We’re Going to Miss Greed and Cynicism
It’s 2023. What will the new year bring? The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. There are a fair number of what Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) called “known unknowns” — for example, nobody really knows how hard it will be to reduce inflation or whether the U.S. economy will experience a recession. There are also unknown unknowns: Will we see another shock like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
But I think I can make one safe prediction about the U.S. political scene: We’re going to spend much of 2023 feeling nostalgic for the good old days of greed and cynicism.
As late as 2015, or so I and many others thought, we had a fairly good idea about how American politics worked. It wasn’t pretty, but it seemed comprehensible.
On one side we had the Democrats, who were and still are basically what people in other advanced nations call social democrats (which isn’t at all the same as what most people call socialism). That is, they favor a fairly strong social safety net, supported by relatively high taxes on the affluent. They’ve moved somewhat to the left over the years, mainly because the gradual exit of the few remaining conservative Democrats has made the party’s social-democratic orientation more consistent. But by international standards, Democrats are, at most, vaguely center left.
On the other side we had the Republicans, whose overriding goal was to keep taxes low and social programs small. Many advocates of that agenda did so in the sincere belief that it would be best for everyone — that high taxes reduce incentives to create jobs and raise productivity, as do excessively generous benefits. But the core of the G.O.P.’s financial support (not to mention that of the penumbra of think tanks, foundations and lobbying groups that promoted its ideology) came from billionaires who wanted to preserve and increase their wealth.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Democrats were pure idealists. Special-interest money flowed to both parties. But of the two, Republicans were much more obviously the party of making the rich richer.
The problem for Republicans was that their economic agenda was inherently unpopular. Voters consistently tell pollsters that corporations and the rich pay too little in taxes; policies that help the poor and the middle class have broad public support. How, then, could the G.O.P. win elections?
The answer, most famously described in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book “