You hear it all the time, including from me: Our politics are too partisan, too polarized, too divided. Why can’t both parties work together for the common good? But it’s worth pointing out that sometimes bipartisan consensus is awful.
The worst form of elite agreement is usually the product of politicians pandering to populist sentiment. When both parties serve as vessels for popular passions, they ignore experts and the lessons of history, and they suspend their own critical faculties.
This assertion bothers a lot of populists because they confuse populism with democracy. But the two things, while superficially similar, are in fact very different. Democracy, properly understood, is about disagreement and debate, about making public arguments about unpopular truths. Populism is inherently anti-intellectual, elevating emotions and gut feelings, denying the existence of inconvenient facts. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver,” the great American populist William Jennings Bryan declared. “I will look up the arguments later.”
For the last week, Washington’s chattering class has been obsessed with Joe Biden’s politically successful exchange with Republicans over Social Security and Medicare. During the State of the Union, he maneuvered the GOP into a standing ovation to “protect” these entitlement programs. But while his admirers cheer and his detractors grumble about Biden’s framing of the politics—the GOP never signed on to Sen. Rick Scott’s proposal to “sunset” entitlement programs every five years and did not threaten to hold the debt ceiling debate “hostage” to cuts—there’s been precious little attention to the lies about the policy underneath the alleged lies about politics.
Biden suggested that he could pay for sweeping infrastructure programs and keep entitlements solvent simply by finally making the wealthiest and biggest corporations begin to pay their fair share. He alluded to the fact that workers have paid into Social Security and Medicare from their “very first paycheck they’ve started.”
It was nonsense—popular nonsense. Sure, workers have paid into these programs all their lives, but they get more out of them than they pay in, which is why Biden’s own Social Security trustees predict insolvency in the next decade. And suggesting that raising taxes on the rich and biggest corporations will save these programs from insolvency is demagoguery, popular demagoguery. (Never mind that low corporate tax revenues are the result not of greed, but of the tax code.)
Or consider Biden’s vow to force all infrastructure projects to be “made in America” with American ingredients. “I mean it. Lumber, glass, drywall, fiber-optic cable. And on my watch, American roads, bridges, and American highways are going to be made with American products as well.”
Every time you hear “buy American” you should immediately translate that into “we’re going to pay extra” or “we’re going to buy subpar products.” This is not a particularly controversial statement—among the ranks of the economically literate. As Peter Coy of the New York Times puts it, “If the American-made products were cheaper, better or both, there would be no need to force agencies to buy them.”
The economic nationalism—aka, protectionism and industrial policy—beloved by both Joe Biden and his predecessor, is a conspiracy against consumers and taxpayers. Remember the baby formula crisis? That was driven in part by economic nationalism. America’s tariffs keep perfectly good European and Canadian baby formula off American shelves. Remember the runaway inflation in new housing costs? That was driven in part because we make Canadian lumber more expensive. Who benefits from this? I’ll give you a hint: It rhymes with shmig shmorporations.
Now, there are some good national security arguments for protecting certain high-tech industries, or at least moving parts of the supply chain out of China and closer to home. But those are national security arguments, not economic ones. One problem with such arguments is they invite non-vital industries to pretend they are vital to national security in order to get special treatment. Drawing distinctions between necessary and unnecessary is a good democratic debate, but ill-suited for a climate of populist pandering.
When Donald Trump pushed his economic nationalism, many Republicans hypocritically abandoned their opposition to crony capitalism and jumped on board while many Democrats hypocritically abandoned their fondness for industrial policy and discovered the glories of free trade. As one pollster put it, “If Donald Trump is for it and you’re a Democrat, you move in a very different direction.”This time around, Republicans—convinced they can become a “worker’sparty”—aren’t flipping back, but Democrats are. So give credit where it’s due. Trump largely succeeded in turning the GOP into a pro-crony capitalism party, and Joe Biden has cemented this bipartisan folly.