Enough with predictions, live in the present and cultivate your own garden

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, April 18, 2017)

I admire Ruy Teixeira’s optimism.  He is Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss minus the syphilis.  Reality fails to deter him.

The co-author of “The Emerging Democratic Majority” (with John Judis) and the intellectual architect of the Democratic Party’s current electoral strategy to win elections mainly through mobilizing its base (at the expense of voter persuasion efforts) has given the Democrats even more reasons to be confident about their future.

Seven reasons to be exact.  However, towards the end of his Vox.com article, when he says that “Trump can’t solve people’s problems (but) the left can,” he unwittingly highlights exactly why the Democrats remain disconnected from political reality and will likely fail to capitalize on any future public dissatisfaction with the Trump administration and the Republican Congress.

According to Teixeira, we just need to spend more money in the appropriate areas. Trump’s building a wall, renegotiating trade agreements, and lowering taxes are political bait-n-switches doomed to fail.  It is the Democrats, says Teixeira, that have the”feasible” ideas that will produce sustainable growth.

“The Democratic Party is more or less united around a programmatic approach to the economy that could actually produce such growth,” says Teixeira.  “This includes universal pre-K, free access to two years and some four-year colleges, paid family leave, subsidized child care, higher minimum wages, a commitment to full employment, and robust investments in infrastructure and scientific research, especially around clean energy.”

All defensible policy ideas that — according to my back-of-the-envelope estimate — would add to our nation’s annual budget about 500 billion dollars in new spending, plus an additional $1 trillion spread out over  5 to 10 years to cover just the new infrastructure spending.  Some of this spending could be pushed to the state-level, but apart from states like South and North Dakota, few states have the capacity to take on new spending on that scale.

But think of all that additional economic growth it will create to pay for these programs, you ask?  I’m thinking about it and the only firm conclusion I can muster is that there is no problem the Democrats aren’t willing to spend your money to try and solve.

This is 2017, not 1932.  The United States has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the developed world — fifth out of the 36 OECD countries, according to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

And, while we are not broke in the near-term (not even close), it does represent a financial ceiling, of sorts, that makes the likelihood of creating more big-ticket government programs very unlikely.

Obamacare is “sticky” and repealing is now unlikely.  But it also stands as a deterrent to passing other broad government programs.  As a nation, we lack the political consensus (much less the money) to add more spending on such a large scale — unless we are talking about defense spending (but that’s for another article on another day).

By suggesting these large policy initiatives represent the Democrats’ advantage over the Republicans in ideas, Teixeira only highlights how the Democrats lack any new ideas and remain deeply out-of-touch with political and economic reality.

Teixeira could have used the opportunity to describe the growing Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and maker-community phenomenon and how this intellectual revolution could be directed towards solving society’s biggest problems in a more cost-effective manner.  Where many government programs lack the ability or funding to create solutions tailored to each program recipient, the DIY ethos of focusing at the individual-level creates a level of efficiency a government program could never approach.

Far from being wishful forecasting on my part, DIY-inspired curricula are already working their way into our schools to where many teenagers have stopped buying pre-built computers, but are instead building their own to meet their often massive computing requirements – at a fraction of the cost. Home security, artificial intelligence-controlled home energy consumption, local food production, among other daily tasks, are already being impacted by DIY solutions.

The DIY ethos is capable of changing the world for the better without relying on public spending for its advance.  Quite the opposite, it could kill off large swaths of what today we assume to  be the exclusive domain of our local, state and federal governments.

But this social revolution hasn’t penetrated the political elite class yet, if Teixeira is any indication. Instead, he just proposes a handful of big, new government programs, as if all we need to do is get an FDR-like Democrat in office, along with a Democratic congressional majority, and away we go…

I give Teixeira credit. Though humbled by the 2016 election, he hasn’t let one titan-class prediction failure stop him from making more predictions. And while doing so, slips in his tragic and flawed ’emerging Democratic majority’ thesis to argue that the Democrats’ likely success in the 2018 midterm elections will begin to validate his original predictions.

Yet, predicting the Democrats will do well in the 2018 midterm elections (and beyond) might be acceptable for Capt. Obvious, Teixeira and other political analysts must esteem to answer the tougher question: To what extent will the Democrats’ likely gains  in 2018 be due to the electorate’s fundamental alignment with the Democrats’ agenda versus a predictable reaction to the real and perceived failings of the Trump administration.

