Matt Yglesias Abandons All Hope

Matt Yglesias of Vox gave up on American politics yesterday, declaring our democracy to be officially doomed. No, this is not the set-up to an elaborate joke about Matt Yglesias; the title of the article is “American Democracy Is Doomed.”

"Never mind guys, pack it in. The entire plan is doomed anyway, apparently a black guy is president like 250 years from now."

“Never mind guys, pack it in. The entire plan is screwed anyway, apparently a black guy is president like 250 years from now.”

It’s worth a read because Yglesias makes a number of great points despite coming to the likely wrong conclusion that our constitutional order will collapse. For example, he notes that despite our sunny view of the past, polarization is as American as drive-though apple pies. The relative political consensus of the mid-20th century was an aberration, arising from the unholy alliance of segregationists and northern liberals within the Democratic Party and masking deep ideological divisions among members of both parties. Yglesias also points out that, unlike past periods of polarization, both parties are divided over sincere policy disagreements rather than the division of spoils:

[W]hile Gilded Age members of Congress voted in a highly partisan way, their voting didn’t reflect any polarization of ideas evident in broader American society. As Charles Calhoun, a leading scholar of Gilded Age politics has written, the main concern of actual members of Congress was not policy, but “patronage power, the privilege of placing one’s political friends and supporters in subordinate offices.”

Yglesias worries that our presidential system of government, where Congress and the President can have individual mandates to enact different policies but fundamentally disagree, is vulnerable to a number of political shocks. He’s right that our system leads to gridlock, but I think he underestimates its resiliency – based as much on our economic and military strength as the mechanics of our government. He compares our present moment to the years immediately prior to the Civil War, but certainly the “constitutional hardball” that President Obama and congressional Republicans engage in pales in comparison to the prospect of armed rebellion. There have been filibusters, yes, but no John Brown copycats. Kansas is bleeding revenues, not men. Much of the constant carping about political crises reflects Beltway myopia.

One thing that Yglesias doesn’t account for is the possibility that a new ideological configuration could emerge that disrupts the current two-party system and ameliorates the root causes of gridlock. Another possibility is that odd-couple political pairings, like the one between the Center for American Progress and The Koch Institute, give politicians cover to support bipartisan reforms that benefit two ideologically disparate groups. The only thing for sure is that trying to make ironclad predictions about dynamic systems is easier said that done. That, and that picking a fight with Matt Yglesias on the Internet is a growth industry.