Recently, David Brooks said in the New York Times that average voters, especially Republican voters, are so „anti-politics“ by now that they don’t want anything to do with the political system. They feel the political elite is completely alienated from them. Is Brooks right?
FF: Brooks is talking about a fairly narrow slice of the American electorate. This is certainly true for Republican voters, but they make up only 35-40% of the total electorate. Others voters are much more content with the system and they don’t want to throw everybody out.
The problem on the Democratic side is not „anti-politics“. There is this groundswell of support for Bernie Sanders – but he actually wants to triple the size of the American government, and so the people that are supporting him can’t possibly be hostile to government per se, they just don’t like Hillary Clinton, they don’t trust her. That’s a completely different phenomenon than what you see on the Republican Right. The latter is a self-indulgent critique of government per se that has been pursued by people on the extreme right, but it has also been tolerated by people in the more moderate center right. The result is that you have a large number of people who benefit from government, who actually wouldn’t like to see it abolished but somehow think it’s the source of all evil in the United States. They think government spending is out of control, but then they get social security and Medicare from the government, and they are angry at anyone who would take that away from them. So there is also a cognitive disconnect with those voters.
People have a correct perception that the political system is heavily dominated by these very well organized and well-funded interested groups. This means the system is becoming less representative because it has to answer to that. Every member of Congress spends most of their time raising money from interest groups, and they are forced to take positions on the basis of that money.
This sounds like a chicken-and-egg question: Is it that the system is faulty and people don’t feel represented anymore, and that’s why they turn away from politics, or is it that people turn away from politics because they have other things on their minds or because of some misconception, and this is why the system is ever more frail? Which way round is it?
FF: People have a correct perception that the political system is heavily dominated by these very well organized and well-funded interested groups. This means the system is becoming less representative because it has to answer to that. Every member of Congress spends most of their time raising money from interest groups, and they are forced to take positions on the basis of that money. People perceive that and are rightly angry about that. Actually, Trump’s rise shows that people are still in control because you have all these big Republican donors who wanted Jeb Bush to be the candidate, and he failed completely. So these money interests cannot buy elections in the United States. But there still is also this cognitive disconnect: All these people who are really angry about the bank bail outs and the financial crisis then vote for Republican politicians who want to completely deregulate the banks – because that’s what the lobbyists told them to do! And people just don’t understand that this is really inconsistent.
Why would US voters want someone in office like Donald Trump who has no experience in governing at all? Trump’s lack of experience actually works in his favor. On the other hand, for Marco Rubio as a young senator, his lack of governing experience was turning into a problem for him…
FF: Obama is really the one who started this. It used to be the case that almost no senator would ever run for president. Kennedy was one but since then most plausible candidates were governors. Obama was one of the first to come out of the Senate, and what’s more, as a first-term senator, and say he was a plausible candidate for office. I voted for him twice but honestly, I think a lot of these criticisms were correct: He didn’t have government experience, he had never run a large organization, and he has not done well running the US government. But having set that precedent, every first term senator who can talk well thinks they are qualified to be president. It’s not just Rubio but Ted Cruz as well, they are leading the pack in the Republican Party. And somehow people no longer feel you have to be a governor with executive experience.
I don’t think you can explain the anti-government feeling by saying “people think that the establishment has gotten so corrupt and irresponsive that you really need somebody to completely demolish it”. This shows a lack of understanding as to what the nature of power is like in the country, and the nature of the political system.
Trouble is that the ideas Donald Trump has expressed come out of nowhere: building that wall, keeping all Muslims out. He is just basically disconnected from any important stream of American political thought. But that’s what people like, they are tired of political correctness, they just want something very different.
In your new book, you make a strong point that ideas are fundamental causes for why societies differ, and what political orders are built on. If ideas are that important, and we also need new ideas to be brought in from the outside, what’s wrong with someone like Trump bringing in new ideas from the outside?
FF: Well, you need new ideas, but they have to be good ideas! You could construct a positive scenario about Trump: He is going to take this wrecking ball to the political system and dismantle a lot of the old ideas on which the previous system was based. And when he actually becomes president, he is not committed to a rigid ideology, he is a businessman, he can negotiate, he wants to do deals, so he will actually be fairly pragmatic. It’s possible that would happen. Trouble is that the ideas he has expressed come out of nowhere: building that wall, keeping all Muslims out. He is just basically disconnected from any important stream of American political thought. But that’s what people like, they are tired of political correctness, they just want something very different. However, this also means that if he actually gains power, it will be a total disaster because he will govern without any grounding in reality.
