Francis Fukuyama: Walter, let’s do a broader analysis rather than a blow-by-blow of the upcoming election. Nobody seems to be happy with the nature of the American system right now, whether on the Left or the Right. One of the big, fundamental questions is, what are the real sources of dysfunction? I’ll define “dysfunction” simply as the inability of our political system to make any tough choices. Whether you think we need a smaller government or think we should fix the larger government and expand it, neither of those directions is being pursued. And I would almost guarantee that, regardless of the results in November, a solution will not be forthcoming afterward. This will not prove to be one of those realigning elections that turn the country onto a different course.
I’ll also add that we all recognize that the long-term, unsustainable fiscal mess we’re in is the central problem right now, and that it’s gone unaddressed due to the polarization that has paralyzed the political system. My colleague at Stanford, Mo Fiorina, has argued that the problem doesn’t lie with American society, which is not terribly polarized on many issues; rather, it plagues the political class, by which he means the media, professional politicians, pundits and anyone who participates in the larger system as an activist, like an employee of a lobbying group for an NGO or logging corporation. He therefore thinks the problem lies in the system rather than the society.
You could pick another source of dysfunction that has to do with neither the society nor the political system: We’ve primarily been driven by the unanticipated and not well-understood exigencies of advancing technology and globalization, which have given us fits by making usual ways of doing business obsolete. So I’m wondering about your views on this. What do you see as the fundamentals of our current problems?
Walter Russell Mead: Frank, I would go with the explanation that the American political system is having a rough time because the country is having a rough time. That is, these transformational changes and the social and economic changes that accompany them, are posing budget questions we don’t know the answers to. I think our society is in the process of moving from what you might call a late-stage industrial society to an early-stage informational society. No other society has done this before, so it’s no surprise that we don’t quite know how to do it yet.
If I were looking for periods in American history to which I could compare this, I would point to the years between the Civil War and, say, 1900. At that time, as today, Americans experienced growing inequality and bitter cultural and regional wars. The Gilded Age produced a very corrupt and dysfunctional political system. The financial markets then were tumultuous, and a small group of people made enormous fortunes by learning to harness and manipulate the new system. If you look at people like Rockefeller and Carnegie, their wealth as a percentage of GDP was higher than that of today’s plutocrats.
This transition angered many people, and the social institutions and ideas that came from an earlier period lost influence. But there was no cultural physician one could go to in order to learn how to bring health to this new kind of society. I think our situation today is analogous to that time.
FF: I agree with that. That period, up until the first decade of the 20th century, is comparable to our time in many ways, particularly the rising inequality. The other element was the inability, up until the election of 1896, of the political establishment to make up its mind about what to do, because control of Congress turned around about every two years between Republicans and Democrats in the years prior to that. It was only the big Republican victory in 1896—which gave the GOP majorities in both the Senate and the House and put William McKinley in the White House—that created a basis for the Progressive Era to congeal and in time provide the country with a new set of institutions.
What strikes me, though, about that analogy is that I don’t see a realignment coming. Obama thought that the 2008 election marked such a realignment, but he was swiftly disabused of that idea when the healthcare initiative that was supposed to be its main ratification turned out to be incredibly controversial. Do you see a realignment in the works, where the country wakes up and agrees to go either with the big government solution, the small government solution, or some new government solution? I don’t see it anywhere.
WRM: No, I don’t see a quick answer coming, and certainly not this November. Looking back at the Gilded Age, we had a political system nearly as bad as it’s possible for a political system to be, yet amazing things were happening in the country. For instance, there was the Victorian equivalent of the internet—railroads and telegraph lines and the beginnings of telephones—and all sorts of related revolutions in retail and distribution. The American middle class of the Civil War period was defined as owner-occupied farms. The majority lived and worked on family farms and achieved a standard of living that was the envy of the world. But by the 1890s, the industrialization of agriculture and falling food prices relative to other goods were destroying the economic foundation of the American middle class. That problem, however, couldn’t have been answered by a policy initiative, because the industrial economy wasn’t yet big enough in the 1870s or even the 1880s to absorb those people. So these transitional historical periods have to be suffered through, it seems, and the way forward generally is not to place a group of wise people at the helm of government and set a course. Rather, changes in society itself create conditions from which a path forward gradually emerges.
