they are reestablished.
If the criteria for normal democracy aren’t met, there is no constructive use or role for the policy wonk. In times of democratic dysfunction, every policy concern, except those that immediately threaten the existence of the nation, must be subordinated to the urgent task of reestablishing normal democracy. Roughly since the turn of the century, America has not enjoyed the prerequisites for normal democracy. But our political class continues to chatter about this or that policy, which has allowed the dysfunction to metastasize. The longer that a state of democratic dysfunction endures, the harder it becomes to restore normal democracy. For these reasons, the policy wonk of 2022 is an unwitting agent working to compound the dysfunction. Arguing about how long of a waiting period we should enact for the purchase of firearms? How much to raise taxes? How to structure a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants? How to lower the cost of healthcare? All falsely comforting distractions, rewarding and reinforcing the self-important pretense of the policy wonks.
The criteria of normal democracy show us why policy-wonking is useless under the present circumstances. There is no obvious consensus today about what even constitutes a national problem, despite the perfect storm of indicators at home and abroad that basic governance and national integrity are breaking down.
Consider our foreign affairs. The war in Ukraine is a pressing problem from the perspective of the Biden administration. Still, no one has made a clear case to the public about exactly how this conflict, or the jumble of ways in which we are urged to intervene, are critical to American interests. The still more ominous prospect of war in Taiwan differs little in this regard: our elites show a deep hesitance to abandon Vladimir Putin as their all-purpose scapegoat in favor of Xi Jinping.
Matters are worse on our own shores. For roughly half of the nation, decades of de facto open borders have created urgent economic, cultural, educational, and political problems for the country. Nevertheless, there is almost no indication that leaders register the public exasperation about it. Officials on the political right complain about the millions of people entering the country illegally but do very little to stop it. Meanwhile, much of the Left sees the wave of illegal immigration as an unequivocal positive for the nation (even if they deny it is happening). With inflation and prices rising and everyday Americans feeling the pain, leaders in Congress and voices in the media congratulate Biden for presiding over one of the best economic periods in American history.
The situation shows that no shared understanding of the rules of politics exists anymore. When Democrats demanded action from Barack Obama to address the situation of the so-called “Dreamers” brought to the United States illegally as children, he rightly and repeatedly insisted that he couldn’t act without the approval of Congress on this matter. Then, using the “pen and phone” that he was so fond of, he conjured the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals into being all by himself. This usurpation of legislative power was later upheld by the courts.
During the Bush and Trump presidencies, Congressional Democrats frequently made enthusiastic use of the filibuster to block new policies. Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Chuck Schumer all insisted upon the inviolable role that the filibuster plays in government. But during Democratic presidencies, those same figures told us the filibuster was a racist perversion of democracy, with Harry Reid going so far as to change the rules in the Senate to allow for Democrats to slam through their policy preferences.
When Trump defeated Hillary in 2016, public figures on the left hysterically claimed that the election was illegitimate (as they did in 2000 and 2004). When Democratic activists stormed the Wisconsin Statehouse to protest then-governor Scott Walker’s union-busting, or when they infiltrated the U.S. Senate to bully senators in elevators into scuttling the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, we were told that this was “democracy in action.” But in 2020, when statistical anomalies across the country gave rise to Republican charges of manipulation and fraud, we were told that any such talk constituted an attack on “Our Democracy.” When the Supreme Court had a majority of Democrats we were told that the sanctity of the court must be affirmed, and that its judgments must be respected. But now, with the court’s ruling in Dobbs, elected Democrats insist that the court is illegitimate. They clamor to expand the court so that Biden can nominate as many judges to the bench as he deems necessary (apparently 4?) to ensure perpetual legal victory for the Left. Speaking overseas, the president himself asserts that the Supreme Court is a threat to the global order. Shortly thereafter, he issues an Executive Order blatantly undermining the court’s finding in Dobbs—an attack on the legitimacy of the coequal judicial branch.