By the way, I don’t expect him to president. Just because he does well in the primaries does not mean that he is actually going to be popular among the whole American electorate.
The German media refers to Trump and Sanders as populists, and the press talks about a growing populism in American society. Is this an accurate term to use, and how does it relate to growing polarization in US society? Another chicken-and-egg question: Does populism cause polarization, or does polarization make populists like Trump and Sanders possible?
FF: It’s both. If you didn’t have a lot of angry people, you couldn’t get anywhere as a candidate like either Sanders or Trump. It’s the same in Europe: There has been an elite failure in many areas. Both societies have experienced very severe financial crises as a result of policy mistakes that were made by elites, so people have reason to be angry. Immigration is another issue. People are genuinely afraid of losing their culture. They think when you get all these outsiders who may not be bad people but have different values and do things differently from you, and if there is too many of them, it’s going to force you to behave differently. I don’t think that’s an illegitimate fear on the part of a lot of people. But the elites keep saying „no, no, don’t worry about that, and if you do, you are racist“, and people get upset about that, being told that. They are very resentful of elites looking down on them, and telling them if they are worried about crime in their neighborhood, they are wrong.
It is a very specific type of elite that they resent, though, right? In a certain sense, Trump is very elitist…
FF: In terms of his personal background, yes. But things look different in terms of being part of the existing political structure that has created the policies that people don’t like.
One thing that is interesting is that in northern Europe it has taken a right-wing nationalist form, and in southern Europe it has taken a more traditional left-wing form. Whereas in northern Europe populism has taken this anti-immigrant, more nationalist form. It’s hard to understand because these countries are actually pretty well governed, and they have not been terribly hurt by economic uncertainty…
Let’s look some more at Europe: Is the populist appeal of Trump and Sanders comparable to what the AfD offers in Germany? What people like about Podemos in Spain, about Òrban in Hungary…Is all of this the same?
FF: No. One thing that is interesting is that in northern Europe it has taken a right-wing nationalist form, and in southern Europe it has taken a more traditional left-wing form. Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are fairly traditional left-wing parties that have this old social-democratic agenda. Whereas in northern Europe populism has taken this anti-immigrant, more nationalist form. It’s hard to generalize but sociologically, in Greece and Spain, the suffering has been so general as a result of the economic mess that their elites got them into that it’s not surprising there was a big populist reaction. In northern Europe, it’s harder to understand because these countries are actually pretty well governed, and they have not been terribly hurt by economic uncertainty…
So much for the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism. However, when it comes to the US, European populists from the left and right actually take a similar stance – albeit maybe for different reasons…
FF: Right. For people on both the right and left, America represents a certain form of ultra-liberalism. This is a country with a minimal state where individual competition and competitiveness are really the dominant social mode, and people over here are really challenged by that. They don’t want their own societies to be Americanized in that fashion. Also, there is an economic and a cultural side to this: As for the economic aspect, people don’t want to open their markets to Uber, or some American technology company. As for the socio-cultural aspect, people don’t want American individualism challenging their traditional values. These two things join, there is an overlap.
Trust is not an exogenous factor that explains why the government performs well. It is a derivative from the failure to perform. If the government actually meets its obligations to provide the things that people expect – security, economic growth, basic services – then people trust the government.
You talk about today’s „democracy’s failure to perform.” How big a factor is trust in this, what role does authority play? Trust that people have in the government, authority the government has among its people?
FF: Trust is important, but it is not the driver. That is to say, trust is not an exogenous factor that explains why the government performs well. It is a derivative from the failure to perform. If the government actually meets its obligations to provide the things that people expect – security, economic growth, basic services – then people trust the government. What’s happening in many countries is that you get trapped in this low-level equilibrium: The government doesn’t perform well, and because it doesn’t, people don’t trust it. Because they don’t trust it, they don’t want to pay taxes, they don’t want to grant the government authority. Without resources and authority, the government doesn’t perform well. And then people turn around and say, look, why should we pay taxes if the government doesn’t work?!