It’s interesting, for instance, that Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson hated each other as individuals but had a lot in common in how they wanted to steer the country. Perhaps as we get ourselves to a stage where the answers begin to appear, some of the partisan rancor and polarization may gradually leach out of the system.
FF: I hope so. If you look back at that period, the premonitions of what was to come were there. For example, with the transition into an industrial economy and with the growth of the railroads we suddenly had a national system that could no longer be effectively regulated at the state level. So the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), the first national regulator, was born to prevent beggar-thy-neighbor behavior among the states. I think the American healthcare system today is a little bit like the railroads during the 1880s: a patchwork, in each state a different policy. Like today, there was a need then for a national policy, but society’s inherent anti-statism and the courts at the time resisted a greater exercise of Federal power. Had the Supreme Court struck down the core of Obamacare I would have had a great time writing about precedents from the 1890s of opposition to various ICC decisions, since the courts at the time denied the Federal government that kind of authority.
Where I get stuck, though, is the way forward. By 1883, you already had the growth of a different kind of national government. Society was organizing to end patronage and professionalize the civil service. Today, though, I doubt we can solve many of our problems at the national level because so many of them stem from our interaction with the global economy. And at the global level it’s obvious, I think, that institutional reform is far more difficult than the reform of institutions at a national level. You say that glimmers of a solution will become evident, but just how, for example, we can harness technology to make the government deliver services more effectively is not obvious to me.
WRM: I think the transformation this time around is more complicated and far-reaching even than the Gilded Age transformation. The nature of change itself is becoming bigger, deeper, harder to fathom. We’ve got more resources now, politically and even economically, but history has sent us a much harder problem.
I do see some green shoots. This week I was going crazy because I finally figured out that my car registration expired. Twenty years ago this would have been an agonizing problem, involving multiple trips to the DMV and possibly having to take the car off the road while the paperwork was being processed. But I was able to download the temporary registration certificate and do the whole thing online. So there’s a sense—even in a state like New York, which isn’t notorious for being on the cutting edge of innovation and reform—that government is adapting. More internet-based transactions and fewer wrangles with the angry lady behind the counter represent, in my book, a real step forward.
FF: My experience with the California DMV has been positive, too, but getting your car squared away is child’s play compared, say, to dealing with the completely unsustainable path we’re on with regard to healthcare costs. So much of the expenditure effectively goes toward keeping people who are 85 or ninety alive for another six months. We’re going to bankrupt ourselves if government continues funding this level and kind of services. But changing course requires extremely difficult political decisions about rationing healthcare at the end of life. When I think about the “death panels” fracas, and how both parties were so eager to launch demagogic attacks on the subject, I don’t see how we solve this. I don’t think technology will help us much, because this is a deeply political choice that must be made.
WRM: Well, still, if I compare where we are now to where we were twenty years ago, I see a lot of good movement in this area. It’s not that people welcome the idea of the government or some outside group telling you or your grandma what to do, but when you talk to older people you don’t hear many of them saying, “I want to be hooked up to tubes until the last possible second, no matter how much pain I’m in or what I’m putting everyone else through.” You usually hear them say instead something to the effect, “I know death is coming, and I hope to die in a way that’s consonant with how I lived and the values I expressed.”
FF: That seems like wishful thinking to me. When I was on the President’s Bioethics Council in the early 2000s, we spent a lot of time on these end-of-life and caregiving questions. People will say they don’t want a certain kind of invasive care and would choose to terminate it earlier if given the option, but they say that when they’re relatively young and healthy. When the crucial moment comes, almost no one makes that choice; nor do the family members, who don’t want to live with the burden of having pulled the plug. The institutions don’t want to make that choice either, because they don’t want to be blamed for the outcome. So I don’t think this problem will be solved simply by society changing its norms and embracing a more mature acceptance of death.
WRM: Well, polling on these questions may be scarce or unreliable given the emotional difficulty, but I do see many family members and friends making the decision to forgo intensive care after a certain point. We also see a lot of growth in hospice care; it’s a much bigger industry than it used to be. Changes in healthcare technology and delivery systems can also make the system less unaffordable. And if we can get a solution to those things, then almost everything else we’re looking at in terms of deficits becomes much more manageable.
