Pastiche Without Purpose: Democrats and the Politics of Debt

31 Aug

In a fantastic post yesterday, Corey Robin tracks the ideological twists and turns that transformed the Republican Party from the Eisenhower-era budget balancers into the contemporary tax-cutting, war-mongering, deficit spending “reactionary Keynesians.” Though primarily an analysis of Republicans, the auxiliary theme of the post is that the contemporary Democrats filled the void with their Clinton-era surpluses and their increasing ideological investment in presenting themselves as the party of responsible government.

How are we to understand the rise of Democratic Mugwumpery? Though one might look to the rise of neo-Keynesian theories of monetary and fiscal policy and Stiglitz’s view as Chair of Clinton’s Council of Economic advisors that balanced-budget stimulus was the key to growth, or more sociologically to the decline of organized labor and the decline of social democratic elements in the Democratic Party, we think it is worth noting something specific about the politics of deficit-spending. Big-time deficit spending requires convincing the public that the risk and potential sacrifice is worth it, that there is a specific and significant collective purpose at stake. But the Democrats are most definitely a party without a purpose. Their Mugwumpish attachment to reasonability, living within one’s means, and good government is a substitute for purpose – it is a way of giving the appearance of principled government in the absence of principles.

Consider, for instance, the fact that Republicans have become the big deficit-spenders. Robin notes that the Republican strategy of “starving the beast” by cutting taxes and hoping that spending will be reduced down to new revenue levels has only recently been successful. But as the now familiar graph shows the other major component of the recent growth in deficits has been war.

Republicans get to deficit spend not just because their side will sign-up happily to tax-cuts, but because their constituents believe big-time in war. And war costs a lot. Republicans will “sacrifice” themselves and future generations in the name of fighting a war. Now the Dems are into war too, though not quite like the Republicans. But the Dems can’t quite convince their members that the party should spend money on any other big projects – in fact, they no longer believe it themselves. Democratic spending is buried in the indirect incentive changes and obscure tweaks of the tax codes. But there is no ideal or purpose important enough that people are willing to say “screw it, we’ll come up with the money somehow – the sweat of our brow tomorrow, for the debts we incur today.” Revenue neutrality, offsets, CBO estimates – those are the buzzwords of Democratic fiscal policy. The dull, mind-numbing repetition of wonkspeak is not just a policy program, it is a totemic incantation, hoping to making something real out of the apparition of a party without projects.

Of course, the Democrats have in some sense always been a pragmatic, catch-all party. But the contemporary party is not the modern party. The modern Democratic Party was an extremely conflicted not-quite-fusion of progressive labor and Southern white racism. The rebellious North and Midwest jostling with the Solid South, lefties next to supremacists. During that period of its existence, its moderation was the product of resolving deep ideological contradictions inside the party – they kind of canceled out, or lead to spasms in both directions. Moreover, the Democratic Party had the political role of absorbing, co-opting and fragmenting actual left-wing tendencies in American politics. And one thing that came out of all that, from FDR to LBJ, was a kind of deformed welfare-state project.

Now, the Democratic Party is a mere pastiche without purpose. Republicans absorbed the racists and some conservative white workers just at the point that organized labor was weakening and Keynesianism dealt a series of blows by the fiscal crisis of the state. With no welfarist project, maintained by a contingent set of historical forces, what is left? The project of responsible government, of taxing mainly for the purpose of balancing budgets. Unlike with Eisenhower and Clinton, not even the economic situation nominally supports the push for balanced budgets – bond prices are at historic lows, and investors greet S&P downgrades not by pushing up yields but by gobbling up yet more T-bills. Even the Buffet Rule is not so much an invocation of a principle of social justice as it is an acknowledgement of indecency in the tax code. Only the party of Romney-Ryan can make that elemental act Mugwumpery look like more than what it is – an empty, election year gesture.

4 Responses to “Pastiche Without Purpose: Democrats and the Politics of Debt”

  1. David Kaib August 31, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    “But the Dems can’t quite convince their members that the party should spend money on any other big projects – in fact, they no longer believe it themselves.”

    I actually think the problem is themselves and not their members. The embrace of deficit hawkism is an elite driven affair. Neoliberalism and the submerged state aren’t just tactical moves but ideological ones. When spending is framed as worthwhile on its own terms, Democratic and Democratic leaning voters will support it. What they don’t want, I think, is spending for spending’s sake. Those voters do believe in something, even if their representatives do not.

    • Ralph Haygood October 2, 2012 at 5:20 am #

      I suspect so. I don’t have the data I would need to say for sure, but I recurrently get the sense that most ordinary Democrats still believe in the “welfarist project,” much more so than many Democratic leaders. Certainly, deficit hawkism is a mania of the Very Serious People (as Paul Krugman calls them); even after all the fear-mongering the VSPs have subjected us to, most ordinary Democrats consider “reducing the federal budget deficit” less important than “making healthcare available and affordable,” “ensuring the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare,” and “improving the nation’s public schools,” among other concerns as phrased by Gallup (

      I’ll even be so reckless as to suggest a partial explanation. I suspect a major problem with many Democratic leaders is that they’ve accepted the Republican interpretation of the 1980 election, namely, that it was a forceful repudiation of “big government.” But it wasn’t. The economy was lousy, and Carter was widely regarded as ineffectual. So Reagan was able to win, despite having been widely regarded as too radical just four years earlier. To be sure, this isn’t the whole story of the “pastiche without purpose,” but bracketed by the losses of Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis, the 1980 election is a trauma from which the Democratic leadership still hasn’t fully recovered.


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    […] Alex Gourevitch offers a fascinating take on the incoherence of the Democrats’ austerian position: […]

  2. » Blog Archive » Eisenhower Democrats - May 3, 2018

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