One of the defining features of post-Cold War America is that public policy no longer reflects public sentiment. Washington passes plenty of laws every year and spends plenty of money on various programs. State governments have also grown like a weed in their size and scope. Plenty is done in the name of the people, but precious little is favored by the majority of the people. Instead, public policy debates are about breaking down majority opposition in service to minority interests.
In theory, democracies should operate on the principle of majority rule. Fifty percent plus one carries the day on every issue. This is certainly true in the small scale, where a simple show of hands is enough to decide an issue. That does not scale up very well, so countries have representative bodies like parliaments and legislatures. Still, in a representative democracy, with some exceptions, the majority will should be reflected in public policy debates in the parliament or legislature.
Much of what vexes the current age is the sense by all factions that their interests are no longer represented. The Left is convinced that nefarious forces are preventing the majority from putting the Left into power. That may be delusional, but they believe it to be true, which is what matters. The Right, broadly defined to mean everyone not on the Left, believes their majority interests are ignored. There is no issue around which you can find a majority that thinks their interests are being served.
This paradox of democracy, where the majority is captured by shifting minorities, is not simply the product of hierarchy. The rich certainly wield power disproportionate to their numbers, but even the rich find their interests thwarted. For example, global business would love to have unlimited foreign workers, but they can’t seem to buy enough influence in Washington to get it. The same can be said for things like trade policy, regulatory policy and tax policy.
The truth is, much of what the majority would like on domestic policy is of little or no interest to the ruling oligarchs. For example, the roads in America look like what you see in the third world. Big transportation items like bridges, highways and tunnels have not been updated in half a century. The Silicon Valley oligarchs are not going to be harmed by better infrastructure. Wall Street would profit from new road building, but there is never a majority in Washington for it.
On the other hand, projects with no natural majority somehow get pushed through and linger on despite popular discontent. The big health care push in the Obama years had no popular support as passed. It became increasingly unpopular as the reality of it became a real thing for Americans. The Republican party promised to repeal or fix it for close to a decade, but nothing happened. There was always a majority in Congress opposed to whatever changes were proposed.
Health care is a great example of how minorities rule majorities. Every comma in the regulatory code has a dedicated constituency behind it. Their existence depends on the part of the code that created them, so they ferociously defend it. The millions of lines of regulatory code have thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of little bands guarding their bit of code from anything resembling reform. The only thing these tribes are sure to agree upon is that change is never good.
This is why both parties intuitively opposed Trump’s wall project. On the one hand, lots of those little constituencies feared it threatened their turf. If we had a really good barrier system like Israel, maybe we don’t need as many border agents. Maybe we don’t need as many bureaucrats in the illegal alien processing system. It may sound far-fetched, but every state has prison guard unions that lobby their state to pass laws, because more laws means more criminals, which means more prisons.
Then there is the fact that the wall would have created an army of new constituencies invested in the barrier system. All of those people would have become covetous of their new host and prepared to fight for their interests. Government is not a zero-sum game, but it is treated as such by the vested interests. A barrier system would mean new constituencies and that would mean every slice of pie got thinner. It’s why the only thing that gets done is that which serves existing constituencies.
It is why the Covid stuff could be permanent. In just six months new industries have sprung to life serving the demands of Covid regulations. Businesses have had to reorganize in order to operate under these regulations. They have already absorbed the costs of compliance. They have no incentive to go back to the old way. Of course, an army of “health and safety professionals” are rising up like a zombie army. They will fight tooth and claw to maintain this new environment.
There are many paradoxes to democracy, but one glaring one is that instead of breaking down into mob rule, it becomes minority rule. It is a form of the Pareto principle, where a small percentage account for a large percentage of politics, but the small percentage is always shifting and variable. Every issue has its own minority interest driving the bulk of the politics related to that issue. There never seems to be a majority in favor of ending that minority interest.
The sclerosis that we see in modern America seems to be immune from any effort to force through change. Look at the struggles Trump has had in removing troops from Afghanistan and Syria. The military industrial complex is a honeycomb of small interests accounting for the bulk of politics within that system. Whatever Trump does to try and get out of these quagmires, those interest unite into temporary coalitions to undermine the effort in order to protect their fiefdom.
Interestingly, this inability to reform due to a legion of petty interests blocking reform is similar to the situation in pre-revolutionary France. Collectively, the king and aristocracy had good reason to reform the nation’s finances and reform certain aspects of the French economy and society. Yet, there were always petty reasons to block necessary reform, so they kept drifting toward crisis. Eventually, of course, this inability to act in the interest of the majority sapped their legitimacy.
That may be the process America is in now. The Left, always looking to subvert order and continuity, is spoiled for choice when looking for dissatisfied factions. In a world where the only majority is one that sees its interest being ignored, the Left can always put together an angry mob to disrupt order. This ease with which they sow discord in society leads the rest of society to question the legitimacy of their government, which seems powerless against these disruptions.
Adding to that is the fact that the majority cannot put their finger on a single thing their government does for them, but is spoiled for choice when looking for things the government does in spite of them. To the natural majority, it seems as if the ruling class is deliberately avoiding that which should be easy. Their incompetence and sclerosis are increasingly seen as deliberate. Like France, we are drifting from general unhappiness to a crisis of legitimacy that is increasingly personalized.
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