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An ’80s Edsall

Thomas Edsall thinks he's saying something new -- but it's nothing more than a return to a tired liberal argument about the right.

By 2.9.12

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The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
By Thomas Byrne Edsall
(Doubleday, 256 pages, $24.95) 

Thomas Edsall's new book on the coming "age of austerity" is an example of why it will not be a moment too soon for the Boomers and their MSM mandarins to leave the scene.

The book purports to explain what is happening in American politics in a time of narrowed expectations and reduced resources. The economic dislocations of the past four years have impacted both the abilities of government and the expectations of the governed. This has caused our political life to begin fracturing along class-based lines rarely seen in American politics.

Edsall, who was long at the Washington Post and who now has a column at the New York Times online, believes he has discovered the key to the political dimension of this global economic and financial meltdown. According to Edsall, these stresses have caused polarization in the electorate we are told, and the rupturing of the "broad, tacit compromise" that "required a growing economy to fund an array of social programs while keeping taxes relatively low in order to moderate hostilities in a politically charged resource war."

The future in this new age will be "brutish," but when Edsall gets down to details, it seems the Republicans have all the brutishness and the liberals, not so much. The financial crisis is an opportunity for both parties to use "fear," for Edsall, but the left is at a disadvantage because its "natural spirit of generosity" -- presumably, with other people's money -- is hampered, while the Republicans' bottomless greed can proceed unabated. Even the Democrats' moderation is turned against them, for their "willingness to compromise" has made the Republican even more grasping in their demands.

But we have heard all this before. Substitute Reagan for current Republican leadership, say, or evangelicals for the Tea Party, and we could be back in the 1980s. The story, for people of Edsall's age and background, must always be the same. In a time of scarcity and economic stress, the Democrats try to preserve the safety net, and even (prudently, of course) to expand it, while various right-wingers want to hold onto their money a little longer (as well as, presumably, their guns and religion, an emendation to the old formula by the current President). What Edsall does not address is whether the Republicans have a point. If the economy is shrinking and social services must be cut, why is it extremism to say so and tolerance to ignore it? Insofar as there was a social compact in the nation that supported the welfare state at the national level - and there are good argument why there should be -- for many Americans, the policies of the last three decades have eroded the trust needed to sustain such a compact.

Edsall recognizes the threat but then mostly fails to address its causes, preferring to condemn its symptoms, such as large-scale distrust by middle-class Americans who want the government to look out for them as citizens rather than seeing them as alternatively taxpayers or consumers. There is even a chapter on busing in a North Carolina school district, which Edsall uses as a commentary on the alleged racism of the Tea Party, the high costs and problems of the program notwithstanding. (The false accusations of racist epithets made by the Tea Party here go unmentioned.) Nor does Edsall acknowledge the rift between what different minority groups want, and how this might affect the notion of a social consensus or the requirements of a welfare state.

Edsall's story arc, for most Americans, does not work anymore. At most, his book is a sign of how far politics has changed such that even long-term observers miss the clear signs of change; at worst, Edsall offers little more than an in-tribe call to arms for his fellow members of the elite media. Nelson Rockefeller (!) gets a mention in book's index but Angelo Mozilo, the head of Countrywide mortgage whose lackadaisical lending policies brought down the company, does not. Nor do Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, the "GSEs" whose insatiable demand for mortgages played a major role in the crisis. And although the Tea Party comes in for a drubbing, the candidacy of and movement around Ron Paul gets no mention.

Edsall states flatly that the economic problems are not caused by public policy or "market failure," but by global competition. This is, largely, nonsense. The financial industry is highly regulated in every modern nation, and those regulations reflect policy choices with real world effects. And Edsall completely ignores the public policies of easy credit and freely available mortgages, which went hand in hand with lavish government spending at all levels that can no longer be sustained.

The country is indeed passing through a time of transition, which will include greater austerity measures. Edsall does corral some useful statistics and notes that austerity is being taken by both parties as a club to punish the other side and as a call for their own solutions, and he does provide another example of the dysfunction in Washington. What is needed is new thinking about politics and our national political future, but on this score, The Age of Austerity is just more of the same.

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About the Author

Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman.