The latest political happenings—the rise of Donald Trump, John Boehner’s surprise resignation as speaker of the House of Representatives, Hillary Clinton’s slide against the septuagenarian socialist Bernie Sanders—remind me of a verse from the old Rolling Stones song “Jigsaw Puzzle”:
Oh, there’s twenty-thousand grandmas.
Wave their hankies in the air.
All burning up their pensions
And shouting, “It’s not fair!”
There’s a regiment of soldiers
Standing looking on.
And the queen is bravely shouting,
“What the hell is going on?”
Like the queen in the song, the Beltway class is watching the voters back home with self-righteous bemusement, wondering: Why are all these once-quiescent voters suddenly having such a fit? They used to be so well behaved, and we took good care of them to boot.
Those hoping for the storm to blow over must be disappointed by now. Our system of government was deliberately designed to make it difficult to effect change. Fads in public opinion usually peter out before our system ever acts on them. So when discontent is wide and deep enough to cashier a speaker of the House, it is past time to pay serious attention to the public mood.
According to the polls, people have been unhappy with the course of government policy for over a decade. In just one federal election of the last five (2012) have they voted for the president’s party. Instead, voters regularly direct their fury at whichever party has the misfortune of being in charge. We have not seen such sustained dissatisfaction since public opinion polling began. In fact, we’d have to travel back to the 1890s to discover so prolonged a bout of electoral distemper.
Such deep and abiding frustration must be distinguished from the nastiness and hyperbole typical of politics. The quest for office is intense, so politicians often have an incentive to inflame the passions of constituencies that oppose each other for economic, cultural, or social reasons. But there is often a broad, underlying consensus that delimits the options policymakers may pursue.
For instance, it is hard to find a nastier campaign than Harry Truman’s in 1948. He went so far as to compare his opponent, the mild-mannered Thomas Dewey, to Adolf Hitler. But was the distance between Truman and Dewey really that great? The Republican party had, by then, abandoned most of its opposition to the New Deal (at least those parts not overturned by the courts) and disavowed isolationism and protectionism. The Democrats, meanwhile, had cast out the Communists and were in the process of doing likewise to the segregationists. There were genuine disagreements, like the intense fight over national labor policy. Still, a robust political-economic consensus underlay broad areas of policy over which the two parties were not fighting.
Contrast that with 1860. The only issue of importance was slavery, and party positions ran the gamut. The Republicans called for confining slavery to its existing domain, while the Southern Democrats endorsed the nationwide slavocracy envisioned by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott. This substantial divergence was a signal that the consensus that had more or less governed the national attitude toward slavery since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had broken down.
In our time, the political-economic consensus has been fixed roughly since the end of World War II, with important modifications during the Johnson and Reagan administrations. Both sides basically aver that the government should take a role in promoting economic growth to benefit most Americans. This implies broad agreement on the need for federal management of the economy, its regulation for noneconomic purposes (such as the environment or consumer health), and the distribution of social welfare to those who get left behind. Methodologically, this consensus presumes an abiding faith in the capacity of experts to calibrate policies to meet the demands of the day, an experienced cadre of officeholders to implement such policies over the long haul, and political professionals to communicate the agenda to the public.