Tyler Cowen, one of my favorite public intellectuals, recently weighed in on this very question. Given some of the more extreme – though not necessarily crazy – positions being adopted by politicians in both American political parties, this strikes me as a particularly pertinent topic to consider. We live in some strange times, after all.
I think one of the more interesting assertions in the article is that “[W]hen out-of-the-box or “crazy” ideas are part of the discourse, political polarization will increase yet further. The likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may well be driving many Trump-skeptical Republicans into the arms of Trump. Many Democrats, in turn, have a sense that Trump and his violations of political norms must be stopped at all costs.” This is a problem I have considered previously from the perspective of the Democratic Party, and I think it is a real concern. In some ways, we seem to be in an arms race of craziness. I am, however, more skeptical that American political polarization can be explained simply by more radical policy positions because, quite frankly, the country has been getting increasingly polarized for some time now. So while it may be the case that advancing non-mainstream agendas could accelerate polarization, this seems like a fairly minor concern.
Some of my other favorite parts of the piece include:
Under divided government, change won’t necessarily stop. It will just come in the form of unilateral executive orders, or through rhetorical and symbolic cultural battles that are extreme compared with a decade or two ago.
All of a sudden, Americans are getting used to the idea that extreme political change is possible, for better or worse, and that means many of them will demand it. In the Trump Era, if I may call it that, it is harder to tell your base that big changes just don’t happen that easily.
Is there an upside to this expansion of policy choices? Absolutely. Whether or not you like the current administration, you still might think that, over time, an America with less gridlock will produce more good ideas than bad ones, and that some of the bad ones will eventually be reversed or corrected.
Five years ago, I thought the Federal Reserve was far away from adopting “nominal GDP targeting,” an idea supported by many economists on both the right and the left. Today it seems entirely possible that the Fed will move much further in that direction, if only because it wouldn’t be seen as such a big, radical change compared to so many other developments. Trump is probably going to tweet criticism at the Fed no matter what it does, so it might as well just go ahead and do some things it wants to do.
Frankly, I don’t know what to think about Cowen’s arguments. They seem plausible, and I think Cowen is certainly correct regarding, for example, the Fed’s increasing freedom of action. There is a sense in Washington these days that almost anything is on the table, even political sacred cows. However, while I think that this shift in the Overton window is real and significant, I’m still skeptical that we will see radical policy change. After all, despite controlling the entire federal government and the majority of state governments, the Republicans have really not pursued any policies too far out in left field. Their legislative accomplishments are actually quite pathetic given the circumstances. This is because, as we repeat ad nauseam, the system is designed to impede rapid change by being full of veto points; this will not cease to be true simply because Trump and Sanders hold a couple of extreme views. The one big change we have seen is Congress’ willingness to tolerate an extreme degree of corruption, crime, and scandal in the Executive. I’m not sure this is the “upside” Cowen is referencing, though. After all, who wants to create a culture of corruption and tacit acceptance of a criminal (and criminally incompetent) White House?
My prediction: We’ll have an increasingly diverse range of policy positions in both parties, and this will serve as a useful catalyst for a much-needed discussion on the future path of this country. We’ll also probably see increased agency independence both for the reason Cowen mentions as well as because people want quick solutions that politicians can’t be bothered to find. However, I doubt we will see some renaissance in legislative efficiency. Do read the whole article, though. Like I noted at the outset, it’s certainly an interesting topic.