Review of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy
Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Yale University Press 2005
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have written a distinctly unusual book. Political scientists don’t often write books that take sides in political arguments, and when they do, they usually don’t do any better at it than common or garden pundits. It’s hard to combine the attention to detail and to careful argument that academics are supposed to have with a passionate concern for the results of the fight. Off Center (available from Amazon here ; Powells don’t seem to be stocking it yet) pulls off both. On the one hand, it is very clearly the work of people who have thought carefully and hard about how politics works. There’s a depth of analysis here that’s completely absent from the common or garden partisan bestseller-wannabe. But on the other, it doesn’t pull its punches. Hacker and Pierson have no compunctions in arguing that the current Republican hegemony is dangerous, and needs to be rolled back. (rest of review below fold)
They start by examining the conventional wisdom that American politics has strong centripetal forces, so that political parties have strong incentives towards moderation. According to both centrist pundits and many political scientists, parties that don’t cater for the moderate voter should get booted out of office. This political commonplace doesn’t appear to be true any more, to the extent that it ever was. The Republicans have been transformed over the last twenty years from a loosely organized coalition in which moderates appeared to have the upper hand, to a party that is astonishingly well disciplined by the standards of American political history and dominated by right-wing radicals. How has this happened?
Hacker and Pierson immediately discard two common explanations, neither of which is supported by the facts. First, there is no evidence that Americans are more conservative on social issues than they used to be; indeed some evidence suggests that they are now a little more centrist. Nor does it appear that mobilization of “morals voters” was the key to Republican success in the last Presidential election – detailed analysis suggests that state-level efforts to put gay marriage on the ballot helped Kerry, not Bush. Second, there is no evidence of a general process of ‘polarization’ in which both the left and the right are rapidly seceding to the extremes, leaving moderate voters with few palatable choices. The evidence suggests the contrary – while Democrats have become only somewhat more left wing, as Southern Democrats have either disappeared or defected to the Republicans, the Republican party has shifted radically to the right. Positions that were in the mainstream of the Republican party of the 1970s and 1980s are anathema today.
So why hasn’t the Republican party been punished by voters for its radicalism? As I understand it, Hacker and Pierson’s explanation has three main components. First, information. Voters are often poorly informed about politics, and are vulnerable to “tailored disinformation,” which distorts public perceptions. Second, institutions. The Republican Party has been able to use its dominance of Senate, House and Presidency to set the agenda and to sideline opposition. Finally, networks. “New Power Brokers” like Tom DeLay have been able to assemble networks that bring together politicians, think-tankers, funders and lobbyists, creating a coherent agenda across separate institutions, rewarding and protecting loyalists while brutally punishing those who go off-message.
By bringing these together, Hacker and Pierson can explain how the Republican party has succeeded in bringing through radical policy shifts that go against public preferences. Their analysis of the 2001 tax cuts, the Bush energy plan, and the Medicare drugs bill shows how highly objectionable policies can be crafted to fleece the public without raising much in the way of public opposition. In the case of the tax cuts, assiduous propaganda disguised the fiscal impact of the cuts and made them look less biased towards the rich than they in fact were. Republican leaders made sure that they were sent to the floor for voting without opportunity for proper debate or for consideration of alternatives. “Sunsets,” “phase-ins” and “time-bombs” were deployed to make the measures temporarily more palatable and to disguise their true costs and long term consequences. “Backlash insurance” provided protection to Republicans who signed onto the agenda.
Nor do Hacker and Pierson confine their argument to the legislative process. Executive action (and non-action) too is important, as witnessed by their account of the systematic gutting of the EPA’s and OSHA’s ability to enforce regulations.
The book’s detailed discussion of how the Republicans have been able to pull all this off is valuable in itself. Readers who have paid attention to Brad DeLong, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Josh Marshall over the last couple of years will already know much of the story, although not all of it. Hacker and Pierson uncover some interesting and important new facts. But where the book shines is in providing the analytic chops to draw it together into a coherent whole. Off Center does this in two ways. First, it provides a taxonomy of the different tactics that right wing radicals in the Republican party have used. Second, and more importantly, it shows how distortion of information, manipulation of institutions and careful application of network resources work to reinforce each other. Without understanding all of these – and the interaction between them – you can’t understand the quite remarkable success of the Republican party over the last few years.
