Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rip Van Winkle looks at Super PACs

Take a step back. If you hadn't grown acclimated to our current political environment, mightn't this strike you as a bulletin from a democracy in decline? 
GOP candidates are relying more on super PACs. "The Republican presidential candidates are running low on campaign cash as expensive primaries in states like Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania loom, leaving them increasingly reliant on a small group of supporters funneling millions of dollars in unlimited contributions into 'super PACs.'...Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Mr. Romney, spent more than $12 million in February, most of it on advertisements attacking his rivals as he battled in seven primaries and caucuses that month, according to campaign filings released on Tuesday. That followed close to $14 million in spending on Mr. Romney’s behalf in January." Nicholas Confessore in The New York Times.
I give Wonkbook's capsule, rather than select my own, just to capture that Rip Van Winkle moment when the full pathology of the new normal strikes.

We have a presumptive GOP nominee who seems to have finally reached the tipping point in a grueling process of proving to the GOP base that he can beat Obama by way of demonstration effect: look at the way I've buried my rivals, one by one, under tons of megadonor-financed negative ads (a lovely rebound of karma on Gingrich, but never mind).  We have one multibillionaire, Sheldon Adelson, reportedly ready to sink $100 million into putting the U.S. government in the pocket of Israeli imperialists. We have one major political party proposing a long-term budget that would cut taxes mainly for the wealthy by $2 trillion over ten years while cutting domestic spending by over $5 trillion in the wake of a 30-year explosion of income inequality.

In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama depicts the history of developed society largely as a series of struggles between strong sovereign states and elites, recounting several instances in which elites eventually breach the walls that sovereigns erect (successfully, for a time) to limit their influence. He fears that the U.S. may be approaching such a crossroads:
The United States seems increasingly caught in a dysfunctional political equilibrium, wherein everyone agrees on the necessity of addressing long-term fiscal issues, but powerful interest groups can block the spending cuts or tax increases necessary to close the gap. The design of the country’s institutions, with strong checks and balances, makes a solution harder. To this might be added an ideological rigidity that locks Americans into a certain range of solutions to their problems. In the face of these challenges, the United States is not likely to overtly repatrimonialize public office the way ancien rĂ©gime France did, but it does run the risk of coming up with short-term expedients that will delay but not avoid the final crisis, just as the French government did. Institutions initially appear (p. 482).
Fukuyama does, however, hold out that hope that "political accountability provides a peaceful path toward institutional adaptation" (p. 484). That happened in the U.S. in the 30s and early in the 20th century.  Whether we can manage the trick again remains an open question.

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