There is no agreement on the rules and procedures governing policymaking in the nation. When the formal rules benefit the Left, those rules are said to be the very fabric of democracy—unyielding, good, and just. But when the rules are a hindrance to the implementation of leftist policies, they can be safely ignored (as in the case of states’ legalization of marijuana or the formal disregard of federal immigration law, as evidenced in “sanctuary cities”). In these cases, the established laws and procedures are subjected to an orchestrated attack by the media and elected officials, who lambast them as obsolete, misguided traditions or the residue of racism, sexism, or one phobia or another. The flexibility of the rules (which only seem to bend in one direction) ensures that any honest deliberation or negotiation of policy is impossible.
There is no broad agreement on what our problems are; increasingly, one ideological disposition celebrates the realities their opponents decry. We can’t even agree on basic features of reality like whether men can get pregnant. Under these conditions, it is impossible to establish any shared sense of which problems must be prioritized. Into the vacuum of actual politics that results, wonks rush in. The more idealistic still insist that discussing the finer points of policy is the best or only way to produce a meaningful consensus on ultimate questions of statecraft. What we have learned, instead, is the opposite: absent consensus, smart-set policy discourse only hurries us toward collapse.
When the state’s default position is that existing policy is legitimate, the public is convinced that new policies will endure. This encourages people to adjust to changes rather than wait for another election that will negate the previous administration’s policy. They recall that when Obama came into office, he immediately reversed a number of Executive Orders from the Bush era. When Obamacare was passed, half the states found ways to undermine the implementation of the new policy. When Trump was elected, he eliminated the Executive Orders of Obama. Even during the Trump presidency, agents of the government actively worked to undermine the policy of the administration, including shadow diplomacy to avert the elimination of the (illegal) Iran agreement. One of Biden’s major campaign promises was to undo as much of Trump’s policy as he could on “Day 1”. And so he did. When all the rules are malleable—and when an Executive Order suffices to make major policy changes that might be unachievable by formal procedural means—there is no reason to believe that policies will have any enduring claim. Citizens assume that whenever the opposing party reclaims the levers of government, every existing policy is subject to scrutiny, disregard, or reversal.
It is true that Americans still get to vote in federal elections every few years, but there are a number of factors that insulate the government from the impact of unfavorable electoral outcomes. The media focuses almost all of its election coverage on manipulating public opinion to produce an electoral advantage for their candidates of choice. Our election procedures have become so loose, unregulated, and partisan-controlled that there is widespread skepticism about the accuracy of ballot tallies. And all of this is to say nothing of the hordes of unelected bureaucrats who are responsible for the actual implementation of policy. As was dramatically illustrated during the Trump interregnum, the administrative state houses a highly-coordinated group of entrenched partisans who can easily ensure that any policy can fail.Even when a particular policy is instituted via traditional democratic procedures, the administrative state ultimately has sole discretion over whether it will be enacted in practice.
While citizens suffer amid this stew of dissembling and distraction, wonks, unaccountably, thrive. But not for long. There is no way to find consensus on which problems we face, nor on the matter of which ones are most pressing. Americans of all stripes are coming to believe that the constitutionally-sanctioned processes of governance can no longer limit autocratic power plays. The public is disabused of the notion that any particular policy will actually be consistently enforced or have any staying power. We share ever less reason to expect any political grievance to be resolved by electoral means. The policy-tweakers act as if they can avail themselves of this mess forever. But they are wonking on borrowed time.
If you are watching your house burn, you don’t sit on the lawn debating whether the driveway should be repaved, or about remodeling the bathroom or putting in a pool. You do everything you can to extinguish the fire and save the house. Translated into the political sphere, the one “policy” discussion that warrants our attention is how to put out the fire and re-establish the conditions of normal democracy. Once the kids are safe, the flames extinguished, the arsonists prosecuted, and the damaged portions rebuilt…well, then, and only then, can we compare swatches of carpet.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
The high cost of losing postmodern America’s political language games.