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It’s Time to Build a Better Political Culture

Our civic life has become a vast desert, devoid of nerve or imagination, and it’s slowly killing us.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In a recent essay titled “It’s Time to Build,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen urges Americans to learn from the failures of our response to the coronavirus pandemic and recover our national ambitions. “Making masks and transferring money are not hard,” he insists. “We could have these things, but we chose not to—specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to build.” That’s a choice we’ve made “throughout American life,” Andreessen argues, pointing specifically to what he sees as our inability “to break the rapidly escalating price curves for housing, education, and healthcare.”

“We need to want these things,” he writes. “The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things.”

It would probably surprise most Americans to hear that we don’t have better schools and health care because we don’t want them enough. Isn’t it possible that our economic system might be keeping us from the things we want? Not really, Andreessen writes. “Capitalism,” he says straight-facedly, “is how we take care of people we don’t know.” But despite decades of policies designed to give capitalism more space to work its magic—deregulation, austerity, the promotion of market-based solutions to social problems—the private sector has failed to produce the answers and investments for which Andreessen is pining. Rather than concede this, Andreessen’s essay instead offers the left a strange challenge. “Prove the superior model!” he writes. “Demonstrate that the public sector can build better hospitals, better schools, better transportation, better cities, better housing.”

If that’s to happen, all that’s been done to prevent the public sector from demonstrating much of anything will first have to be reversed. Yet even with shackles in place, government here and elsewhere remains a lifeline for society’s most vulnerable people and a blessing for us all. You wouldn’t know it from Andreessen’s essay, but the public sector had a significant hand in bringing about the kind of technological innovations he praises and insists we’ve left behind—“the computer, the microchip, the smartphone” all benefited from heavy public investment.

Since the smartphone’s debut, the tech we’ve been gifted with has grown progressively less beneficial, interesting, and meaningful, and Andreessen’s essay can be read partially as a cry for help—a tacit admission that Silicon Valley and venture capital produce little now beyond unprofitable pseudocompanies and groundbreaking innovations in the violation of regulatory law.

Andreessen denies it, but most of us expect much more from our technology, and want better solutions to the problems he identifies. In a response piece last week, Vox’s Ezra Klein correctly argued that we’re limited more by our institutions than our desires. “The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it,” he wrote. “They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, ‘vetocracies,’ in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.”

Those veto rights, he continued, are embedded in institutions such as the Senate filibuster, certain structural constraints on state and local government power, and the incentives of shareholder capitalism, which rewards short-term profit and dissuades risky long-term investments. “We should build institutions biased toward action and ambition,” Klein concludes, “rather than inaction and incrementalism.” That’s a fine and important project—so important, in fact, that we probably ought to figure out why we haven’t started it already.

There’s at least one missing piece here: We won’t find the obstacles to building a better country in a lack of public will, and they aren’t rooted solely in the design of our institutions. Another enemy of progress is a political culture that dissuades us from pursuing grand schemes no matter how much we might want them, that would frustrate advances even if our institutions improved, and that may be the largest obstacle to improving our institutions in the first place.

A substantial portion of the American electorate and many of our political elites value technocratic and administrative competence—or the mere appearance of either—over political vision. Those competencies shouldn’t be discounted. The people who designed and implemented the programs of the Great Society and the New Deal, visionary programs that “built things,” were the wonks of their day. But our policymakers left grand commissions and enormous government programs behind long ago, trading them for the tools they would use to pare away the American welfare state and reduce government’s capacity to act.

We can now add the coronavirus pandemic to an already endless list of instances where that reduction of state capacity and agency has killed people and destroyed livelihoods. Now our panicked Congress—united, for once, in recognition that there are problems too big for anyone but government to solve—is spending trillions to shore up economic supports too weak and intentionally limited to tide those struggling through even ordinary downturns.

The pandemic might accelerate a shift in the policy paradigm that was already taking shape. Democratic proposals have been getting more ambitious, and a handful of figures on the right have been taking tentative, calculated steps to the left. But the policy landscape is changing much faster than our political dispositions. With few exceptions, liberals continue to praise and elect people who promise to do their best with the political system we’ve been given, instead of people who insist the system should be upended or transformed. And when the figures that win out borrow ideas from the ones that don’t, they concentrate their efforts on paring down those bold ideas rather than reforming the institutions that make it difficult to accomplish anything at all, big or small.