This form of analysis is shown to best analysis in the chapter on the New Power Brokers and the networks that they have built to support the Republican agenda. As Hacker and Pierson say, in an argument that’s worth quoting at length:
Most political analysts have missed the scope of this crucial development because they have failed to fully appreciate the increasingly networked character of the modern conservative movement. The GOP coalition is not simply the sum of its parts. Looking only at Congress, or only at lobbyists, will not reveal the full picture. Instead, the power of the leadership, and of others at the top of the new Republican hierarchy results in large part from their increased role in linking these realms. Looking only at Congress, or only at lobbyists, will not reveal the full picture. Top Republican leaders are, quite literally, brokers. And their power is multiplicative, not additive. The more they can control the behavior of legislators, the more they can control the behavior of lobbyists. And the more they can control the behavior of lobbyists, the more they can control the behavior of legislators. Each link in this complex chain of power holds together because the leaders – and only the leaders – can deliver.
This insight – and the chapter develops it considerably further than this quote would suggest – is key to understanding the role played by actors such as Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff. Many reporters and commentators have had difficulty in identifying what exactly it was that DeLay and Abramoff have done, and why it’s so problematic. They’ve only really latched onto the DeLay and Abramoff stories as they’ve started to look like conventional cases of corruption. But the problem is far more deep-rooted than politicians and lobbyists who may be skimming the profits. It’s a complicated network of exchange relationships which is legal, at least in part, but which acts to short-circuit the basic safeguards that are supposed to ensure that politicians represent voters’ interests. Unless you understand the complicated connections between fundraising, lobby-organization and policymaking, and the ways that key actors weave all three of these activities together, it’s impossible to understand what’s going on. Hacker and Pierson draw the map that you need to draw these connections.
I highly recommend the book – but I do have some cavils. Although the book was written before the collapse of Bush’s Social Security initiative, it would have been interesting to see some detailed analysis of where the Republicans have failed as well as where they have succeeded (there is a little in there, but it gets short shrift).
More seriously, there’s an unresolved tension in the book. The main argument of the book suggests at several points that Republican policies are part of a more or less coherent long term plan. But Hacker and Pierson also provide us with some evidence which suggests that the dominance of the Republican party is leading to incoherent policy and an overwhelming focus on the short term. This tension rises to the surface in Hacker and Pierson’s analysis of the “Starve the Beast … later” strategy. Hacker and Pierson depict the ballooning of spending under Bush as a calculated move, “a high stakes gamble [which] Republicans expect to win” down the road, when the bill comes due and popular programs have to be radically pared down or eliminated to pay for it.
But there’s an alternative explanation which would talk to short term gain as well as long term planning. As Pierson emphasizes in earlier work, most politicians tend to have short time horizons – many of them don’t care very much about policy train wrecks ten or twenty years down the line. They probably won’t have to deal with the problem; someone else will be in office by then. This suggests that the burgeoning of spending is less a long term strategy than a relatively unstable and ad-hoc compromise between the anti-tax jihadists and politicians in Congress who are more interested in goodies for their donors and constituents (in that order) in the short term than in the problems that the longer term will bring. Off Center quotes from Padgett and Ansell’s classic study of Cosimo de Medici’s network of power in Renaissance Florence in order to understand the Republican network today. But as Padgett and Ansell argue, Cosimo succeeded through improvisation, and through refusing to allow himself to be tied down and made predictable, rather than through laying down a plan for the longer run. It would have been nice to have seen more of this kind of analysis; not least because it points to some of the weaknesses and potential fissures in the Republican coalition.
Finally, the book suggests to me that there’s room for a future debate about the precise circumstances under which a coalition, such as the Republican movement, can radically shift the rules of the political game over the longer term. Rick Perlstein (rightly) gives Off Center a highly enthusiastic blurb. But his own analysis of US politics, as I understand it, argues that the political system is more malleable than Hacker and Pierson might suggest. Hacker and Pierson argue that US politics has gone off-center – and they want to return it to something like its natural state of balance. Perlstein argues that the center of balance has shifted radically to the right – but that the left is in principle is capable of doing what the right has done, and creating a political space that is implicitly skewed towards left wing priorities and objectives. Both analyses point in the same direction in the short run – Hacker’s work on the politics of risk is exactly the kind of long-term thinking that Perlstein calls for in his pamphlet on the Stockticker and the Superjumbo. But they have quite different long term implications. It’d be nice to see further discussion of this. But enough already – buy this book.