The Daily Debate - 10/7/2013

By Robert Tracinski

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October 7, 2013

1. The Frog Jumps Out of the Pot

2. Neo-Monarchical Government

3. Dispatches


1. The Frog Jumps Out of the Pot

We're hearing a lot of complaints from the establishment right now about the supposed irrationality of House Republicans for shutting down the government (or at least that small portion of government that is still subject to congressional appropriations).

But this misses the bigger picture. A government shutdown is too big to be driven by the mere vanity or posturing of a few politicians. It has to have some base of popular support. In this case, the evidence suggests the phenomenon that is the government shutdown: the right has moved to the right.

Molly Ball describes how the grassroots activism of the small-government Tea Party movement has proven to be effective at moving Congress.

"The real reason the House GOP hasn't backed down and passed a government-funding bill isn't because of 30-some intractable Tea Party members in their ranks or because [Senator Ted] Cruz refused to play along. It's because their loudest, most engaged constituents demanded it, amplified by the savvy, coordinated tactics of the right-wing pressure groups that have proved adept at leveraging grassroots pressure into Washington results."

It is interesting to note that the Tea Party has been more effective at this than President Obama's supporters: "President Obama's campaign ground game helped him win reelection; afterward, his supporters vowed to bring some of those tactics to bear on pressuring Congress to enact his agenda. But it's the Tea Party that has mastered this game."

Yet that still leaves us to ask why this has been so effective, why the grassroots on the right has been so receptive to the Tea Party's message and agenda.

Garance Franke-Ruta points to a study showing a collapse in public support for government programs—among those who already lean to the right.

"[T]he shutdown appears to be the inevitable result of a dynamic unprecedented in recent decades in which public support for government programs decreased sharply in a time of economic distress. It did so wildly unevenly, with almost all of the decline coming on the Republican side, where support for government programs plummeted to record lows.

"The decline in public support for government solutions to social problems between 2008 and 2010 was among the largest two-year changes in the last quarter of a century, the authors found. This turn against government programs during the Great Recession is the opposite of the public-opinion shifts in favor of them that characterized the Great Depression....

"The Great Recession caused everyone to double down on what they already believed about the proper role of the individual and the state, with Republican sentiments intensifying more sharply against new government programs than Democratic ones changed in favor."

This implies that the old-style "fiscal conservatives" on the right, who groused about the cost of big government but always signed the checks to pay for it, are dying out in favor of a political right that opposes welfare-state programs outright.

Francis Wilkinson points to another focus group study done by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. There's a lot of heavy breathing here hinting that the right's attitudes are somehow driven by racial resentment, but the actual concrete results are all about economics. What struck me is the description of the world view of the emerging Tea Party right.

"For them, Greenberg notes, Washington looks nothing like the capital many others see. Gridlock? There is no gridlock. Only a socialist steamroller before which the Republican Party is feeble and afraid. 'Evangelicals who feel most threatened by trends embrace the Tea Party because they are the ones who are fighting back,' the report states. Republican base voters 'think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support.'...

"The Tea Partiers and evangelicals spoke as if they were in the midst of War of the Worlds. As the report characterizes the Tea-Party worldview: 'Obama's America is an unmitigated evil based on big government, regulations and dependency.'"

This also implies that the assumption that the newfound intransigence of the right is a temporary "fever" that will break after enough political humiliation—which is the theory behind President Obama's shutdown strategy—is wrong. This looks more like a fundamental, long-term hardening of opposition on the right to the expansion of government.

And it's not just the further expansion of government. To a large extent, this is a backlash against prior expansions of government. You have probably heard about Frog Pot Syndrome, in which a frog placed into a pot of water supposedly will allow itself to be boiled so long as you turn up the heat slowly. Each incremental increase in temperature is too small to be noticed until it's too late, and the frog is cooked to death. My sense of the Tea Party reaction on the right is that the recession, the bailouts, and above all ObamaCare simply turned up the heat too quickly. The frog suddenly realized it was being boiled and jumped out of the pot.

This would explain the depth of the reaction. It can seem almost hysterical if you view it as a reaction just to the growth of government in the past few years. But it is actually a response to thirty or fifty or eighty years of growing government, which is suddenly being noticed and rejected all at once.

The challenge for those on the right is that this so far seems to be limited to the right. The "swing to the right" under Reagan was wider, reflecting an overall change in the culture and bringing along independents and "Reagan Democrats." The question for those in the Tea Party movement is whether their own personal swing toward a more radical small-government agenda is going to be an isolated phenomenon or the leading edge of a wider trend.

The challenge, in short, is how to convince more frogs to jump out of the big-government pot.


2. Neo-Monarchical Government

I argued last week that the big news about the government shutdown is how little federal spending is still subject to congressional appropriations. Most of it goes out automatically through government entitlement programs, with no need for any continuing authorization from our representatives.

For decades, the same thing has been happening with the regulatory state, and a report from Gretchen Morgenson describes the end result.

"The SEC has many weapons in its arsenal. One that is not so well known is its internal court system, overseen by administrative law judges. This is the place where the SEC brings civil enforcement suits that it has not, for various reasons, filed in federal district courts. Because of a recent change in the law, these tribunals are likely to hear more cases....

"The enforcement matters taken to these venues are heard by judges employed by the SEC and housed at the agency but who are charged with being impartial triers of fact....

"The SEC is not alone in using administrative law judges to decide legal disputes. Some 30 federal agencies—including the National Transportation Safety Board and the Social Security Administration—do so as well. SEC officials like the system....

"But some legal experts say these proceedings suffer from potential bias because the judges operate within the agency bringing them.... 'If you get caught up in the web of an agency investigation, you're investigated, prosecuted and judged by agency personnel,' said Ronald J. Riccio, former dean of the Seton Hall Law School and a professor of constitutional law there. 'Even if it doesn't create actual bias, it doesn't look good.'"

You're not just being investigated, prosecuted, and judged by the agency. You are also, in all likelihood, being charged with violating a regulation written by the agency. Which is to say that these agencies have taken the powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government and rolled them all into one. They have nullified the separation of powers that is supposed to protect our liberties. This is, in a literal sense, a new kind of monarchy: increasingly, there is only one source of power that controls all aspects of government. And this neo-monarchical power has been placed into the hands of unelected bureaucrats.

All of which suggests that the crisis of growing government power over the economy is also a crisis of representative government.


3. Dispatches

A commentator on the left whines that Jay Leno's monologues have turned to the right.

Shutdown theater goes from absurdity to atrocity, with the federal government shutting down the Amber Alert system to help find missing children.

While we're debating ObamaCare, Britain is debating the collapse of its National Health Service.

A plea for support in the fight against neo-Nazis in Greece.

Bashar Assad takes full advantage of the failure of U.S. policy in Syria, gloating that, "It seems to me that the West is more confident in al-Qaeda than me."

How government support hurts the arts.


—Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

Brought to you by RealClearPolitics.

Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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