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America's broken civic bargain

Oct 03,2023 - Last updated at Oct 03,2023


BERKELEY — Allow me to offer high praise for The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives, the new book by the independent scholar Brook Manville and Josiah Ober of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. While the entire book is well-written and insightful, its historical overview is a veritable treasure trove for anyone who wants to understand the events leading up to our experiment in self-government, the challenges encountered along the way (human nature being what it is), and the patterns that are most likely to be repeated in the future.

But then comes the question of what we should do now. This part of the book left me depressed and empty, with nothing constructive to say, because I agree with the authors’ big conclusion that democracies survive only when they are underpinned by civic friendship between their members.

Looking back to the Roman Republic before 150 BC, Plutarch observed that points of contention “though neither trifling nor raised for trifling objects, were settled by mutual concessions, the nobles yielding from fear of the multitude, and the people out of respect for the senate”. If only such a description applied to the United States today. Instead, one of our two main political parties, the Republican Party, has become so constituted that acknowledging the other party as a civic friend would be tantamount to its own ideological bankruptcy. To regard Democrats as anything other than alien mortal enemies is to hand in one’s GOP card, and for many party professionals, one’s livelihood. It simply cannot be done.

I date the start of this democratic decline to 1993, by which point the neoliberal (market-fundamentalist) Reagan Revolution had already failed in policy terms. In the 1994 midterm election, Newt Gingrich, then the House Minority Whip, concluded that since the Republicans could not campaign on policy successes, they would instead run on scorn and fear, of black people, “feminazis”, Mexicans, professors and other clever types, and anyone who had gotten rich the wrong way.

In the multiracial, multidenominational, pluralistic America of the late twentieth century, it was Gingrich who broke the democratic civic bargain of treating one’s political adversaries as fellow citizens in the expectation that they would do the same. In doing so, he secured an electoral victory for his party and the office of Speaker of the House for himself. Since then, whenever Republican activists, politicians, intellectuals and donors have faced the choice of continuing down the Gingrich path or returning to the high road, an overwhelming majority has opted for the former.

As for the failure of the Reagan Revolution, it played out across four dimensions. First, tax cuts for the rich and measures designed to prevent the poor from shirking their duties as labourers had not restored private-sector growth to post-war Golden Age levels, as had been promised. Second, the austerity policies used to clean up the mess from the Reagan administration’s 1981 budget blowout ultimately cut more public-sector muscle than fat, setting the stage for three decades of anemic public investments in infrastructure and research and development.

Third, the Reagan Revolution’s impact on the dollar and interest rates had unleashed a market-driven dismantling of America’s valuable Midwestern manufacturing, engineering and production complex. And fourth, there had been no moral recalibration of American society. On the contrary, rising wealth inequality and the rhetoric of the time had made the super-rich even more spiteful, and everyone else even more envious and resentful of them. Meanwhile, the authors of the Reagan Revolution had been taking credit for the successful end of the Cold War, even though they had merely been supportive bystanders.

This was the context in which Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential election. When those of us working for the new administration arrived in Washington, DC, in early 1993, we expected to meet Republicans eager and willing to undertake the kind of rethinking that the Democratic Party itself had undertaken in the 1970s after the collapse of the post-war New Deal order. When that did not happen, we placed our hopes in the idea that eight years of Clinton-Gore policies, characterised as “left neoliberalism”, “New Deal wolves in neoliberal sheep’s clothing”, or some other blend of old and new, would be so successful as to force the matter. But that did not happen, either.

Then George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election by a 5-4 vote at the Supreme Court, where the Republican-appointed justices in the majority showed no reservations about deciding an election in favor of the candidate who had received fewer overall votes.

In 2009, the cycle repeated itself. Democrats arriving in Washington to staff the new Obama administration expected to meet Republicans eager and willing to undertake the kind of rethinking that the Democratic Party had undertaken in the 1970s, but that did not happen. Even so, Barack Obama pursued an agenda that could be described as George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy combined with John McCain’s climate policy, Mitt Romney’s health-care policy, modest financial reforms, and another round of austerity, including threats to veto any spending increases that congressional Democrats proposed.

And how did Republicans respond? By doubling down on rhetoric to arouse scorn and fear of black people, “feminasis”, Mexicans, professors and other clever types, and anyone who had gotten rich the wrong way.

I worry that Manville and Ober are correct about what it takes for democracies to survive. You need a civic bargain, with everyone treating each other the way that most Democrats do: as civic friends. This means that even if you believe members of the other party are misguided or misinformed, you still regard them as fellow passengers on the same boat (or swimming in the same shipwreck, as the case may be).

America’s problem now is that Republicans have made this impossible for themselves. To foster such a sensibility would undermine the grifter ecology that the party has been marinating in for many years. That ecology depends on people keeping their wallets open and their eyeballs glued to the screen, where they receive a steady drip of fear and loathing of their fellow citizens. From state-level races all the way up to the Supreme Court, there is simply too much money at stake to allow for points of contention to be settled through mutual concessions.

Brooke Manville and Josiah Ober, “The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives”, Princeton University Press, 2023.


J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the author of “Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century” (Basic Books, 2022). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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