FF: Getting solutions won’t be easy for political reasons, I suspect. To continue with healthcare for a moment, one of the central cost-drivers is the fee-for-service model, which makes for a tremendous overprescription of testing and procedures and the like, because doctors and hospitals make money off of it. But it’s almost impossible to bring up in Congress any proposal to restrict or somehow channel fee-for-service, because all the entrenched interest groups are committed to that particular model.
The larger question here, of course, is plutocracy. Wealth brings political influence. Any honest reading of history testifies to the phenomenon of sclerotic political systems in which the already rich and powerful get hold of the system in order to protect their positions. You can multiply this through the entire American economy. It’s not necessarily a partisan issue, because on the Left there are also powerful interest groups, like public-sector unions and trial lawyers, that have an effective veto over changes to public policy. But corporate America has most of the money, and most of the distortions in the tax code come from there. My perception is that you’re not as exercised about this issue as some are, but it seems to be an issue we’re completely incapable of addressing. Take the Supreme Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo (forget about Citizens United; this has been a position of the Court since the 1970s): This decision amounts to the notion that you can’t restrict money in politics because of the First Amendment. I would be interested in your views on this.
WRM: I think that a lot of the problems in our political system now are the result of failed campaign finance reforms from the past, and other failed reforms that have dismantled party structures and have essentially turned every candidate into a fund-seeking missile. This has shifted power away from organizations and structures that were at least nominally accountable to voters and put it into the hands of interest groups and individuals.
I’d like to have a conversation about campaign finance involving three smart people: a really good political operative, a really good campaign finance reform advocate, and a really good constitutional lawyer. I’d want the advocate to give us a proposal; the operative to tell us whether it really would dilute the influence of money in politics; and then the lawyer could tell us whether it’s possible. My guess is that the intersection of the three gives you a null set. There isn’t anything substantive that could constitutionally be done that would really change the way hacks make politics run.
FF: Yes, but the key word there is “constitutional.” The way our courts have interpreted the Constitution makes it correct to say there’s nothing that can be done. In other democratic countries, however, few suffer from an electoral process that is as out of control as ours is right now. Just consider the amount of time candidates spend campaigning to be President: at least two years, and more than that in many cases. In Japan and Britain there’s a six-week campaigning window, and that’s it. I think there are some institutional fixes that would be relatively simple were it not for this constitutional straitjacket we’ve gotten ourselves into, a straitjacket tightened considerably by the moneyed interests that want to keep things as they are.
WRM: I think we’re going to adopt the metric system before we ever revise the First Amendment, or our basic interpretations of it. That’s one reason, Frank, I may seem less exercised about this. It’s the serenity prayer: This is one of those things I need to learn to accept so I can start thinking instead about the things I can change.
FF: Well, you’ve already accepted the fact that you’re going to die, which is an important coming to terms with a difficult issue, and now you’ve accepted the fact that we can’t fix money in politics.
WRM: At least not through this sort of strategy. I think some things can be done. One reason I advocate, for example, breaking up states like California into smaller units is that they’ve grown to such a degree that their size magnifies the role of money in politics and minimizes the combined grassroots clout of individuals. To run on a statewide campaign in California, you have to raise insane amounts of money. And because the state is so diverse, and because the different parts of the state have so little in common culturally and historically, media and impressions based on political ads often dominate the way that politics goes. Just consider: The constitution was developed for a country with about three million inhabitants, and perhaps only about a tenth of those could vote. The city of Los Angeles alone is larger today than the entire United States was then. I think federalism works, but there are places where the states have gotten so gargantuan that money takes over politics and people live in districts where their ability to change things has eroded. I think there are fixes that don’t require changes in the First Amendment.
FF: When I moved from Virginia, a swing state, to California two years ago I was effectively disenfranchised. If you actually break California up into four or five smaller units—which I’d be perfectly happy to see happen—you would then have a permanent Democratic majority, certainly in the Senate. But the general point is right, that the political system there is completely out of control. It was created in the early 20th century in order to get around the influence of railroad interests in the state legislature. The whole idea was that citizens should be able to mobilize to counter these special interests. But what’s happened, given the size of the state and the amount of money needed to mount a referendum campaign, is that it has become completely professionalized and taken over by consulting firms that do nothing but hatch ballot initiatives. There are highly automated procedures for collecting the necessary number of signatures, and of course they’re only won by massive television advertising campaigns. It’s also striking that a 50 percent vote on the initiative—which does not represent 50 percent of voters—can put in place a measure that can only be undone by a two-thirds vote in the legislature. That’s an interesting theory of democracy, in which a minority can bind a super-majority.