That’s what’s happening in the US, it is a very common syndrome in Latin America. In northern Europe, it’s the opposite: the government works pretty well, people are willing to pay relatively high taxes, they are willing to concede authority to the government because they think they know what they are doing. So you are in a kind of „happy high equilibrium“ there.
So authority is built on trust, trust comes first?
FF: No, performance comes first, and trust flows from it.
Is performance linked to what you call one of the three „crucial components of modern political order,“ accountability?
FF: No, performance comes from having a modern capable state. You don’t necessarily need electoral accountability. That’s the Asian challenge: China and Singapore do not have democratic governments, they are not democratically accountable. However, they perform well, they are giving people what they want, economic growth, stability, basic services, and people like that. But that’s not democracy.
Since you mention China: If Western democracy – up to a certain degree – fails to perform (at least in people’s eyes), maybe the Chinese model is not so bad after all?
FF: It depends what you are comparing it to. There are many weaknesses in the Chinese model. You can’t breathe the air in Beijing, you can’t trust the food you eat in many parts of China. The Chinese model is rapidly running out of steam in terms of economic growth, and so forth. But when you compare it to other developing countries, it is pretty good. It has brought a lot of people out of poverty, it provides basic services…
When you compare China to India, the Chinese can build infrastructure: Also in that sense, it’s an impressive system. It’s not a model for anybody, though, you have to be Chinese in order to make it work. You have to have a two thousand year history of good bureaucracy, and most countries just don’t have that.
So historical developments play into it very much…
FF: Yes, these things are very culturally specific. You have a lot of Asian developmental states that are all within this Chinese cultural sphere of influence, and that’s not a coincidence. You don’t find them in Africa or Latin America.
Pollution, which you just mentioned, climate change, international terrorism: These global challenges are not going to change no matter who makes it into the White House. Any president will have to deal with these problems. Looking at it from this angle, does it make a difference at all who wins?
FF: Yes, certainly. The US is the only developed country where one of the big political parties basically does not believe that climate change is a reality. Obviously, that’s a big obstacle to having a long-term climate policy, so yes, it makes a big difference. And also, the American system is such that it is easy to stop things you don’t like. I call this vetocracy: rule by veto. Bold initiatives in something like climate policy are very hard to pull off. We just saw an example of that at the COP 21 Meeting in Paris: Obama committed the US to a policy based on his ability to issue an executive order on coal, forcing a lot of utilities to switch over, away from coal. And the Supreme Court just invalidated that. This is a perfect example of the American system of checks and balances getting in the way of actually making dramatic changes in policy.
Vetocracy: Is this the way it’s going to go, this sort of policy making of just pushing it through as opposed to negotiating matters on a basis of trust, to bring up the term again? Is this where we are going, all Western countries?
FF: No. Albeit this phenomenon is not unique to the US. The American constitution is designed deliberately this way, unlike the system in GB, for example: In their Westminster system, it is quite easy to change policies dramatically. The German system is quite nicely designed to have various checks on executive power, but these checks are not so powerful that the government cannot make a decision. There are plenty of ways to organize a democratic system other than the one the US has.
With regard to the US under Obama, though, how much has the gridlock increased the need for him to push matters through, to work with the veto? Is he just part of a continuum? After all, when he came to office, Obama said he wanted to bring the two sides together, and he has acknowledged himself he didn’t achieve that.
FF: That’s true. But this problem has been growing over the last 20-25 years. The polarization in Congress and in the American electorate has been expanding for a long time now. And we have multiplied the number of vetos over time. For example, filibustering was not commonly used thirty years ago, but now it’s used for almost every vote in the Senate. This means you have to have a super majority in order to pass legislation.
So it has nothing to do with Obama as a person, and his way of governing?
FF: No. He has reacted to that gridlock and that’s why he has issued all these executive orders. He is really frustrated that he can’t get anything passed through a Republican-controlled Congress.
Q: Thank you.
Im Dossier #Election2016 wird sich Carta in den kommenden zwölf Monaten mit den Kandidaten, Kampagnen und Konzepten von Demokraten und Republikanern beschäftigen. Wohin bewegen sich die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika? Und welche Rolle wird Europa, wird Deutschland zukünftig spielen?