Joe Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, a victory handed him by an electorate convinced the policies they ardently support cannot prevail in an election or in Congress, is an obvious enough example of this that not much more needs to be said about it. We can turn instead to a recent package of columns from The New York Times that, like Andreessen’s essay, focused on rebuilding America after the pandemic. A stirring and expansive opening piece from the editorial board framed our shoddy response thus far as another episode in our long-running crises of wealth and racial inequality. “Our society was especially vulnerable to this pandemic,” they wrote, “because so many Americans lack the essential liberty to protect their own lives and the lives of their families.” The piece, which tidily summarized how segregation, attacks on labor organizing, fiscal austerity, and other factors have eroded that liberty, begins by invoking the legacies of Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Between May and July 1862, even as Confederate victories in Virginia raised doubts about the future of the Union, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln kept their eyes on the horizon, enacting three landmark laws that shaped the nation’s next chapter: The Homestead Act allowed Western settlers to claim 160 acres of public land apiece; the Morrill Act provided land grants for states to fund universities; and the Pacific Railway Act underwrote the transcontinental railroad.

Nearly 75 years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, with jobs in short supply and many Americans reduced to waiting in bread lines, President Franklin Roosevelt proved similarly farsighted. He concluded the best way to revive and sustain prosperity was not merely to pump money into the economy but to rewrite the rules of the marketplace.

All told, it’s inspiring stuff from an editorial board that was so apprehensive about offering Elizabeth Warren its outright endorsement for the Democratic nomination that it also endorsed Amy Klobuchar—a break from established tradition, it said, to give both “the radical and the realist models” for change their due. It hardly needed to be said which candidate was the putative realist. And as much as the editorial board tried to talk up the progressivism of her platform, Klobuchar was plainly among the candidates least likely to underwrite whatever the twenty-first-century equivalent of the transcontinental railroad might be. Like many of her fellow candidates and some of the loudest voices in the press, Klobuchar spent most of the campaign casting doubt on the plausibility of the largest ideas in the race and urging progressives to trade massive promises for smaller goals.

But the double endorsement and its suggestion that progressive energy should be balanced with centrist sobriety and restraint were what seriousness looked like three months ago. And it’s likely the model of seriousness we’ll return to whenever the pandemic ends—Klobuchar will remain a key figure and a potential presidential contender to watch in the eyes of those in political media who decide such things.

So too will Andrew Cuomo. You needn’t take speculation that he might replace Biden as the Democratic nominee seriously to marvel at how quickly he’s managed to build the impression he’s the leader the country needs right now. As best as anybody can tell, Cuomo is doing exactly what many governors in states around the country are also doing to address the pandemic with fewer plaudits. Some of the attention can be credited to his personality and his clashes with Trump, but Cuomo also has the good fortune to be demonstrating administrative acumen within the largest and most important media market in the country.

His actions over the past several weeks have likely saved lives. But the same can’t be said for the Medicaid cuts he’s pushed in office or his inaction on the state’s steady loss of hospital beds. Last month, a Medicaid panel convened by Cuomo before the coronavirus pandemic swept the country released a proposal outlining $400 million in cuts to hospital funding. “Many of the hospitals that would be hurt by the cuts,” The New York Times noted, “are so-called safety-net hospitals, which largely serve uninsured or undocumented residents, some of whom are considered susceptible to infection because of cramped living or work conditions.”

Andrew Cuomo isn’t a man with a bold, system-level vision for dramatically expanding health care in New York or in America. But he is, now and possibly forever, a hero thanks to the perception that he’s competently managed this specific situation. For years in Congress, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have similarly earned praise for managing their power in the Senate and House well enough to push legislation forward and keep their respective caucuses together. But unlike Cuomo, a sense has taken hold—among progressives, liberals, and baffled political analysts alike—that both have failed to meet this political moment. “Just two weeks after the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history failed to arrest the economic collapse, Trump needs another rescue package far more than Democrats do,” Politico’s Michael Grunwald wrote earlier this month. “That gives congressional Democrats extraordinary leverage to dictate the terms. So far, though, they don’t seem inclined to use that leverage to take on Trump.”

Many liberals have been urging Democrats to use that leverage to push vote by mail and other measures that would protect November’s election. “However badly Trump bungles the coronavirus response, his ineptitude may cause a level of social disintegration that voter turnout plummets to a level he might conceivably win even in the face of mass discontent,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote. “The previous round of economic relief was the Democrats’ best chance to ensure a real election takes place in November. The next round will be their last chance.” That chance to force concessions on the election, which we should hope wasn’t the last, was given up just days ago in the latest relief bill, which also didn’t include funding for the Postal Service or more crisis funds for states and localities.

In a broader strategic critique last week, the Times’ David Leonhardt compared congressional Democrats under Trump unfavorably to the House Republican majority during the Obama administration. “When Barack Obama was president, congressional Republicans recognized that the president’s party would take much of the blame for problems in the country,” he wrote. “As a result, they often adopted a tough (and sometimes cynical) negotiating stance. During the Trump presidency, Democrats have not been willing to be so tough, even in the service of policies many nonpartisan observers believe would help the country.”