WRM: Right. Once you have a political system that doesn’t fit the population, things start going wrong and start adding up. I can think of another change that might help, too. In the old days, every ten years when we did the census reapportionment, the size of the House would increase to match population growth. This meant that district boundaries changed less from census to census. If we can get back to that and permit a slightly greater population differential among districts in order to maintain those boundaries, politicians will need more than media appeal. They’ll need to have people at the grassroots level invest in them and build grassroots support in their district.
FF: Don’t get me started on redistricting. One of the bad outcomes of the Supreme Court decision that required decennial redistricting is that the authority for it was handed over to the political parties. Of course, they redistrict in a way that ensures their hold on power. A lot of the increasing homogeneity of the parties and the fact that they overlap very little is that there are very few House districts that are competitive anymore. That’s not an accident. Having just dumped on California’s referendum system, I’ll note one interesting example that may actually do some good. Redistricting power was taken away from the state legislature and given not to a bipartisan, but to a strictly non-partisan, committee, which has been slicing up districts deliberately to make them more heterogeneous. The hope is that more Congressmen will have to appeal to a wider variety of constituents. None of the political consultants know how this will play out, but this year’s election is the first under this new system. In general, though, more states ought to hand over redistricting to some independent group rather than let the incumbents use it to feather their own nests.
WRM: That makes perfect sense. I also think increasing the size of the House with the census may be a good thing if it allows us to keep districts as small as possible. That way voters have more of a sense that they can influence the choices of their representatives. There’s a trend where all layers of government are getting further removed from the people. Not only do you get a political class that floats above people and is less connected to them, but also the power of money is magnified. The more politicians are dealing with “the masses”, and the less with groups of voters making decisions about issues they know a lot about, the nastier and messier politics gets—and the more powerful money is.
At the state level, I’m a great believer in getting rid of bicameral legislatures and having larger Houses of Representatives with smaller districts whose boundaries don’t change much. What I’m saying, Frank, is that given the constitutional roadblock, there are other ways to deal with money in politics—not to ban money from politics, but rather to nurture counterforces like public opinion and grassroots organizations.
FF: Another possible change that wouldn’t require constitutional modification is for a large group of states to agree to move to proportional allocation of electoral votes. The current system, in which votes are allocated on a winner-take-all basis, means that only six states actually matter in a presidential election, like Ohio and Virginia, and everyone else is disenfranchised. But no single state will unilaterally do this. It would make no sense for, say, the Democratic majority in California to agree to proportional allocation because it would simply hand over a third of their votes to the Republicans. It would have to be a package deal, one in which all or nearly all fifty states agree to act together. Even if that were possible, would it decrease the role of money in American politics? I don’t know.
WRM: I like the idea of keeping the presidential election to a race in states.
FF: This idea would do that, but would just make all fifty states matter. Otherwise we might as well just turn it over to Iowa.
WRM: I disagree. I think the idea of a candidate’s trying to carry individual states is important. Given the growth of population, and the remoteness of institutions and leaders from people’s daily lives, it’s dangerous to weaken the intermediary units. Yes, as you say, there are certain problems, particularly economic ones, that require solutions at the national or international level. But that’s all the more reason to hold on tightly to the places where you have the option to keep things more locally tied.
FF: The proportional allocation of electoral votes wouldn’t affect that very much…
WRM: I think it would. Right now it matters intensely who “carries” a state. Under proportional allocation, it wouldn’t matter if a candidate carried, say, Ohio, with its whole spate of local, regional concerns, any more or less than any other state.
FF: Well, it wouldn’t make Ohio matter any more than California, but it would make California matter in a way it can’t under the present system. It would make politicians compete for California votes in national elections much more intensely. We’ve not seen a single presidential ad in California for weeks, but if you live in Virginia or Florida, that’s all you’re seeing on television.
WRM: I think Californians’ grief about not seeing those ads is quite limited. I hope, Frank, that’s the worst curse in your life, to be cut off from campaign advertising.
FF: You’re right, I should count it as a blessing. Walter, this has been fun. We’ll have to have a conversation about the rest of the world at some later date.
WRM: Yes, let’s.