Its on this more germane question that Teixeira’s assertion of the Democrats’ unstoppable ascendancy may come up up short, again.

There is much in Teixeira’s newest argument that is prescient and will work in the Democrats favor going forward.  Most notably, he correctly points out that the Democrats’ policy gains from FDR to Obama will be hard to reverse.  He calls them “sticky” gains and the recent failure of the U.S. Congress to replace and repeal Obamacare gives us vivid evidence of this stickiness.  He also cites Social Security and Medicare, two social safety net programs launched when the Democrats were the ‘party of ideas’ and the dominant governing party.  That those two programs not only remain intact but have grown (a lot!) since their creation is a testament to the power of growing tax revenues and its ability to seduce politicians into increasing the pervasiveness of the government in our everyday lives.

My wife likes to tell me, especially when I’m on a rant about the size of government, that I would miss the government if it went away.  Would I?  I guess we’ll find out because that is a big part of the Trump experiment going on right now. We may soon find out how much we will miss many of our State Department’s functions, or the EPA, or the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Teixeira also highlights the strategic advantage the Democrats possesses on issues like technological change and the growth of “office jobs” (who can’t get excited about that?!), globalization as a force for good (particularly for people that aren’t Americans), and the clean energy revolution.

Right. Right.  And right.  He is probably not wrong on any of these fronts. All are happening as we walk and breathe today and, perhaps, the Democrats have an inherent advantage to capitalize on these social trends.

He could have cited recent polling data from the 2016-17 American National Election Study (ANES) showing a remarkable shift in the American electorate along the “free trade/globalization” vector.  Where once Republican partisans were the dominant free-trade advocates, the Democrats now lead. The passive-aggressive neglect of working-class union voters by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was not an accident.  It was a calculated message to the former bedrock of the Democratic base to ‘find some new friends.’

The Clinton campaign’s hubris was informed and emboldened in large part by Teixeira’s prediction in 2004 of the Democrats’ political dominance by 2016.  But while I could beat the drum all day about why the emerging dominance theory was (and is) wrong, I invite you to read an analysis by Slate’s Yascha Mounk that details why the ’emerging democratic majority’ thesis has been slow to materialize.

With laser-guided precision, Mounk’s truth-bombs porpoise down to their targets to lay waste to one of the biggest flaws in the Teixeira/Judis thesis.  “There is evidence that Latinos and black Americans don’t actually see themselves as particularly liberal,” writes Mounk, who adroitly points out that a few decades ago Irish Americans voted monolithically for Democrats while today they mostly vote Republican.   “Projecting the future voting behavior of Latinos and black Americans is impossible.”

Amen.

Economists like to share the story about a government economist who was asked why he makes economic predictions for policymakers even when he knows he’s not really good at it:  “I predict the future, not because I can, but because they ask me to.”

I can’t fault Teixeira and Judis for attempting to describe the future — I understand the incentive to do so — but I chafe at how frequently these attempts fail. And the Democrats, in particular, have been harmed by the arrogance that often accompanies these predictions. We all want to believe we are working within a bigger, causal framework that in the end leads us to a better place.

Towards the end of Voltaire’s Candide, the title character reminisces with Dr. Pangloss about their many and often difficult life experiences.  About which Dr. Pangloss concludes, by necessity, all has worked out for the best. Candide, however, dismisses Pangloss’ undeterred optimism and eschews all philosophies, replacing them with the simple, individual task of working on his own garden.

The Democrats will not be the ‘party of ideas’ until they relinquish their own unfounded assumptions about how the world works. This is not 1932. There will be no more big government programs coming out of Washington, D.C. anytime soon.  The political and financial capital they require has been spent (and then some).

But, even as I disagree with Teixeira’s unstoppable contention that the Democrats will be primary benefactor of our nation’s social and demographic changes, I respect his intent. And, to be honest, someday he may well be proven correct.

Rather, if I were a partisan Democrat, I would keep at arm’s length these grand assumptions and their optimistic forecasts about the future and focus, instead, on tending your garden in the here and now.

The author can be reached at: kentkroeger3@gmail.com

About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

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