The responses to these criticisms throughout the Trump years have been variations on what Schumer said this week. “Of the four major things we pushed for,” he insisted, “we got three, over Republican resistance.” In short, We did the best we could, given the circumstances. To Schumer’s credit, Senate Democrats have negotiated more aggressively these past few weeks than at perhaps any other point in the Trump presidency, blocking two of the coronavirus packages brought forward. But their critics are right to argue they should continue to demand much more than they’ve been willing to accept. The trouble, as the left has screamed for years and as many liberals were loath to admit before this crisis hit, is that Democratic lawmakers are congenitally inclined toward pragmatism and political conciliation—to getting modest things done expeditiously and denying the right the opportunity to call them partisans and ideologues, which the right unfailingly does anyway. That habit of mind remains strong now, even amid an unprecedented crisis and despite the fact that the Democrats have more power to throw around than they have had in some time.

Senate Democrats had an opportunity to eliminate the legislative filibuster early in the Obama administration. They didn’t take it. In 2017, an open letter from Senators Chris Coons and Susan Collins defending the filibuster won 32 Democratic signatories. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency, has said he’s uninterested in moving to a simple majority vote in the Senate, a position that will make passing his most significant proposals impossible.

Ideally, this would have raised doubts about his readiness to lead and his sense of responsibility within the press and the Democratic electorate. It didn’t. Biden looks and sounds the part of a president, after all, having gained years of experience in Washington making deals that are no longer possible, for policies few are still willing to defend, within an institution too broken to be relied upon as a legislative body. His ability to navigate that institution as is has been one of the primary selling points of his candidacy, not because it’s offered him insights as to how it might be improved, but because it suggests to the uninformed that he’s capable of mastering it.

In his response to Andreessen, Klein argues that figures like Biden oppose institutional reforms out of a terror that their opponents might take advantage of them. “Legislators on both sides prefer the status quo because it gives them power when they’re in the minority,” he wrote, “and because they’re more afraid of what their opponents might do than committed to what they’ve promised to do. The allure of what they could build isn’t as powerful as the fear of what the other side may build.” This seems correct, but it’s worth stating explicitly what the only real remedy for the Democratic Party is—leaders with a sense of urgency about advancing a specific political agenda and a resolve, at the federal level, to admit new states, expand the franchise, and make it difficult for Republicans representing a minority of the electorate to win Congress. What’s needed, again, is vision: a capacity to see beyond the immediate political horizon to the dividends reform and ambitious projects could yield in the long term.

It should be said too that the political need for institutional reform is asymmetrical. Democrats depend on eliminating the filibuster much more than Republicans do: There are many more ways to constrain state power, dwindle tax revenue, and dismantle government programs than there are ways to pass new and expensive initiatives. And the conservative movement, a visionary and self-consciously ideological project, has already made much more progress bringing about the America it wants than Democrats have. The Republican Party owes all it has gained—the Trump presidency, an atrophied federal government, effective control of the judiciary and 21 states—to conscious efforts at leveraging the advantages the design of our institutions already affords it. A vast infrastructure of media outlets, interest groups, think tanks, and industry organizations has been erected to destroy liberalism and every part of the public sector not conducive to the profiteering of major corporations. The endgame is known to all, no part of it is a secret anymore.

Liberalism, by contrast, is at this point an ideological project in denial. Its ideological commitments are less to specific policy outcomes than to maintaining the integrity of our institutions and enforcing inhibitory modes of political and policy discourse. Liberals as a consequence lack the conservative movement’s sense of purpose and coherence of vision. Nobody has strong feelings about how much government there ultimately ought to be, save the idea that it should be somewhat larger and more generous than what the right wants. Most liberals don’t have strong feelings about how the economy ultimately ought to be structured and why; capitalism seems mostly fine and difficult to rework anyhow, so some patches and tweaks here and there ought to do. They are animated less by a system of thought than by a web of benevolent notions and vague aspirations. They don’t know where exactly our country, our economy, and our society ought to go, but they do know that wherever we’re going, we ought to get there together, hand in hand with conservatives who want to tug us to a very specific place, in the opposite direction.

This isn’t a mindset conducive to institutional reform. The limits our institutions place on large ambitions are not terribly important to policymakers with small ones. And most Democratic voters will always take whatever policies Democratic lawmakers are lucky enough to get—the electorate might want better schools and a better health care system, but without some larger vision outlining what education and health care in American society ought to look like, policymakers will address each problem piecemeal, receive thanks for incremental improvements, and move on without troubling themselves about how to build bigger and better things they don’t actually have in mind.

Thus, the design of our institutions is only partially a technical problem. The will to reform them can only emerge from a determination to achieve things that reform would make possible. And the majority of liberals, as deeply as they might feel about the problems our country faces, are not invested in goals large enough to necessitate reform. Nothing of consequence can be built without blueprints. The technocrats have not provided them.